Saturday, October 15, 2011

Crossing Over: Adult Authors Writing MG/YA

You've heard of Philippa Gregory, right? She's the British author of best-selling historical novels like The Other Boleyn Girl, which is already out as a movie. Now Gregory is joining what's starting to feel like a mad rush for authors of adult fiction to write Young Adult and sometimes even middle grade books.

First it was celebrity authors, now it's the crossover crowd. Those of us who've been writing for younger readers all along—well, it is for to sigh.

But onward. In an online article from USA Today, we read:

"Asked if she is 'genre-poaching,' Gregory says that 'the important thing—surely—is that young-adult readers should get the very best writing that might be available to them so that they extend their reading into adult life.'"

I am tempted to dissect that statement, but will limit myself to giving you a list of other authors who've already done the crossover dance, along with any insights I have about their relative success in making the switch. After which I will freely offer some advice, i.e., rules, for other adult authors who are feeling inclined to write MG/YA fiction.

Meet the Crossovers

KELLEY ARMSTRONG (YA)—Known among adult paranormal fans for her Otherworld series, she started her Darkest Powers YA books with The Summoning and has since finished that trilogy and moved on to a new group of books called Darkness Rising, beginning with Book 1: The Gathering.

How Good Is It?—With teens who have magical powers trying to evade an evil organization, Armstrong's work transitions easily to the YA format. Scroll down through my Scary YA Extravaganza for a review of The Awakening (Darkest Powers, Book 2). I liked The Gathering even more.

Adult Overlap—If you've read the adult series, you'll see the connections and meet the occasional familiar character. But you can read these books without knowing anything about Armstrong's adult paranormal writing, so that's a plus.

DAVE BARRY and RIDLEY PEARSON (MG)—Dave Barry is famous for his nonfiction humor writing, which is truly funny stuff, while Ridley Pearson wrote adult thrillers in the 90s. When Pearson's daughter asked him how Peter Pan met Captain Hook, a series was born, beginning with Peter and the Starcatchers. (Pearson is also known for writing the Kingdom Keepers, a series unabashedly set at Disney World. I'll admit the in-your-face commercial aspect of those books has kept me away.)

How Good Is It?—I've only read the first book in the Starcatchers series and was not thrilled out of my gourd. Then again, I wasn't especially disappointed. From all accounts, i.e., reviews, these two are doing a pretty darned good job. They're now on Book Five, The Bridge to Never Land, which came out in August.

Adult Overlap—None.

CANDACE BUSHNELL (YA)—The Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City: A Carrie Diaries Novel, about a young Carrie Bradshaw. I'm sure you've heard of, if not watched, the TV series Sex in the City.

How Good Is It?—I haven't read these books, but the professional reviews for Book 1 are quite positive.

Adult Overlap—Tons! According to reviewers, Bushnell is very successful at writing a teen Carrie who is turning into the person you've seen in Bushnell's adult novels and in the television series.

HARLAN COBEN (YA)—This author is well known for his mystery/suspense novels, especially the ones featuring Myron Bolitar. His first book for teens stars Myron's nephew, Mickey.

How Good Is It?—Here's my recent review of Shelter. The sex trade plot premise is pretty harrowing, and overall you get a kind of Alex Rider feeling. It's not a bad adventure series start.

Adult Overlap—As mentioned above, the hero is the nephew of this author's well-known adult character. But Mickey dominates the book; he even distrusts and avoids Myron!

RICHARD PAUL EVANS—You will no doubt either be thrilled or dismayed to learn that this author of maudlin, popular books like The Christmas Box has just had a teen superpowers novel published by none other than Glenn Beck. No, really! I read somewhere that RPE wanted to write a less violent heroic sci-fi/fantasy. The result is Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 wherein teens have electric powers and are pursued by an evil organization that wants to harness those powers for nefarious purposes. ('Twas ever thus.)

How Good Is It?—Evans and possibly Beck fans are giving this book a lot of love on Amazon. I personally haven't read it, but it sounds like another solid teen adventure. One reviewer did mention the ethical/moral dilemmas Michael faces, which makes me hope it isn't too messagey.

