Archive for October, 2007

I don’t think I’m versed in enough of the history of YA to really pull this post off, but I’m charging ahead anyway.

The question beneath this inquiry is this: What would YA authors write if there was no YA market?

On the face of it this sounds like an absurd question. It isn’t as if kids are twelve years old one day reading Roald Dahl and E. L. Konigsburg, the next day they wake up reading David Foster Wallace and Joan Didion. Obviously there is a transition that is made, and that transition has its own market. But that market wasn’t always there, and the idea of being a writer who specialized for that market is also fairly new.

It becomes like one of those Imponderables of David Feldman’s, the question being who are the ur-YA authors and who did they think their audience was when they were writing their books? It wasn’t all that long ago that the chains finally realized they had enough books to actually create a Teen section (and then later did the market research to discover that a teen wouldn’t buy from that section unless it was far enough removed from the rest of the children’s books), and those early sections had a lot of crossover material. One day you found Pullman’s His Dark Materials series only in fantasy/sci-fi and the next there were different cover designs aimed at the YA market. The S.E. Hinton books were on a paperback spinner at the library one spring (the paperback spinner being the in-between step away from middle grade books) and by fall those books were on a shelf marked young adult.

Then over in regular literature you have To Kill a Mocking Bird and Catcher in the Rye. Why? Because they’re considered classics, classics born before the marketing age of YA. Yes, you can occasionally find Salinger in the YA section now, but before that Holden Caufield was just some kid in a book of fiction shelved among the S’s. Somewhere along the way we changed our thinking about audience and in time that influenced how writer’s perceived themselves within a genre based on age instead of subject matter.

Which I find curious. In a recent issue of Publisher’s Weekly Meg Rosoff talks about her identity crisis as her publisher has decided to pull her books from the YA world and throw her into the adult world. The advice she got initially as a writer when questioning how to write for teens was

“Write the best book you can write and I’ll find an audience for it.” In other words, you write. We sell.

which really throws a potential YA writer like myself into a tizzy when I consider the fact that I’m going to school to learn how to write specifically for that audience.

This isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the idea of the YA market. I remember pawing through the Gossip Girls books and their ilk and wondered, aloud, where they would be placed in a bookstore if they could be sent back in time 30 years. The answer was, obviously, nowhere because they are a product of their time. But with a little tweaking, and a format change to mass market with tawdry cover illustrations, they could slide in nicely in the romance aisle. Without naming names, there are many fine YA books that would fit into the romance aisle if the character age was bumped up a few years and the settings were job- and not school-based. To that end YA looks like little more than a training ground for genre. Fortunately publishers have taken the gestalt of the situation in hand and made sure that girls can transition from their YA candy into the “serious” world of fiction where shopaholics and Prada-wearing devils can continue to satisfy their habits.

What if — and this might admittedly be a stretch — but what if Phillip Roth were a new author and he just delivered his first manuscript entitled Portnoy’s Complaint to a publisher? And just for giggles lets say the publisher is the MTV imprint of Simon and Schuster who published the likes of teen-friendly Stephen Chbosky. Isn’t it possible the book would find a home in the YA section? After all, it isn’t any more risque than the American Pie movies that teens gobble up at the box office.

So where’s the line, when does a book or an author fall to either side of the teen/adult divide? If we call an author YA are we somehow relegating them to a ghetto of a market that is limited in scope and size? Like Holden Caufield, teens know phonies where they see them, and to them a market aimed specifically to their demographic smells fake, to say nothing of the adults who won’t look twice at YA because, well, it’s for juveniles after all.

Teens like to resist, and they’ll go looking for what resonates with them and against whatever it is they feel like rebelling against. I did it, I ran for the adult books when I was in my early teens, but I did so in an age when the books aimed at a teen market were typically stories about troubled kids. Books that had that Afterschool Special vibe about them. Does anyone remember Kin Platt? Where are his books today?

Don’t think I haven’t pondered the irony that I seriously want to write for this target audience.

