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.