Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Author of Gringolandia, on “Categories and Boxes: YA, Adult, and the New Crossover”

I have the privilege to provide a guest post for you today by Lyn Miller-Lachman, whose wonderful book, Gringolandia, I reviewed previously.

Ms. Miller-Lachman addresses today the question that has so many of us stymied: what makes a book “Young Adult” (YA)? The emphases in the interview are mine – I couldn’t resist “highlighting” some critical passages!

Categories and Boxes: YA, Adult, and the New Crossover

by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Lyn Miller-Lachmann

When I first started writing fiction seriously after graduating from college (when it seems that everybody wants to do the same), I didn’t know about the categories of adult and young adult. Thus, I wrote a novel manuscript in alternating third person point of view of a father and his 15-year-old daughter and shipped it off to publishers and agents. An agent felt I was promising enough for her to take me on, but she explained that I should consign that first novel manuscript to a drawer and write “young adult.” She handed me a copy of the New York Public Library’s “Books for the Teen Age” list and sent me on my way.

As a high school teacher in New York City, I enjoyed writing young adult fiction, at least at first. My students shared their stories with me and cheered my efforts. My first YA novel, Hiding Places, about a teenage runaway, found an enthusiastic audience and a place of the “Books for the Teen Age” list. But after a while, I chafed at the restrictions of contemporary realistic YA fiction—the point of view limited to that of a teenager, the stock scenes and restricted venues (home, school, teen hangouts, etc.), and the short shelf life of books with extensive pop culture references.

After a lost contract, I gave up writing fiction altogether for 10 years, and when I returned, I intended to write for adults. But I found myself growing attached to my adult novel’s teenage characters, and as I raised my own children and continued teaching, now at the middle school level, I returned to the old YA manuscript that almost was published in 1990.

The adult novel, an eco-thriller titled Dirt Cheap, found a home with a progressive, non-profit small press, Curbstone Press, which published mostly adult books but every year published one or two books with teenage protagonists. Some of these, such as Carla Trujillo’s What Night Brings, were originally published as adult titles but embraced by YA librarians and high school library media specialists. Others, like Lorraine López’s Call Me Henri, were marketed as YA.

My editor and I knew that Gringolandia occupied a space between young adult and adult. What tilted it to the YA side were the teenage protagonists, the first person present tense narrative (perhaps the most popular narrative style in YA, though third person narratives are becoming more common), and the concerns of two young people moving from childhood to adulthood—identity, physical changes, first love, changing relationships with parents, the development of a personal value system, and sampling for the first time the risks, responsibilities, and privileges of adulthood.

At the same time, Gringolandia broke many of the “rules” of YA fiction. Daniel and Courtney spend very little time in typical teenage venues. Despite their age, they move in an adult world. At points, they are aware of the difference, as when Courtney finds herself at a party where she is the only teenager. She compares this party to high school parties, but not really knowing the difference she puts herself and others in danger because of her lack of judgment and life experience. Later on, Daniel and Courtney arrive at a place where children are forced to take on adult responsibilities before their time. As a work of historical fiction that deals with torture and its aftermath, the novel is intense and somewhat graphic, although the reality was even worse. In that sense, it would be considered “edgy” but not in a way typical of YA fiction. And while adult points of view are almost never seen in a YA novel, two chapters of Gringolandia are told from the point of view of Daniel’s father. The first of those is filtered through Courtney’s perspective, while the second is, in a sense, Marcelo’s “last word,” revealing the full meaning of what Daniel has done and the person he has become over the course of the story.

We decided to market Gringolandia as YA rather than adult because over the past 20 years, YA itself has changed. Whereas contemporary realistic novels dominated the market 20 years ago, today science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction (and combinations of these such as time travel and steampunk) have taken teenagers out of familiar realms. The dilemmas of identity, family, first love, and all the rest are the same, but teenagers in these genres occupy the same world as the adult characters. And whereas teenagers who were avid readers 20 years ago would have moved from YA to adult books by the end of middle school, today both high school students and adults read YA along with adult books. These older readers of YA have made possible a greater experimentation with genre, subject matter, and style. Novels like Gringolandia push the boundaries of what is considered YA, but my efforts wouldn’t have been possible without writers such as Francesca Lia Block, Laurie Halse Anderson, Markus Zusak, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and many others. And, of course, J.K Rowling, who made it acceptable for adults to read children’s books.

Although my editor is no longer alive to disagree with me—he passed away suddenly while Gringolandia was still in production—I think we made the right decision to publish it as YA. As an adult novel, it might have gotten lost, as Dirt Cheap did. Moreover, I saw my primary audience for Gringolandia as teenagers who are looking for novels that don’t talk down to them, that don’t lull them to sleep with the familiar, and that don’t treat them as celebrity-obsessed consumers. I also wanted immigrant teens, like the ones I taught in New York City, to see their experiences reflected, but one step removed. While things have changed for the better in Chile—in large part because of the struggles of people like Daniel and his father—this story is still lived today in many other places throughout the world.

The critics have accepted Gringolandia as a YA novel. It was included on the American Library Associations 2010 Best Books for Young Adults list and the Bank Street College 2010 Children’s Books list in the 14 and up category. It received an IPPY Gold Medal in the Children’s Multicultural category, and an Américas Award Honorable Mention, given to outstanding children’s and young adult books that depict Latin America, the Caribbean, and Latino cultures in the United States.

