let us into the sandbox

August 10th, 2010

On Sunday, the New York Times Book Review ran a back-page essay called The Kids’ Books Are Alright and it announced  that ADULTS  ARE READING YOUNG-ADULT LITERATURE!!!  I should stop here and say that the essay by Pamela Paul was well written and had a lot of very interesting reporting and statistics and also shed light onto a little secret community that I’ve known about for some time: highbrow NYC literati who attend kidlit book groups.  I am not taking issue with Paul’s excellent reporting but rather the “newsy” premise of the piece—some people are more eagerly awaiting Suzanne Collins’s final Hunger Games installment than they are Jonathan Franzen’s new tome. Really? And did you know that real estate in NYC is expensive?

The article got plenty of circulation on Twitter and was hugely popular on the Times judging by its emailed status.  But over in a corner of Facebook, a different reaction was happening. On the FB page of a famous, award-winning kidlit author, a firestorm was brewing. Said author posted something about being annoyed about the condescending nature of the essay. And lo and behold dozens of authors started chiming in, all cheezed off in different ways.

I didn’t find the article condescending so much as embarrassing (again, the premise, not the actual execution). I mean, in another publication, The Dubuque Telegraph Herald, for example, sure, no problem. But The New York Times? All The News That’s Fit To Print. The New York Times Book Review, no less. Acting as though people panting for Mockingjay was, umm, news, when Katniss has been eating as much bestseller list space as Lisbeth and her Dragoon Tattoo and when the last time I checked Mockingjay was #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list, even though it’s not out until August 24th. (Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, out August 31st, is #337. I really like Franzen’s work, though I’m still pissed at him about that whole Oprah thing.)

I mean, really, NYT? You are just figuring this out? NOW? This trend is older than Franzen’s Oprah feud  and has been covered by everyone from The Los Angeles Times to The  Wall Street Journal to the Huffington Post. Moreover, the trend  is widely evidenced by the zillions of YA fan sites run by adults, such as Eve’s Fan Garden and Forever Young Adult.

In fact, Pamela Paul’s excellent reporting—and can I emphasize again it’s the slant of the article, the surprise, the idea that this is news that bothers me; much of the content is cool—notes just how deeply ingrained this trend has become. From her piece:

According to surveys by the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry, 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-old women and 24 percent of same-aged men say most of the books they buy are classified as young adult. The percentage of female Y.A. fans between the ages of 25 and 44 has nearly doubled in the past four years. Today, nearly one in five 35- to 44-year-olds say they most frequently buy Y.A. books. For themselves.

Dude! Those are crazy stats. And judging by the letters I get, it goes up from there. I get letters from grandparents (male and female) reading my “teen” books!

All of which makes the TBR (shorthand for Times Book Review) treatment of YA so baffling to me.  The TBR only runs a children’s section every four weeks these days. It is usually about two pages unless it’s the seasonal special and then longer. Into these two pages must fit all the ads and reviews for picture books, middle-grade and YA books, plus the bestseller lists. Often, there’s very little space for the word books, both YA and middle-grade that might that find an adult audience.

Meanwhile, open up to the rest of the TBR and the pickings are baffling. My husband—no stranger to dense, difficult reads—rolls his eyes at what he calls books about nothing. A book about the history of salt. A book about the history of mirrors. A book about the history of nose-hair pluckers. I’m not saying these books are not worthy or interesting but they seem obscure and one has to wonder at their audience. And yet, week after week, I see lots of them reviewed in the TBR.

I know, I know. Be glad we have a children’s section. Times are tough for newspapers. The Washington Post Book World is no longer a stand-alone section. The Los Angeles Times now puts most, if not all, of its kidlit reviews online only (though at least they can be slightly longer).

Can I say how bass-ackward this is? Newspapers run on ad revenues. Ad revenues are down. Maybe if book review sections stopped ghetto-izing YA in the children’s section and put it in the regular book review section (after all, stats show, adult readers are devouring YA) maybe if book reviews stopped running reviews for books with such limited appeal, they’d get more readers—and more advertisers. That is how the whole cycle works.