Right now, today, my feeling is that we need less marketing and more education about books that are out there. I’m not falling into hand-wringing over the demise of book review sections in newspapers because it’s been clear for a long time that books don’t bring in the same ad revenues as other media (like movies) and that’s the lifeblood of newsprint. Reading about books is often dry and listless, so I’m not even sure that publications devoted to books is the answer either. Book trailers may eventually develop into a formidable marketing experience but I think nothing short of a revolution in the world of publishing akin to the rise of rock-and-roll is going to bring the audiences around. What is necessary is the impossible: authors who can make the act of reading as sexy as a music video with the appeal of American Idol. Let me tell you, it’s going to take a lot more than a poster of Orlando Bloom hanging in a library.

Trying to tap into what kids want or might like isn’t going to work. We need to let adults — young and old — know what is out there and let them decide for themselves. The teenager, as a demographic and a force in the market, did not exist until the 20th century and they were defined for the most crass of reasons: to make money. Teens have become culturally literate enough to recognize this and modern marketing has had a tough time trying to keep their competitive edge while remaining valid and authentic to the market. Eliminate the market altogether, let’s see what happens.

What would YA authors be without the market? What they’ve always been: writers. What would teens be without YA books? The same readers they’ve always been.

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It’s no secret that I read more than one book at the same time.  I have books in different rooms that I read in those rooms alone.  I have books that travel from room to room, place to place, as they hold my interest.  I have books I read and leave at work.  And there are books I am actively reading (daily) and passively reading (as the mood strikes, abandoned for the moment).  I never have less than five books out from the library, upwards of a dozen I’m reviewing at any given moment.

Then there’s the magazines.  I love magazines.  I am a total periodical consumer.

The funny thing is how all this parallel reading sometimes comes together.  I have a pair of books in one room (okay, the bathroom) that on the surface couldn’t seem more opposite: Lord of the Fries by Tim Wynne-Jones and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Phillip K. Dick.  I take turns reading chapters from them. I find they compliment each other in strange ways.

One is a collection of short stories, the other is a novel, separated by 30 years (although this is the first time the Dick book has been in print).  One has adults trying to navigate the harsher realities of middle-age angst, the other has teens navigating their teenage angst. Urban California versus suburban Canada.  Modern, natural narrative against mannered literary stylist.

The two books work together the same way that ingredients do in cooking, it’s almost alchemical.  You can make a tomato sauce for pasta with a little honey to cut the acid, or you can grate in some lemon zest instead and brighten the flavor.  The Dick book has a gravity to it, the weight of the characters like the spare tire they carry with them in their later years; the Wynne-Jones kids are all the light rambunctiousness of youth.  Both feature the antics of adults navigating their way through life, different but no less than the teens who are still trying to find their place in the world.  Same world, different times, same struggles, different perspectives.

Parallel worlds, in my bathroom.

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I was trying to ignore this, but I cannot.

Jules over at 7 Imp posted this quote from Rosemary Wells, said at the Southern Festival of Books recently.

“Process doesn’t exist. Any good writer will tell you that.”

Out of context it’s really hard to understand what Ms. Wells meant, but even within context I can’t help but think this is the most asinine, offhand statement I’ve heard about writing in a while.  That Ms. Wells speaks on behalf of “good writers” while doing so shows the kind of carelessness a good writer wouldn’t exhibit.  Perhaps for her process doesn’t exist, and perhaps there are good writers (and editors) out there who can vouch for that statement on her behalf.

Had I not recently met Ms. Wells I might be tempted to state that she doesn’t exist any more than process.

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Growing up in Southern California I always knew Halloween was coming because the sky would turn orange.  The Santa Ana winds would begin blowing in late September and by early October there would be at least one wildfire in the hills surrounding the greater LA basin.  Smoke would drift with the winds, filtering the sunlight and giving off a crisp, woody scent to the filtered haze.

That’s what we had for a fall season.  No turning leaves, just a turning sky.

When I was in sixth grade there was a fire in the Malibu/Topanga area much like the one that is currently burning.  I remember how alien the news accounts were at the time, mentioning an area I had visited as a boy scout — Camp Slauson located in Lower Topanga Canyon — and wondering if I would recognize it from the news helicopters, imagining I could make out it’s trails and campsites even if on fire.

Now on the other side of the country, watching the hills of Southern California burn again on television, I feel a displacement that is exactly the same as the one I felt almost thirty years ago.  Only now the woody scent comes from fireplaces, and the only orange in the sky comes from the color of leaves against the blue. And I’m still trying to pick out identifiable landmarks as though I’d know what they looked like on fire.