Adult Overlap—None, except perhaps for the feel-good factor that characterizes Evans' adult work. Of course, this may work just fine in a good vs. evil sci-fi story!

JASPER FFORDE (MG)—The author of The Eyre Affair and other Thursday Next literary fantasy novels turns his hand to middle grade fiction. The Last Dragonslayer is already out in the UK, so I expect it to hit the U.S. next year.

How Good Is It?—This book has gotten a number of glowing reviews in the UK, and the plot sounds like a lot of fun: In a contemporary-type world in which magic has been fading away, a girl named Jennifer Strange runs an employment agency for washed-up wizards. But now something big is happening, and Jennifer's right smack in the middle of it.

Adult Overlap—None, but I predict you'll enjoy Fforde's style as applied to a new genre.

JOHN GRISHAM (MG)—Two books so far, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer and Theodore Boone: Abduction. (Trust me, Encyclopedia Brown is rolling over in his grave.)

How Good Is It?—Where do I begin? Perhaps with a quote from Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom, who remarked of Book 1, "As you've probably already predicted, I want to punch this book in the face." Here are her succinctly scathing reviews of the first and second books, along with my lightly damning review of Book 1 and two more reviews from Monica Edinger and Kim Werker, respectively. I'll just point out that Grisham breaks rules 1-3, 5-7, and most definitely rule 9 repeatedly. (See below.) Per Leila, he also throw in things I don't even touch on in my list, such as sexism, ethnic stereotyping, and trying to turn a supposedly contemporary town into some kind of lawyer-loving Mayberry. Too bad—I like the guy's adult fiction.

Adult Overlap—Technically none, except that Grisham never actually leaves the land of adults when writing these books. If only Theo were half as cool as 11-year-old Mark Sway from The Client!

KIM HARRISON (YA)—Known for her urban fantasy series about Rachel Morgan, she launched a young adult series with Once Dead, Twice Shy, about a girl named Madison Avery who dies, almost, and winds up caught between life and death, dealing with light and dark reapers, guardian angels, and more. There is the requisite teen love triangle, of course. The third book in the trilogy came out in May 2011.

How Good Is It?—Book 1 was a bit of a muddle as it tried to set things up, but Madison is a pretty appealing character. I haven't read the other two books; however, the pro reviewers gave Book 2 mixed marks and felt that Harrison really hit her stride with Book 3.

Adult Overlap—None. Harrison has built a different world from her adult fiction. It will remind you of a lot of the other YA paranormal out there, though.

SHARON LEE and STEVE MILLER (YA)—Fledgling, Saltation, and Ghost Ship take this husband-and-wife author duo's Liaden universe to the teen reader with heroine Theo Waitley, who is considered a "nexus of violence" at school but a potential spaceship pilot by her mysterious father and the powerful clan he left behind.

How Good Is It?—I'm a real fan of space opera and Theo Waitley is a very fun character. But if you haven't read the adult series, you might get lost at times.

Adult Overlap—Lee and Miller clearly continue the story they've been telling in their adult novels about Clan Korval with the Theo books, including scenes driven by adult characters. I like these YA novels very much, but then, I have read the adult series. The new books may be a little difficult unless your teen is an avid sci-fi fan and a fairly sophisticated reader.

KATHY REICHS—The creator of a series of adult novels about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and the related TV series Bones has come out with two books about Temperance's teenage niece, Tory: Virals and next week's Seizures.

How Good Is It?—I haven't read these, but the reviews are pretty positive. Reichs is a seasoned writer who, like Harlan Coben, brings a knowledge of pacing and thrills to her new teen books.

Adult Overlap—Prequels about the adult series' heroine as a teen.

DAVID WEBERA Beautiful Friendship is a prequel to the author's adult novels about Honor Harrington; here we meet his heroine's ancestor, Stephanie, at ages 12 and 13. See my review.

How Good Is It?—Not bad, though he does wax pedantic and political in spots (as he does in his adult books, frankly!).

Adult Overlap—Prequel about an ancestor of the adult series' heroine.