Imagine if in place of one of those nose-hair plucker treatises, we might’ve seen reviews for some of these crossover titles: Maggie Stievfater’s Shiver (no review, though Linger, which debuted at #1 on the NYT list, I suspect will get some ink. Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall. Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere. Natalie Standiford’s How To Say Goodbye in Robot. L.K. Madigan’s Flash/Burnout (which won the Morris Award for Pete’s Sake!) I mean, Libba Bray’s Going Bovine didn’t even get reviewed (a rave, natch) till after she won the Printz! And what about all the books we’ve never heard of, but might’ve, if an amazing, well-written review had persuaded us to run out and Read This Book. Cause I gotta say, I don’t think the reviews about the nose-hair plucker books can really do much to move a book that, at the end of the day, is about the history of the nose-hair picker. (I know book reviews aren’t meant to sell books, but they are meant to be part of the cultural conversation. To be relevant.) But reviews (in industry publications) and word-of-mouth for Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me got the cultural conversation going—I first heard about the book after it got five starred reviews. It got people whispering and talking and reading what was initially a small book. (To be fair, the TBR reviewed WYRM, but the momentum was already very strong and Newbery buzz had started).

Now When You Reach Me is a bestseller and a Newbery winner. The book did that. The reviews helped it build the momentum it needed to to that. That is what reviews can do. That is what we need them to do. Bloggers, thank goodness, have picked up a ton of the slack. But it would be great if old media could catch up. Wake up and smell the YA.

So Gray Lady, it’s 2010. Time to let the YA authors in. We cavort—and compete—with the big boys  and girls on the book shelves in stores and libraries every day. You might have just noticed us, but we’ve been here a while. And as the surging YA market shows, we’re not going anywhere. Let us into the big sandbox, please. We’ll share our buckets.

  1. Wow! Loved this post, hit a lot of good points. I agree, why aren’t they going to the obvious direction? The fan base and pending fan base is there, why not encourage it? Review what’s hot!
    Arg, silly people.

    Awesome post. :)

  2. Fantastic post, Gayle! I have only on thing to add and that is that at the recent SCBWI conference some publishers said that it is not unheard of these days for the kids books to make more money than the grown-up books.

    Oh, and one more thing: don’t get me started about nonfiction….

  3. Great post, Gayle. I also found the statistics super interesting. More space for YA/Middle Grade titles would be awesome, but I’m scared of many NYT reviewers–they can be so harsh!

  4. Great post and I couldn’t agree more. My YA has gotten so many adult readers that the paperback cover will most likely appeal to an adult audience rather than strictly YA (ie: no teen on the cover).

    I love my indies and brick and mortar bookstores, but I think it is the internet that is going to help de-ghettoize YA. When you have a store, you have to pick a shelf for the book and for YA it’s often way in the back where adults fear to tread. If you’re ordering a book off of the internet or as an e-book, they’re all out there for the taking. A lot of my adult readers don’t even realize that they’re reading a ‘teen’ book, and that’s awesome.

  5. I was thinking the same exact thing as I sat reading my Sunday Times. Upon discovery of the essay, I was excited because familiar titles stood out to me. But the essay came up short on content. As a YA blogger, I’ve been covering the anticipation of the Mockingjay release for weeks (as have my peers) –and I’m 22 years old.

    It wasn’t a bad article. The Times just could have done so much more… like talking about other fantastic and high-selling YA novels. Get on it, NYT!

    Great post, Gayle! :)

  6. Oh, I know about nonfiction, Deborah. In the YA market. It must be IMPOSSIBLE. No one must know what to do with you. And while I’m grateful we get lists, we don’t get separate fiction/nonfiction so it’s like paranormal and contemp going up against The Twilight Diaries as the nonfiction.

    And yes, the subtext of this all is that YA is the healthy sector of publishing. The TBR coverage to me is a microcosm of what’s ailing publishing (or part of it; digital is a puzzle that I can’t answer). But there seem to be a lot of (dare I say dull) books out there that people don’t want to read yet continue to get pushed. And then this surging sector of the market is mostly ignored by traditional review outlets. Again, thank GOD for the bloggers. And librarians. And the booksellers who push books they love regardless of category.