That said, adult readers have embraced Gringolandia as well, so I don’t feel that marketing the novel as YA has limited my readership. Most of my speaking engagements have been in adult venues, where I’ve talked about human rights issues and the long-term impact of torture on individuals, families, and communities. I hope the success of Gringolandia opens the door for other crossover, or multigenerational, novels that build bridges between young people and their elders by raising fundamental questions of our place on the world and how our words and actions affect each other and the planet.

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14 Responses to Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Author of Gringolandia, on “Categories and Boxes: YA, Adult, and the New Crossover”

  1. bookgazing says:

    So nice to learn lots more about Lynn. I had no idea there was an adult thriller out there as well. Thanks so much for linking up to NHYA and I’ll be sure to put this in the Twitter feed.

  2. Nymeth says:

    Thank you for this – it was fasc inating to read, and it confirms my perception that whether or not something is YA is much more of a marketing than a writing decision.

  3. There are certain markers that indicate whether a book is marketed as YA or adult. The most obvious one is imprint. If it’s an exclusively children’s publisher (such as Scholastic, Candlewick, or Charlesbridge) or has “Children’s Books” somewhere in the publisher name, then the book is considered YA. Beyond that, if the Cataloging in Publication data on the verso of the title page contains a one-sentence summary, that’s a sign of a book published as juvenile (one of those things I learned in library school). And YA titles published in hardcover are rarely priced over $20.00 $16.95 and $17.95 are the usual price points), while hardcover adult books start at $20.00.

    • Ah, the money angle. I feel like slapping my forehead for never considering that! It’s so enlightening to have all your insights here!

      • If someone could tell me why the pricing is this way, I’d really appreciate it. In the past, YA books were shorter than adult books, so the lower pricing made sense. But many YA books today are over 300 pages long, which is an average for adult books, but the YA books are priced at $17.95 while the adult books are $24.95. If the publisher is making money on the lower-priced YA hardcover, then wouldn’t the adult hardcover be… overpriced?

        I suspect that’s why a lot of adult fiction these days is coming out as original paperback, around $15.00.

  4. Anyway, it really is very much a marketing decision. As a former member of my critique group said, “If the publisher says it’s YA, then it’s YA.”

  5. Jenners says:

    This was very interesting and enlightening. The term YA is quite new to me and I’ve struggled to understand it as I’ve dipped my toe into YA waters. I still don’t fully understand why a book has to be adult or YA though or a book with a young protagonist is automatically a YA book.

    • Thanks for your question, Jenners. In fact, a novel with a young protagonist isn’t always classified as YA. A well-known example of one published as adult fiction is The Lovely Bones, told from the point of view of a girl murdered at the age of 14.

      Although these aren’t hard and fast rules, because ultimately the publisher makes the decision for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the way the novel’s written or what the author intended, a story about childhood or adolescence in which the narrator looks back on that time is generally considered adult. Those kinds of stories don’t address the concerns of adolescence as much as how the experiences of that time made the character the adult he or she has become. Another type of adult novel with a teen protagonist is one in which the protagonist doesn’t behave like any real teenager but is a device for the author’s larger purpose. There are also adult novels with teenage main characters in which the teenager’s story is told by a different adult narrator, who is mostly offstage. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an example of this device.

  6. Pingback: West Of Mars — Win A Book! » Blog Archive » Guest Post: Lyn Miller-Lachmann,author of Gringolandia

  7. Doret says:

    The line between fiction and YA gets thinner everyday. Lynn its nice to see you had a say in where your book would be shelved.

    I always assumed publishers made that decision. I think Gringolandia is in the right section.

    Another great book shortlisted for NerdsHeartYA is Last Night I Sang For the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz..

    Like Gringolandia that book could’ve easily been considered adult.

    • Usually the publisher does make the decision and authors have very little control. However, I went with a small press, and in return for very little advance and reduced visibility and marketing clout (an unfortunate problem of small presses that needs to be addressed), I did have a lot of input into how Gringolandia would be classified and even who would design the cover. In the case of the cover I knew a graphic artist who had been a political prisoner in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, and he captured that experience in his work.

  8. Maybe YA books are cheapter than adult books because publishers know that many teens can’t afford to buy lots of books and they want to make them more affordable *hopeful idealism*

    Thank you for this guest post, it was very informative, good food for thought. Sometimes I do wonder why books with teen protagonists don’t automatically become YA but your answers make sense, the author using the teenager as a device so the teens doesn’t really act like a teen. I wonder which cateogry Sag Harbor falls under (I’m currently reading it). I LOVE The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao.

    and I’m so glad to hear about how well Gringolandia is doing =D

    • Sag Harbor is classified as adult and in fact received an honorable mention in the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) literary awards, which are given to adult books only. The YA division of ALA, YALSA, gives 10 awards each year to adult books (fiction and nonfiction) suitable for young adults, the Alex Awards. I was surprised to see that Sag Harbor didn’t make the 2010 Alex list.

      Thanks for your kind words on Gringolandia. I just found out it’s going into another printing. According to the fall 2010 Northwestern University Press catalog, there have been some small changes in the cover design, but I’ll see when the new books are ready.

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