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All stories relating to YA fiction

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Growing pains: will “new adult” fiction catch the attention of Canadian publishers?

(illustration: Glenda Tse)

In July 2010, Toronto author C.K. Kelly Martin finished writing her sixth novel, Come See About Me, which focused on a 20-year-old woman coping with the death of her first serious boyfriend. But when Martin – whose first five YA novels were published by Random House – shopped the manuscript around, publishers weren’t interested.

“Editors said my main character’s age was too ‘middle ground,’” says Martin. “Too old for young adult and too young for adult.”

In the end, Martin decided to publish the book herself. If she were to submit her manuscript now, she might receive a more welcoming response. Over the past year, a subgenre of fiction dubbed “new adult” has attracted the attention of publishers, agents, and the media. Bridging YA and adult titles, the genre (also referred to as “upper” or “mature” YA) mostly features protagonists between the ages of 18 and 25. Although the term has caused debate, books classified as new adult generally include storylines that would be considered too mature for traditional YA.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, young-adult books are about firsts: a first kiss, first love, first heartbreak, first sex,” says Alison McDonald, an agent with The Rights Factory who specializes in children’s literature. “With new adult, the characters are still struggling to find themselves, they’re still looking for their own identity, but they’re onto their second things. They had their hearts broken once and they’re going back to love, or they’ve lost their virginity and now they’re experimenting.… It’s still about coming of age in a lot of ways, but it’s about the second time or the third time.”

The genre has quickly gained popularity on book recommendation websites like Goodreads. Marie Landry, an author who has self-published several popular YA and new-adult novels (Waiting for the Storm, Blue Sky Days), suggests it’s because the books fill a demographic niche.

“A few years ago people were saying there was no market for it; that people wouldn’t read about college-age kids,” she says. “But I know 10 years ago, when I was in college, I wish there had been books like that.”

While the number of self-published authors like Landry producing new-adult titles climbs, Canadian publishers have remained cautious. Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of Vancouver’s Orca Book Publishers, believes there is an audience, if the right readers can be reached through targeted marketing and digital-distribution platforms.

“Looking at the way publishing is going and the fact that adult fiction works very well electronically, I would assume new adult might as well,” says Wooldridge. “It probably does have staying power if you can get the word out.”

Although she says it’s too early to gauge its success, Lynne Missen, publishing director of Penguin Canada’s young reader  division, also believes the genre has a future. In 2012, Penguin imprint Razorbill Canada published Mariko Tamaki’s (You) Set Me on Fire. The novel, about a 17-year-old girl dealing with sexual identity issues during her first year of university, could be considered one of Razorbill Canada’s first new-adult books, although it was never marketed as such. “I feel like it was on the forefront of books featuring older protagonists,” says Missen. “Older protagonists are becoming appealing.”

While an older main character may appeal to some publishers, it was only two years ago that McDonald, who is Tamaki’s agent, could not sell (You) Set Me on Fire in the U.S. “The main concern was that the main character was in college even though she was 17,” McDonald says. “We went to several publishing boards in the U.S. where the book didn’t make it past the sales department because of the college setting.”

McDonald says the novel did very well in Canada, where Tamaki has an established following thanks to her 2008 graphic novel, Skim (Groundwood Books), and her comic Emiko Superstar. She suggests Canadian readers have already embraced homegrown authors such as Tamaki, Russell Smith, and Richard Van Camp, who have been writing about new adults for years – without labels.

Joining that group is Toronto author Emily Pohl-Weary. When she began writing her forthcoming novel, Not Your Ordinary Wolf-Girl (due out in September from Razorbill Canada), Pohl-Weary made her musician-turned-werewolf protagonist 18 years old – not to fit into the emerging new-adult category, but because she likes the age’s transitory nature.

“At age 18 you’re facing a lot of different issues and making a lot of different choices than you were at 16,” she says. “For this particular story, about a girl with a monstrous secret, the age of 18 seemed perfect, because she’s just distant enough from her mom to be able to keep it hidden, but at same time there are all these people around her who are still watching out for her.”

Regardless of the protagonist’s age, Pohl-Weary and Missen are not concerned that the book will have trouble finding its audience. “It never worried me,” Pohl-Weary says. “If teens are reading and in some ways driving the market, then why are we trying to put any kind of limitation on things?”

This story appeared in the June 2013 issue of Q&Q.

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BookNet bestsellers: Canadian children’s books

Consider this an early Christmas present for Robert Munsch, who takes six spots on this week’s bestsellers list for Canadian children’s books.