    And Nina, maybe if there was more YA coverage, it would be other YA authors and it would be well done. I find most of the YA reviews to be pretty fair and not too for-the-jugular. And if we can survive Kirkus…(I know be careful what you ask for. I’m sure by writing this post, I just guaranteed a review for WHERE SHE WENT and a total pan, but whatever. I got the worst review EVER for my first book in The New Yorker, and I survived that.)


    I agree, what bothered me most about that article was its scoopy tone. My inner YA was all, “GAH, NYT, you’re so LAME AND OLD! LIVE IN THE NOW! P.S. Can I borrow the car to go to the mall?”

    Also, I’m totally making a t-shirt that says, “Wake up and smell the YA.”

  8. OMG, Poshdeluxe. I think I just peed myself laughing. For real. Now I have to go to Forever 21 to get some new undies. If Dad will let me borrow the car.

  9. Amen!!!

    I am tweeting and facebooking, and emailing this around right now :)

    And also, “A book about the history of nose-hair pluckers.” made me spit out my tea. *love*

  10. The thing that frustrates me is when they have to point out the fact that it’s YA. Hunger Dogs is a great book AND it’s written for kids. Couldn’t we have just stopped at “it’s a great book”? To be fair, reviewers tend to do this with genres as well. “It’s literary AND it’s a mystery” or something to that effect. Stop apologizing for pointing out good reads. There is no need for any of it to be a guilty pleasure.

  11. @Poshdeluxe If you make that shirt, I want to buy one! Maybe I can convince my mommy to let me borrow her credit card? ;)

  12. Maybe that can be our team slogan.
    WAKE UP AND SMELL THE YA. A coffee cup with really great books coming out like steam? If only I could draw…

    And yes Mark, the justifying is annoying. Like the tone of the article, not just that people were reading YA, but that smart hifalutin New York intellectuals were reading it. No duh! They’re writing it too!

  13. I think this is how I always comment on your blog, but it’s the truth:

    Another brilliant post, Gayle. Thank you.

  14. That does it. I’m a photojournalist who has only written non-fiction, but I’ve been a closet YA fan since…well…since A Wrinkle In Time in the third grade. Then it was advanced for me, but I’ve never lost the love.

    It may be time for me to cut those non-fiction strings and fly into the world of make believe…commit to words the story that has haunted me for over fifty years…

    …trouble is, I’m still not convinced it’s fantasy…

  15. Also, I’m attempting to draw the coffee cup with books coming out, but it’s not going so well :-p. I’ll send you the image if I can make it work.

  16. Spot-on. I saw this retweeted many times, and each time I shook my head in wonder that the NYT had just “scooped” this. Thank you, Gayle. I’m a first-time visitor to your blog but I’ll be back! :)

  17. Yes!

    More attention to kids’ books of all kinds!!

    Thank your for addressing this issue.

    Shelley Moore Thomas

  18. Great post. YA is leading the way these days, both with attempts to be more inclusive (I think more YA authors/editors/bloggers are calling for more MCs of color) and more daring (YA authors are not afraid to break the old writing rules. No first person present tense? Ha! We flaunt your rules!).

    Respect the YA!


    Only this afternoon, my mother complained to me that the local small-town paper only does little kid books or adult books or self-published books. It does not do YA. At all.


  20. Thanks for mentioning the YA bloggers who are adults. This whole ‘new trend’ thing going on is annoying for us as well. Also when news outlets paint us as Twilight obsessed old ladies who are cougaring around for bois who look like RPatz.

    There is amazing YA lit out there. I remember my review of If I Stay stating I was so glad Mia was well adjusted and didn’t have horrible detached parents!

    Great article.

    Pam @
    (otherwise known as girl in elevator with you at the TAC :P)

  21. The surge in young adult readership has definitely played a massive role in bringing YA lit into the spotlight, but I’m with you 100%. Welcome to the game, TBR! I almost snobbishly prefer YA novels to “adult lit”. (Rolls eyes at the term.) I’m in my 20s and proud to be a YA junkie (and aspiring YA author).

    YA is real but maintains a spark of optimism. YA tells it like it is in creative NEW ways. The characters are relatable–should I go on?

