Young adult is the name of the relatively young and fast-growing genre of books that are geared to readers aged 12-18 or 14-18. But the readership of YA may have less to do with age than the name suggests.
"I personally think there's a fine line between YA and adult fiction," said Cindy Egan, an editorial director at Little, Brown. "I'm 37 and all my friends read YA books." Egan specializes in children's literature, which is how the first book in the *Gossip Girl* series landed on her desk back in 2001. The rest, as they say, is history: the soap-opera-ish series, which is now on its ninth book, has more than three million copies in print. Due to its sometimes racy content, the books are indicated for "15 and up."
Lisa Santamaria is a college student who also enjoys YA fiction, particularly fantasy, which she said is often more imaginative than fantasy books written for older readers. Santamaria runs the children's department of the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Willow Grove, where many adults come in and ask for books for themselves.
"Children's books have a more upbeat ending, and a lot of people are looking for that," Santamaria said. "They want something a little more entertaining or fluffy so they come to the kids section, only to find out that these books are not necessarily fluffy at all. Like Harry Potter—it makes you think."
Harry Potter: the mention was inevitable.
"I hate to bring everything back to Harry Potter, but those books really brought many more adults to YA reading," said Jan Orts, who is the manager of Joseph Fox Book Shop in Center City. "The same thing happened when Tolkien published the Rings. Harry Potter has blurred the lines."
Orts said the discussion about what makes a book YA is always controversial for booksellers. "It used to be content. Sex, incest, drugs, abuse, all used to be adult themes only--but that's no longer true." "Having worked at the bookstore for 15 years, we've always felt torn about even the category of YA," Orts added. "There never used to *be* a category." Orts remembers reading adult books as a fourth or fifth grader in Massachusetts, poking around her local public library's adult section as the librarian, a family friend, stayed nearby to make sure she didn’t choose something too mature. Similarly, Egan recalls that Judy Blume's 1975 classic Forever, with its themes of sex and love, meant a lot to her and her friends precisely because so few teen books tackled these issues.
Sara Goddard McAteer, the Author Coordinator for the Free Library's Teen Author Series, isn't surprised by the genre's popularity with older readers. "There's often more of a resolution than in literary fiction for adults," McAteer said, who likened YA novels' readability to the structural tidiness of "genre" fiction such as mysteries and romances. "YA is very satisfying to read."
One of the reasons the YA age group is hard to tack down is that there is no industry standard that forces publishers to define the genre uniformly. Little, Brown defines it as 12 and up, Egan said. Bloomsbury Children's Books considers it 14 and up, said Deb Shapiro, associate director of publicity for the publishing house. And as for teen-adult crossover, Shapiro said, Bloomsbury plans for it. "If we find a book that would appeal to both markets, we ... might cross-promote the book in both catalogs, since many bookstores have separate buyers for each category. This way both children's and adult buyers are aware of the book and they can decide which section the book would be best suited for given their customers," Shapiro said.
And perhaps also stock it in both sections, which sometimes happens. British author Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which has a 15-year-old narrator, was published in the UK in two editions, identical except for their covers, one for adults and one for teens. In the US, where it is marketed as adult fiction, many bookstores carry it in both sections. The teen section at The Free Library of Philadelphia is for 7th grade and up. But library coordinator Sandi Farrell said that Lori Gottlieb's eating-disorder memoir Stick Figure, an adult book, was written "in such a great adolescent voice that I put that in the teen section as well." The protagonist is 11.
Parents of teens, of course, have a vested interest in teen books, and one way they stay informed of what their kids are reading is by reading with them. Liz Lacey-Osler, a bookseller at the Doylestown Bookshop, tapped into this cultural moment three years ago when she started the store's first mother-daughter book club.
The clubs are still going strong, and on one recent hot summer Sunday a few preteens and their moms gathered in the store's cheery children's section to talk about Among the Impostors by Margaret Haddix.
The girls were animated in their discussion of the fantasy novel—"I was like, ‘Oh no!'" 11-year-old Jessica Bayer said at one point, clapping her hands over her eyes—and they all agreed that the informal set-up made for better discussions than English class in school.
But their mothers got something out of the novel, too.
"The adults have different interpretations than the kids, which leads to a fuller discussion," said Louise Schiela, who was there with her 10-year-old daughter Abby.
"I feel entirely free to recommend YA books to our adult customers," Orts said. And those recommendations are important, she said, since many adults who shop at Joseph Fox wouldn't feel comfortable walking back to the children's section to browse for themselves.
But even that embarrassment factor might be changing. Santamaria said there's "not a stigma among people my age. I have no problem shopping in the kids' section because there's a lot of good books there."
In the end, that's what people come back to: the enjoyment of reading no matter what the book looks like. Orts is off from work this week, and she plans to tuck into her copy of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen. She lent out the YA novel before she started it, and it's finally made its way back to her after being shared among six adults and kids.
"I would be missing out on a lot if I didn't read children's and YA books," Orts said.