Catherine Ryan Hyde on YA vs. Adult

There’s been some discussion on other blogs about some of my statements about how publishers label things. Please know I’m just the messenger—I don’t condone those one-size-fits-all categories any more than other writers.

Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward weighed in by directing me to a blogpost in her blog archives about the arbitrary way her books have been assigned to different genres. With her permission, I’m posting some of it here. You can read more from Catherine on her great blog (and occasionally get a chance to win a book):

Here’s what she said last March:

I want to talk about the labels (figurative labels, not price stickers and such) that we put on books. Particularly the ones that relate to reading levels. As in, “This one is for a teenager. This one is for an adult.”

Like there’s such a huge difference.

Here’s my opinion in a nutshell: I think it’s all meaningless.

A few examples. When I wrote Pay It Forward, I intended it for adults. But the year after it was released, the American Library Association put it on its "Best Books for Young Adults" list. So now it’s YA. So now angry parents write to me and say, How can you put such smut in a teen book? "Well, sorry. Didn’t know." What I don’t say is, "Your teen is not shocked by that ’smut.’ That’s just you." I try to be polite.

Another example. I originally wrote Chasing Windmills to be YA. After all, it’s about two young people falling in love on the subway system under Manhattan in the middle of the night. What could be more YA than that? So I wrote it all from Sebastian’s point of view, and presented it to my YA editor (at Knopf) who liked it very much. But didn’t think it was YA. Hmm. I really thought it was. But I’ve been wrong before. So I rewrote it from both characters’ point of view. Adding Maria’s point of view will make it much more clearly adult, I thought (remember, I’ve been wrong before). I presented it to my adult editor (at Doubleday) who published it. Before it was even released Publisher’s weekly said, "While this is being billed as an adult novel, its closest stylistic relative is S.E. Hinton’s YA classic The Outsiders." And then it got a glowing review in School Library Journal, which classified it as High School/Adult. So, it crossed right over.

It’s official. I don’t know anything.

Or… Or…maybe there’s really nothing to know. Maybe the whole reading level thing is meaningless. Maybe the books are for who they’re for. Maybe they should be read by anyone and everyone they will speak to. And maybe age is the least important factor of all.

Grownups (I do not classify myself as one, despite the advanced age of my outsides) seem a lot more dense about this concept than teens. Teens know they’re mature enough and sophisticated enough to read adult fiction. But lots of adults don’t seem to get that teen fiction is a really great read for anyone. I got more groans and complaints from my adult readers because, after four years off from publishing, my first book out was YA (Becoming Chloe). "Oh, no," they said. "We’ve been waiting all this time for a new book. And now we hear you’re writing for children?" Excuse me? Children? Chloe is suitable for about 14 through adult. I would never put it in the hands of a child. It has more mature subject matter than three out of four of my adult books. When I finally convinced the grown-up fans to read it, they wrote back and said, "Wow. I never would have known this was YA."

So it looks as if none of us on the creative end of publishing can know what marketing people will decide to do with our work. All we can do as writers (and readers) is query widely and spread the word when we find something good--no matter where somebody decides to put it on a shelf, or who they say should like it.