    The bottom line is this: Anything that young–predominately female–audiences prefer gets the shaft until it starts rackin’ in the dough. Money = respect…ish. Sad but true.

  22. Thank you for posting this, Gayle! As an English teacher, I love that YA connects adults with kids (in a good way) which therefore encourages a generation of readers! I enjoy reading YA more than anything and love showing people that there is really much more to YA than people realize.

  23. First of all: right on! Which leads me to the second thing: UGH! I was going to tweet about this earlier today, because after my third time rereading that article (I keep rereading it because I *know* there’s more to talk about than just what’s on the surface there, but couldn’t yet put it into words) I was about going to run over to New York, invade the Times’ offices, and smack some people upside the head. You hit their attitude of surprise right on the head. They’re like, “Oh, goodness, would you look at that, kid lit just might actually have something to say for itself after all.” Their attitude of surprise is the highbrow literary adult way of easing themselves into a trend that they’ve turned a blind eye to until they absolutely could not ignore it anymore. This isn’t the first time NYT has had this attitude towards YA lit. So ridiculous.

  24. I understand what you’re saying and you make valid points. We may need to be careful what we wish for, though. NYT reviews may spark sales but they don’t necessarily promote quality these days.

  25. I have been long saying that the big wig head honcho book marketing teams need to come up with a new name for “YA Literature” that actually encompasses the true demographic for the genre.

    Excellent blog! Kudos!!!

  26. I know, I know. Be careful of what you ask for. I WILL say that I think the Times does a really great job of reviewing YA, getting good people (like cool librarians or other YA authors, which I like to think is why they’re good and fair and thoughtful) to do the job and who somehow seem to escape the Times Curse of suddenly becoming Boring Because You’re Writing For The Times. So the editing of the kids’ section is great. It’s just, two pages, every four weeks shared with all children’s books, NOT ENOUGH given the statistics reported in this very essay. YA accounts for so much of what’s being read and bought right now, so it deserves more ink from the cultural paper of record. One would hope if that happened (and I’ll be looking for that along with flying pigs and satanic skiiers) the reviews would continue to be fair and thoughtful and not narcissistic or bitter.

  27. Great post and I agree! When I started Mundie Moms, there wasn’t a lot of adults who had YA sites or much less read YA books. I was apart of Twilight Moms which was started after Stephenie Meyer made us adults realize we could enjoy reading YA books and not be ashamed to admit it. Through there, I feel in love with reading YA, as SM recommended a whole line up of great YA books.

    I think the YA genre has connected parents and their children through a love of reading like we haven’t seen before. There seems to be a lot more adults who have rediscovered their love of reading, because of YA books. I think authors have realized that and so have some of the bigger publishers.

  28. Aw, Gayle. Thanks for the mention. I love your blog with a white-hot passion.

    When my book won the Morris Award, there was a tiny-font-sized mention (a few lines long) buried near the end of the Events/Culture section in my local newspaper – The Oregonian.

    AND I WAS GLAD TO GET IT … considering the paper had dropped its book review section years before.

    I want that YA t-shirt!


  29. Fantastic post, Gayle! And the comments that followed. Yay! Let’s post this everywhere. And … I want a t shirt.

    My wonderful friend, Diane Rios, who is an amazing artist (you can see some of her fab work on her blog at
    is going to design a WAKE UP AND SMELL THE YA T-shirt. Which we will then make available to purchase on Zazzle or some other like website.
    I’ll post details on the blog and FB and Twitter!

  31. I think what we should all be looking at here is the fact that young adults are more adult than we think. We seem surprised that adults would like the books they do. As a high school teacher who has gotten to know some amazing young adults, they aren’t that different from you or I. Sure, they me be a little self-absorbed and lack a long-range outlook on life, but the things that entertain them, entertain us. I see as much immature behavior in the faculty room as the classroom. Of course YA fiction is entertaining for adults. Don’t we all wish we could be more young at heart? I think we could even do away with the distinction. (edgy YA blog)

  32. Oh, thank you, thank you! I’m a teenager myself, but I definitely agree with you. The world needs more people like you.

    Keep writing such awesome posts — and books. IF I STAY is one of my all-time favorites, alongside Harry Potter and Narnia.

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