As is true for basically all marketing categories, the line between “young adult” and “adult” fiction is completely artificial. This is why I am not a huge fan of breaking out new categories such as “new adult.” What’s next, special designations for every age group by the decade? Heaven forbid we should accidentally read a book featuring a pov protagonist who is twenty or thirty or fifty years older than us. How would we cope with this alien point of view?
Somehow it’s always younger readers who are implicitly told they shouldn’t read “up” in age. Older readers can read whatever they like. Who would look twice at an older person reading books that feature protagonists in the prime of life? Especially since the vast majority of books do feature protagonists younger than forty. But now we have twenty-something readers pushed toward, if you please, “new adult,” as though the only concerns they can reasonably be expected to be interested in are those dealing with the formation of new romantic attachments and the establishment of careers.
The reason YA in particular annoys me as a category is because, now that it exists, parents and teachers and librarians and booksellers all shove teenagers in that direction. It’s all very well for adults, new or otherwise. Adults can choose to read whatever they want, including YA. But the constant shove of young readers toward “age appropriate” titles has got to have more influence than other kinds of categorization, especially since many kids are not making their own buying decisions. And because of the basic expectations of the categories, writers are expected to either aim their book at YA, with a teenage protagonist with certain kinds of concerns and a definite coming-of-age arc; or at adults, with a protagonist who is generally, what? Twenty-two to thirty-two or thereabouts.
We talk about diversity in YA, about the important of encouraging an understanding of and empathy for all different kinds of people. This is great, it’s perfectly true that this is very important. But we also implicitly limit this to “Different kinds of people who are all about your age.” I don’t think that is such a great thing.
Writers as well as readers are constrained by category expectations. There used to be, I think, more books aimed at children or teens with adult protagonists than there are now. Or if not more, at least some, and some very popular ones, too. How about Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? Mrs Frisby is an adult mouse. Her concerns are those of a mother. I don’t recall having any problem “getting” her point of view. That was originally published in 1971. As MG and YA have become more canalized in their expectations, it seems to me that it has become less possible for a kid’s book to feature a middle-aged mother as the protagonist. Today, I strongly suspect that the author of such a book would make one of the children the protagonist, setting the mother into the background. If the writer didn’t make that decision, I could imagine an editor suggesting it in order to make the book more marketable.
I loved the Mrs. Pollifax books when I was a kid. These mysteries seem to me to be very suitable for young readers. They are written at, what? The eight-grade level, maybe? I had no problem relating to this older woman protagonist, a widow with grown-up children. I definitely think this series is perfectly suitable for younger readers as well as adults. But how many parents, teachers, or librarians would think of suggesting them to younger readers?
One of my all-time favorite books when I was a teenager was The Count of Monte Cristo. “Relatable” protagonists are often rather overrated; or at least I hope very few readers really see themselves in Edmond Dantes. But what a grand revenge epic!
I actually thought of all of this today because of something that puts a different spin on the same kind of idea: this review by Sherwood Smith at Goodreads. It is a review of AKH’s The Pyramids of London. Here is a paragraph from that review:
This is not to denigrate traditional publishing. I like traditional publishing! But it has its limitations: supposing one reaches an enthusiastic editor (and I don’t know why traditional publishers are not all over Australian writer Höst–or maybe they have been but she’s determined on the indie course) but anyway, supposing this book jazzed an editor as much as it jazzed me, where would the sales force slot it? There are dual POVs, equally important: three teens whose parents died under very mysterious circumstances, and their 36 year old aunt, who inherits their guardianship and is determined to find out why they died. Her POV is that of an adult, the kids are kids, their motivations believable when they pitchfork themselves into trouble with all the best intentions. Steampunk or alternate history? Fantasy or mystery? It is all of these things!
Also, as an aside, I second the bafflement about why editors haven’t actively tried to recruit Andrea Höst (though, like Sherwood Smith, I don’t know that they haven’t).
But, basically, yes, this book would very likely present a puzzle to the marketing department.
I don’t want to be too dogmatic about this, however. I do think age-based categorization *fundamentally* causes an unfortunate limitation of the reading choices presented to younger readers, and also *fundamentally* creates a set of unfortunate constraints for writers.
But. But, you know, The City in the Lake has both a young protagonist (Timou) and an adult protagonist (Neill). My editor didn’t stop me from writing the book that way. As I recollect — this was some time ago — she did nudge me away from trying to do that again. City was my first, of course. I don’t think I would divide the pov that way again, unless I was more or less planning to self-publish a title.
However, given Andrea Höst’s Pyramids and my City, I am curious. Can anybody think of any other titles that feature both important teenage and important adult protagonists? Recent titles, or older ones?
Can anybody — and I know a couple of you are librarians — think of recent MG or YA titles that feature only an adult protagonist? ARE there any books you recommend to younger readers that feature middle-aged or elderly protagonists? Given the flood of MG and YA titles released every year, I must say, it’s a bit hard to imagine nudging younger readers toward any older title (except for classics such as Little Women, maybe). But does anything leap to mind?