For the two weeks ending Nov. 25:

1. Finding Christmas, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(North Winds Press/Scholastic, $19.99 cl, 9781443113175)

2. Love You Forever, Robert Munsch; Sheila McGraw, illus.
(Firefly Books, $5.95 pa, 9780920668375)

3. A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, Helaine Becker; Werner Zimmerman, illus.
(North Winds Press/Scholastic, $16.99 cl, 9780545986632)

4. Just Getting Started, Justin Bieber
(HarperCollins, $23.99 cl, 9780062202086)

5. The Munschworks Grand Treasury, Robert Munsch; Michael Kusugak and Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Annick Press, $45 cl, 9781550376852)

6. A Porcupine in a Pine Tree (gift set), Helaine Becker; Werner Zimmerman, illus.
(North Winds Press/Scholastic, $24.99 gift set, 9781443119573)

7. Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas, Mélanie Watt
(Kids Can Press, $18.95 cl, 9781554534692)

8. Stella! Marie-Louise Gay
(Groundwood Books, $24.95 cl, 9781554982929)

9. Why I Love Canada, Daniel Howarth
(HarperCollins Canada, $12.99 pa, 9780007921546)

10. Moose! Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 board book, 9781443107181)

11. Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse, Kevin Sylvester
(Simon & Schuster, $14.99 cl, 9781442442863)

12. Just One Goal! Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 pa, 9780545990356)

13. This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Kenneth Oppel
(HarperCollins Canada, $12.99 pa, 9781554683406)

14. Smelly Socks, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 pa, 9780439967075)

15. Dragon Seer’s Gift, Janet McNaughton
(HarperCollins Canada, $9.99 pa, 9781443406789)

16. Sinking Deeper, Steve Vernon
(Nimbus Publishing, $12.95 pa, 9781551097770)

17. Missing, Becky Citra
(Orca Book Publishers, $9.95 pa, 9781554693450)

18. A Tinfoil Sky, Cyndi Sand-Eveland
(Tundra Books, $19.99 cl, 9781770492776)

19. The Grave Robber’s Apprentice, Allan Stratton
(HarperCollins Canada, $18.99 cl, 9781554688258)

20. Cat Found, Ingrid Lee
(Scholastic, $18.99 cl, 9780545317702)

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Burt Award recognizes YA lit by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit authors

Canadian literary organization CODE has announced a new award for works of YA fiction by native authors in Canada.

Established in collaboration with philanthropist William Burt and the Literary Prizes Foundation, the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature is modelled after the Burt Award for African Literature, a YA prize that has been in existence since 2008.

The inaugural annual award will be presented to three English-language YA books, with a prize of $12,000 for the winning author (and translator, where applicable). Two runners-up will receive $8,000 and $5,000, respectively, and publishers of the winning titles will be awarded a guaranteed purchase of 2,500 copies to ensure communities have access to the books.

The Canada Council for the Arts will administer the Burt Award jury process. Submissions are now open and will be accepted until May 1, 2013.

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Diversity in YA fiction discussion lights up the Internet

A post on Publishers Weekly about an anonymous agent who suggested to YA novelists Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith that they should either make a gay character straight or delete him from the novel entirely is garnering a lot of online comments about the role of agents, the lack of diversity in YA fiction, and how the genre is marketed.

Manija Brown writes:

This isn’t about one agent’s personal feelings about gay people. We don’t know their feelings; they may well be sympathetic in their private life, but regard the removal of gay characters as a marketing issue. The conversation made it clear that the agent thought our book would be an easy sale if we just made that change. But it doesn’t matter if the agent rejected the character because of personal feelings or because of assumptions about the market. What matters is that a gay character would be quite literally written out of his own story.

The discussion has continued on Twitter with the hashtag #YesGayYA. In June, the Twitter hashtag #YAsaves became a worldwide trending topic after a Wall Street Journal editorial suggested that YA fiction had become “too dark.”

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Books of the Year 2010: Books for Young People

There’s no formula for choosing the books of the year. Some break ground, some tackle familiar themes with new energy. Some represent the best work from established authors, some introduce us to important new voices. And some are simply in-house favourites we feel deserve a little more attention. Here are the Books for Young People that made the most impact in 2010.

(more…)

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Eastern Canada sweeps nominations for children’s book awards

Who better to judge the success of children’s books than a group of grade schoolers? That’s exactly what students from Brampton, Ontario’s Huttonville Public School will be doing on May 26, when they decide the winners of the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Awards. First presented in 1976 to Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, the award is now given to two children’s authors and artists every year: one for young adult books, and one for picture books, each worth $6,000.

This year, it appears authors from Eastern Canada have swept the shortlist, which was announced today – all nominees hail from Ontario, Quebec, or Nova Scotia. The nominees range from veterans like Toronto-based Barbara Reid, who won the award in 1987 (for Have You Seen Birds?) and in 2004 (for The Subway Mouse), to debut authors like Jennifer Cowan (earthgirl) and Anna Kerz (The Mealworm Diaries), who are both competing in this year’s young adult category.