PAUL WILSON—Another author who turns back the clock on the hero of his adult series, Repairman Jack, with Secret Circles and Secret Histories. Take a look at my review of Secret Circles.

How Good Is It?—The books read like an amped-up version of the Hardy Boys. Pretty good, but not great, especially as compared to the adult books. Wilson does deal with an intriguing moral dilemma in Book 2.

Adult Overlap—Prequels about the adult series' hero as a teen.

A Few Thoughts and Questions

Of these crossovers, how many are publisher initiated? Or market impelled?

Is the line between YA and adult fiction blurring to the point of disappearing? The audiences have certainly been mixing, but what about the books themselves? What continues to differentiate the two genres?

Compare also adult fiction about teens to YA books, which are always about teens... E.g., The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold vs. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

Books about an adult series author's main character as a teen are a special bunch—they mostly seem to work, but do they have more appeal to people already reading the adult books than they do to the teens they supposedly target?

When adult authors start fresh, are the books more successful than when there's clear overlap?

And now...

Tips for Adult Authors Writing for Kids or Teens

Rule #1—Do NOT talk down to young readers.

Rule #2—Do NOT talk down to young readers.

Rule #3—Do NOT talk down to young readers.

Rule #2, for Real—Okay, I'll get a grip and give you a few more pointers. This may seem like the flip side of Rule #1, but please try to separate them: Do not blithely ramble into adult concerns or get all caught up in telling us about your adult characters because they're what you know and not-so-secretly like best.

Rule #3—Closely related to Rule #2 and even more important: The young main character should not only dominate, but drive the plot. Especially when it comes to solving the major plot problem. Though minor ones, too, of course. (Are you listening, John Grisham?)

Rule #4—Ease up on the setting descriptions. Lay it in, then move on. Kids don't want endless vistas; they'll feel like they've been dragged on one of those educational vacations in the family car by their parents: "Look at the beautiful scenery, my child!"/"Uh, right. How is this different from the beautiful scenery we saw five minutes ago?"

Rule #5—Watch out for anachronisms. No, today's kids really don't listen to the music or watch the TV shows that were popular when their parents were young.

Rule #6—Make sure you don't misrepresent children for their age group. One stunning John Grisham example was saying that 13-year-old boys have no interest in girls. You should be able to pinpoint the earlier "girls have cooties" stage, let alone know that middle school boys do have girlfriends, especially (for better or for worse) in the 21st century.

Rule #7—If you're writing any kind of action-adventure or sci-fi/fantasy, make the peril sufficiently perilous. And no matter what you're writing, challenge your main character! Children's or teen fiction does not equal tame. If this bothers you, keep in mind that kids know fiction is meant to provide experiences that are unlikely in real life. (The same reason adults read the Jason Bourne books or watch the movies.) Kids also watch a lot of TV, just like you. This should give you some inkling as to why characters in MG/YA books are able to sneak around and have some truly scary experiences without their parents noticing. For that matter, it's why the mothers in fairy tales are usually dead!

Rule #8—YA fiction can have sex and violence, but it is less likely to go into detail. (For examples of sex scenes that don't take pages and pages, see Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road or Simone Elkeles' Perfect Chemistry.)

Rule #9—PLEASE, PLEASE: Read extensively in the genre before you try it! For YA contemporary realism, start with Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Looking for Alaska by John Green, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, also Sarah Dessen's novels (e.g., The Truth about Forever and Along for the Ride). For YA paranormal, you obviously need to read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, but should also try Holly Black's Tithe, Maggie Steifvater's Shiver, Becca Fitzpatrick's Hush, Hush, and many more. For YA dystopian, read Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner. For YA fantasy, try Franny Billingsley's Chime, Cassandra Clare's City of Bones, Garth Nix's Sabriel, Erin Bow's Plain Kate, Terry Pratchett's Nation, Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty, and Tamora Pierce's Terrier, among others.

For MG, I hardly know where to begin. See my post about 110 years' worth of great middle grade fiction over in the right margin for starters. But my Top 5 if you're utterly clueless about MG novels would probably be Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Okay, top 6: add When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. But there are soooo many more! (Adult to YA is less of a jump, which is probably why more people do it.)

