Puffin has recently released a debut book for teens, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant, under the Penguin logo. Although the book has been edited and marketed by the children’s department at Puffin, the Penguin logo allows it to be stocked in adult sections. As research has shown that teenagers will not buy books from children’s departments, this is one way to reach them and Penguin have successfully pulled this off before with other books such as Melvyn Burgess’s Doing It.
Another publisher, Headline, started a new list a few months back with the specific intention of marketing books to teens without identifying them as the target audience. Shrewdly, Headline recognised that many of the books on offer in the children’s market tread delicately around the very subjects that interest teenagers. Yes – sex, drugs and death are hot topics for the average spotty youth, a fact which is borne out by the astonishing success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.
As a writer for this very market I have come up against editing strictures which dictate suitable content for a younger readership. Of course we need to be careful when writing for children but we also need to balance that with a healthy dose of reality. Teenagers are more aware than ever. They are bombarded with at least five types of media every waking minute of every day. Are we really so naive as to believe that a high proportion of that will not be oriented towards the very things we shrink from showing them? After all, half the fun lies in the forbidden. I distinctly remember as a teenager reading some fairly strong stuff.
My brushes with adult themes did me no lasting harm and the Nick Carter books I smuggled in to my dormitory were at the very least an early introduction to shlock fiction. I think that as writers we owe it to our audience to reflect their concerns and interests rather than pretend they do not exist. It is ludicrous to write a teenage romance and avoid even the slightest mention of sex. Of course I don’t want my daughter to pick up a book one day and be assaulted by a graphic description of the act. But even at seven she is aware that animals mate. By the time she gets to seventeen she will no doubt have extended this awareness further.
One of the worst things a writer for young adults can do is patronise his or her readership. That ‘young adult’ tag says it all – these are not children, certainly not in their own minds. Despite what harried parents might think, they are not aliens either. Teenagers want what everybody else wants from a book – a rattling good story coupled with compelling characters. They want to be astonished, absorbed and above all completely drawn into a book. It’s hard enough to get some of them reading in the first place – you need to hook them in and hold on to them with just the power of your words. And those words should reflect all the agony and ecstasy of being a teenager – no longer a child and not yet an adult but a person who has the right to choose what to read and what to ignore.