About a year ago, I sat in a class with Dorothy Allison. She, and eleven other lovely writers, work shopped the first chapter of a novel I had written.
To make a long story short, Dorothy told me that I should be writing in the genre of young adult. I’ll admit, it was a bit disappointing– here was my literary heroine telling me to switch homes. However, she IS Dorothy Allison. So, I believed her. Later that week an agent told me the same thing. Now, this wasn’t “shocking” news. I often wrote in young narrative voices, but was dealing with very adult scenarios. I felt a bit stuck. Then I remembered an acquaintance of mine, someone a year ahead of my graduate cohort, who had published a gritty and evocative young adult book: Amy Reed’s Beautiful.
Her book is vivid, a punch in the gut, and glistens with hot words. Her scenes are the best kind of heartbreaking. She is a true young adult author–serving up honest stories (sex, drugs, rock n roll) that some teens need to make it through the day. I’ll be honest. It was a bit scary reading her book because I’m a mom. I didn’t want my daughter to be put in the same situations as her main character, Cassie. However, I wouldn’t want to censor Beautiful. If my own daughter needs it- her book will be proudly waiting for her on my shelf. I imagine the rewarding dialogue I’ll engage with Calla about Cassie’s journey to freedom.
In November 2010, I pondered this idea of leaving adult fiction behind– giving up my dreams of appearing in certain aisles in libraries and bookstores– my book hobnobbing between Carson McCullers and Cormac McCarthy–but, after reading Reed’s Beautiful (and Frank Portman’s King Dork) it was time to give young adult fiction another glance.
I found amazing gems. I was an avid reader as a child, but there was nothing compared to the plethora of young adult fiction we can find today. Books I discovered (and adored), that you should discover too, are:
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
The House of Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Wintergirls or Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Absolute True Diary of Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Skellig by David Almond
King Dork by Frank Portman
Hoot by Carl Hiassan
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
There are, of course, more books. However, the above list is a good start for a juvenile literary reader. Now, some of the above books are technically “middle grade” books. So, what is the distinction between young adult and middle grade? Well, mostly it’s an age difference of the narrators and/or characters.
I’ve learned that most literary young adult books are dealing with immensely difficult teen issues. Those stories must exist if we want teens to mature into amazing adults. They need stories to help them through the day.
Middle grade books are trickier beasts. They are dealing with issues surrounding identity and the family. While some middle grade books can be mostly about adventure and middle school shenanigans, some AMAZING middle grade books are completely gorgeous in how they understand the transformations that take place during that precious 10-13 age period.
Ultimately, on my journey to the new genre, I’ve learned that I am a middle grade writer. I just don’t have the grit and sex and angst for teen writing (or at least not yet). I linger somewhere in the messy area of 12-14 year old lives. I’ll probably be a very tricky sell to publishers. Oh well. It’s my world to create.
So, now, when I write, I consider audience. I hope to provide books that sing to kids, or make them weep a little and hug their pillows at night. I want to write a book that requires turning on the flashlight for late night reading under the sheets. I hope to be that author who gives kids a reason to grow into a beautiful human being.
I am a juvenile literature author. I proudly wear my badge.