Rule #10—YA fiction is about the overwhelming feeling of being on the cusp; not a child anymore, but not quite an adult. There's joy and there's darkness, uncertainty tempered by boundless hope. Things hit hard when you're a teenager. You care with every ounce of your being about things grown-ups might scoff at—uncomprehending, boring fools that they are. Most important, you do NOT think of yourself as a child. And always: your friends are more real and dimensional than anyone else on the planet.

MG characters aren't quite as self-absorbed as teen characters, but they are also relatively uninterested in adult concerns. They want to be up and doing! So let them out the door and into the bright, awaiting world.

What most adult authors bring to the MG/YA world is professionalism and a solid knowledge of storytelling. As long as they don't condescend to their young audience and aren't completely driven by commercial motives, I think they have something to add to the genre. (Are you listening, Philippa Gregory?)

Note: I'm sure I've missed some authors, so feel free to add suggestions in the comments. I would just ask that you stick to post-2000 examples.

Additions from the Comments

Amy of Amy's Library of Rock brings up James Patterson and Terry Pratchett, who strike me as representing the depths and heights of crossover work. I began reading Patterson's (or, as Amy implies, his ghostwriter's—looks like that would be Michael Ledwidge, who eventually gets credit as co-author) first Daniel X book and couldn't get through more than a couple of chapters because it was so blatantly created for commercial reasons following a market-driven template. If the later books improved, feel free to share! As for Terry Pratchett, I'd like to think that he honed his craft by writing the adult Discworld books before trying MG/YA fantasy in the form of The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, award winner Nation, and the wonderful Tiffany Aching books.


Anonymous said...

Oh, wonderful list of rules! That may be the best spelling-it-all-out of the differences between young people's and adults' books I've ever seen! I'm not just being flattering because this happens to be the post I'm reading right now; I am well and truly impressed!

Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books didn't happen until post-2000, right? But I'm not sure about The Amazing Maurice, and I guess he had the Bromeliad books in there before.

I'm not sure if James Patterson counts, since he's really not writing them, but his name on the cover certainly SELLS the books...

Brandy said...

I am impressed by your ability to resist the temptation to dissect that statement. Since you did I suppose I can to. (I do want to know if she intends to make her YA novels more historically accurate than her adult ones. Assuming she is writing YA historical fiction.)

I actually tend to avoid crossovers like these because it has always felt like a marketing ploy to me. A way to catch fans while they are young.

I have hear good things about that Jasper Fforde book though. I really must read it.

Your rules are spot on. Nice Job!

KateCoombs said...

Brandy--Haha. Thanks for pointing that out. And for your kind words about my rules!

LinWash said...

Great post! Love the rules. Like you, I wasn't sure about some of the crossovers. I'm glad especially that you mentioned "read extensively" and "do not talk down to young readers."

Kim Aippersbach said...

So excited about Jasper Fforde! Will definitely avoid most of the rest of your list (though I love space opera, too, so might check out Lee/Miller).

Neil Gaimon is another one who, like Terry Pratchett, writes his best stuff for younger readers, IMHO. I think writing for young audiences is a true test of writing genius: if you're only a fair-to-middling writer, you won't be able to do it.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this, I know.:)

Kim Harrison - I've read none of her books by that name, but I have read "First Truth" when she wrote as Dawn Cook:

I'm not sure what they are categorised as, but it certainly could be either adult or YA - I thought it had quite a YA-feel to it. (I honestly don't care what age a book is aimed at - if I want to read it, I'll read it.)

Terry Pratchett's first book was actually "The Carpet People":

As for other adult authors to cross over? What about

Charles Dickens
Captain Frederick Marryat
Robert Louis Stevenson
Rudyard Kipling
George MacDonald

.... :)


KateCoombs said...

LRK--Oh, great examples! This isn't exactly a new thing, is it? I don't think I realized Kim Harrison wrote as Dawn Cook, but I do have everything Terry Pratchett's ever written. Good point about The Carpet People, which I think of as The Borrowers on crack. Okay, maybe not crack... A sugar rush, perhaps?