Here’s the full shortlist:

Young adult/middle reader books

  • Vanishing Girl: The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His Third Case, by Shane Peacock of Baltimore, Ontario (Tundra Books)
  • The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy, by Jill MacLean of Bedford, Nova Scotia (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)
  • earthgirl, by Jennifer Cowan of Toronto (Groundwood Books)
  • The Mealworm Diaries by Anna Kerz of Toronto (Orca Book Publishers)
  • The Awakening, by Kelley Armstrong of Aylmer, Ontario (Doubleday Canada)

Children’s picture books

  • Perfect Snow, written and illustrated by Barbara Reid of Toronto (North Wind Press, an imprint of Scholastic Canada)
  • When Stella Was Very, Very Small, written and illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay of Outremont, Quebec (Groundwood Books)
  • Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion, written by Jane Barclay of Pointe-Claire, Que., with illustrations by Renné Benoit of St. Thomas, Ontario (Tundra Books)
  • Scaredy Squirrel at Night, written and illustrated by Mélanie Watt of Laval, Quebec (Kids Can Press)
  • The Imaginary Garden, written by Andrew Larsen, with illustrations by Irene Luxbacher, both of Toronto (Kids Can Press)

The winner of the young adult/middle reader category will be chosen by a group of Grade 7 and 8 students, while the winner of the picture book award will be chosen by Grade 3 and 4 students.

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Event photos: YA author Jill Murray launches Rhythm and Blues

On April 10, Toronto’s Type Books on Queen Street West hosted the launch of Jill Murray’s new YA novel, Rhythm and Blues (Doubleday Canada), about “a teenage girl’s quest for fame, love, and self-identity.”

Murray signs a copy of her book for an appreciative fan.

A bevy of YA authors attended the launch, including Robert Paul Weston (Zorgamazoo), who caught up with Murray at the event.

A trio of authors (L-R): Patricia Storms (The Pirate and the Penguin), Bev Katz Rosenbaum (Beyond Cool), and Helaine Becker (Science on the Loose) attended the launch. (All photos by Andrew Tolson)

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Bloomsbury’s Larbalestier cover is a little white lie

Graphic designers are often hesitant to put human faces on book covers for fear of inappropriately influencing a reader’s imaginative response to a given character. If a designer does use a human face, it’s usually shot from behind, or partially cropped, or out of focus. But what happens when a book about a short-haired black girl appears with a cover featuring a long-haired white girl?

An Internet shitstorm, that’s what.

Australian novelist Justine Larbalestier’s YA novel, Liar, is about a teenage black girl who, in the wake of her boyfriend’s murder, is determined to stop her compulsive lying. But when the U.S. advance reading copy began circulating with a picture of a white girl on the cover, many Internet commentators began to complain about the misrepresentation. Some of them suggested that there was a form of subtle (or not-so-subtle) racism involved. Larbalestier responded to these concerns in a thoughtful post on her own blog, which has elicited 331 comments to date, and which also touches on the subject of race:

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

Larbalestier has never written a book with a white protagonist, so Bloomsbury’s decision about the cover, which was made without the author’s final approval, is all the more curious.

Apparently, the public outcry worked. The Guardian is reporting that Bloomsbury has backed away from the ARC’s cover design, and will publish the book in hardback with a black girl on the cover. However, the justification for the original design remains somewhat odd:

[Bloomsbury] told US trade magazine Publishers Weekly that it regretted that its “original creative direction for Liar – which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup – has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity.”

Larbalestier states in her post that Micah, Liar‘s protagonist, is “unstable,” but that her ethnicity is never in question. One wonders how Bloomsbury thought using a white girl’s image would “reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup” – unless this is an instance of a publisher trying to whitewash a blatantly poor design decision.

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Who reads YA?

An interesting article on Tomorrow Museum has started debate on the reasons behind the popularity of young adult fiction. In the original post, blogger Joanne McNeil argues that YA book sales are skyrocketing because teenagers are the most voracious readers:

There are several reasons why so many teenagers are passionate readers. A book is a pathway inside another person’s head. When you are young, you have few deep relationships, maybe no real emotional connections with others at all. You connect in the text. At that age, it is a revelation to see an author has the same dreams and insecurities as you do. Plus, there is a confidence and conviction to a fiction narrative’s voice. You are eager for someone to look up to, but certainly not your parents, not your teachers. A novel is an opportunity to really listen to another human being.

McNeil’s post has sparked a response from Paul Raven on Futurismic, in which he agrees with McNeil on why teenagers are passionate readers, but disagrees that this is the sole reason behind rising YA book sales. Raven argues that increased sales are not, in fact, a sign of increased teenaged reading, because it’s not only young adults that read YA:

I’ve worked in a library, and I can assure you that’s an observable falsehood; most genuinely popular YA is successful precisely because so many adult readers with an expendable income enjoy the same titles.

[...]

I have no beef with YA fiction, or with those who choose to write it, or those who choose to read it. What I do have an issue with is the assumption that by marketing certain books as being for young adults we can treat their success as indicators of health in young adult reading specifically. The pedestal-mounting of YA as the saviour of modern fiction is dangerously misguided.

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Secrets of the YA YA Adulthood

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a story about the fact that adults are reading more and more YA and children’s fiction. It doesn’t say anything earth-shattering – a lot of people like books that have strong stories, likeable characters, and tidy endings, apparently – but it does raise, by implication, the question of whether publishers of mainstream literary fiction have lost sight of the pleasure principle.

On the other hand, it also contains this quote, from a college student who reads a lot of YA fiction:

“[People] 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.”

Related links:
Read the Philadelphia Inquirer story here

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