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Is it me, or does anyone else look at this picture book creation and think someone got creative with genetic engineering and crossed Speedy Gozalez with the Frito Bandito?

Skippyjon, for those out of the loop, is a Siamese kitten who likes to imagine he’s a mask-wearing adventure-loving chihuahua. There’s nothing to suggest that Skippyjon is Hispanic from the get-go, so all his Spanish is an affectation. A stereotypical affectation.

Several times now I’ve heard parents — white parents — reading various Skippyjon books to their young ones and every time they get to dialog there’s always a very distinct tone they take that would, in any other circumstance, sound absolutely racist in delivery. The one time I heard a Hispanic woman reading this book to her child she breezed right through the first half of the book, her Spanish lifting the text just a small step above the mediocre, but as she continued she began pausing more and more at the dialog as if growing uncomfortable with the limited characterizations.

Any character that has multiple books and can become franchise enough to merit being made in to plush toys of various sizes is clearly popular. And we all know that popular automatically means “good,” right? Ronald Reagan was the most popular of modern presidents. I think Reagan and Skippyjon would make a great buddy book team.

“We need to do something about those Contra rebels, Skippyjon.”

“My name is Skippito Friskito. I fear not a single bandito”

“Well, there you go again…”

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“…some people, especially people who don’t like to read, use books as weapons in service to this objective.”

This comes from a comment Roger Sutton made over at his blog in response to a question that came up as a conversation thread at Child_Lit concerning the difficulty some MLIS students have with promoting books whose contents they cannot fully endorse.

I’ve been trying to pin this thought down for a long time. It reminds me of an old bumper sticker I used to see on the back of VW micro-buses in Berkeley (always a VW bus) that said “Those who have abandoned their dreams will discourage yours.” Back then I was teaching and it seemed to apply most to what I saw in the public schools; classes led people who had “settled” on teaching as opposed to following their dreams. That is not an indictment of all teachers, just a vast majority of the ones I met, the ones who had tenure that were keeping us young teachers from finding positions, the ones who were our department heads, and shop stewards, who in turn set the tone.

Roger’s point works equally well with any other art or media, which is why it rings so true. Those who do not like, listen to or understand music will use that dislike to determine what others should or should not listen to. To pick a few obvious examples, I believe Tipper Gore and Mary Whitehouse understand this point. Those who do not create art are often its harshest critics. Hitler, a failed art student, called much of what was being produced in Berlin in the 30’s “degenerate.” So there you go.

I’m thinking it might be a good idea to make an easy-to-remove sticker for books that are typically banned or otherwise censored in some degree that says something along the lines of Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists.” I think even using Woody’s phrase might be enough; calling a book a machine and striking fear into those who believe they’ll be struck dead by a book’s contents could settle some folks down.

Or it could ratchet the whole mess up even more.

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I am coming to the harsh realization that I cannot blog, read blogs, read books, read magazines, review books, write, retain gainful employment and enjoy time with my family.  Something has to give.

But what? How?

I’ve always had a problem with discipline.  I prefer to think of it as more of having an active mind, torn in any number of directions at any given moment.  I can’t help but thinking that if I had more discipline, more focus, better organization, that I’d be a freakin’ da Vinci.  I’ve got notebooks full of drawings and plans and story seeds and projects and lists and outlines and whatnot, enough to keep me bust for the next 100 years.

Provided I don’t come up with any new ideas within the next 100 years as well.

I have upwards of 30 books in various states of outline waiting for me to invent a way to stop time.  Seriously. Two series, a bunch of YA, some long-form poetry, a couple of adult titles, a piece of novelty fluff and a pair of non-fiction series for middle graders that deal with biography and music.  I’ve got half a dozen paintings I’m longing to execute.  I have a card game and a board game I still need to play-test and tweak.  And then there’s all this crazy ephemera connected to this YA project I have going that I want to design.  Part website, part media experience, just crazy how I come up with a new idea for it daily.

I need a factory full of me running three shifts.  Double overtime.

And I haven’t even started school.

What the hell.

Would hypnotism work?  Could I have my subconscious mind convinced that I only needed two hours of sleep and learn how to read and write at the same time?

I can’t be alone, I’m sure I’m not alone.  What does everyone else do?

What works?

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