What's got me thinking:*
Lately, I've been encountering a lot of discussions on whether college age protagonists in young adult books are allowed, or if you can even call it a young adult book if the main character doesn't fall into the Holy YA Age Range of 12-18 years old. Among the publishing community, the general consensus seems to be that protagonists out of high school are a tough sell. The comments of "but college students don't read, so there's no market for it" and "teens don't relate to protagonists that are are college aged" are always thrown in there somewhere during the discussion, which generally results in everyone agreeing and deciding to lower their main character's age to 18 or under.
As a teen reader, I'm going, what? STOP THAT.
On Age & Reading Habits
I'm sixteen, in case you're wondering.
That doesn't stop me from wanting to read about characters older than 18. I'd sure as heck love to go into the Young Adult section and pick up a book about a college freshman adjusting to their new life of freedom, stumbling around a huge campus, fighting with their roomate, and groaning about cafeteria food and being a poor student. I'd sure as heck love to read a book about a protagonist that sets off on an adventure after they graduate from high school, or who's just taken up training as a cop or joined the army or taken a job you can't do while still in school. I'd love it to bits if anyone wrote a book about a college junior's experience as a study abroad student.
I'd lap that stuff right up. Mostly importantly, I'd buy it if I saw it in the Young Adult section.
I'm an older teen. For the most part, in real life, I have no stomach for the heartaches of a 12-year-old, and I don't think I can completely grasp (I can empathize with, sure) the troubles a 50-year-old might be facing, since I haven't experienced it myself. But that doesn't stop me from relating to and being interested in fiction featuring 12-year-old protagonists, 16-year-old protagonists, and 50-year-old protagonists. It explains why the odd teen (me) or adult can't be wrenched away from the middle grade section, while boys my age have been reading fiction about 30-year-old fantasy heroes since they were 13.
Age doesn't matter as much as you'd think.
Maybe it does in real life, but it doesn't in fiction.
This is especially true since 99.9% of young adult books are being written by adults. There's a certain distance there, so that for the most part, I couldn't differentiate between a YA 15-year-old and a 18-year-old protagonist in terms of maturity and the conflicts they face if my life depended upon it. It's all pretty flexible in YA, when it comes to a few years. **
From what I've observed, children and teen readers tend to read up. As a 5th grader, I was curious to find out what middle school was like, and I sated some of that curiosity by reading a bunch of books where the protagonists were 13. I didn't have a problem at all relating to these older main characters. By middle school, I was reading books with high school protagonists, wondering if that's what it'd really be like once I got there.
Now that I'm a high school senior, I'm left either with older teen characters or adult characters. There's no bridge in between though. Just a huge gorge, and publishers saying, "JUMP ALREADY." I rarely find a book featuring a college freshman or a 20-year-old. In fact, I can't even think of one I've read lately off the top of my head.
But I'm still curious. I'd like to know what I'm in for. I think most people my age would like to know. What college is like, what renting your first apartment is like, what starting your career is like.
Most importantly, I think they'd read about it. Perhaps even prefer it over the tales of a high school freshman, or maybe even over the tales of characters their current age. It's a possibility. Maybe that explains why the college students I do know tend to read adult fiction. They're looking out for what's next for them.
I feel like I can't talk about older protagonists without mentioning New Adult. I first heard of New Adult when St. Martin put on it's "New Adult" Submissions Contest in November 2009, and the resulting buzz crackled through the internet until it even reached me. For those of you who haven't heard of New Adult, I think of it as a more sharply defined categorization for books that have crossover appeal (books that can be sold and marketed as both YA and adult fiction) and it seems to have become viable in the last few years due to the fact that YA has become such a popular genre.
St Martin's described it as this:
And from reading Kristan Hoffman's article in Guide to Literary Agents, New Adult will likely feature protagonists from 18-26 years old. As she says:
"...[n]ew, cutting edge fiction with protagonists who are slightly older than YA and can appeal to an adult audience. Since twenty-somethings are devouring YA, St. Martin’s Press is seeking fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an “older YA” or “new adult.”
"But the transition from teen to adult doesn’t happen overnight either. There’s a period of time where adulthood feels like a new pair of shoes. The expectations of independence and self-sufficiency are still new, still being broken in. New Adults are the people who have just begun to walk in those shoes; New Adult fiction is about their blisters and aches."
New Adult is supposed to be geared towards older teens, college kids, and adults who are well, new to adulthood.
And I'm going: YES YES YES.
I'd like some of that.
Where's the barricade?
But I'm wondering, why aren't there any books out there already where protagonists are older than 18? Why does this have to be a new thing? Why can't I just stroll into the bookstore right now and pick up Minnie's College Adventures, Book One?
I'm not saying there aren't books like that out there. There are crossovers and college books, scattered around somewhere, I'm sure, but I don't think there's a sizable amount.
The problem is that they're not easily accessible in the young adult section. I think they should be. At least part of it, I think , is due to this misconception that I admit I'm having trouble wrapping my head around as I skim through all the blogs and threads and articles I've been reading about this age dilemma. But this is what I've gathered: YA writers who are worried about writing about older protagonists seem to point the fingers at publishers and agents who either call for a protagonist's age to be lowered or term a book with a older main character a "tough sell." Then publishers and bookstores just go on and point the fingers at readers, saying there isn't a market.
I think there is one. I think of the defining characteristic of young adult fiction as coming-of-age. I think a lot of people are coming-of-age during college or even when they're 25, and therefore it can still be YA, if an author decides that's what the character is going to be going through. What's more, I want those books in YA.
Fellow teens and young adult readers, would you be interested in fiction about college aged protagonists? Would you buy books featuring main characters in the so-called dead zone of 18-26 years old? Do you think there's a need for more of it, or are you content with what's already out there?
Maybe I'm just weird in craving older protagonists appearing on Young Adult shelves, but I'm hoping not.
*I'm hoping a post of this nature hasn't been written already, as I've been out of the loop for a bit.
**In real life, no. Those little freshman squirts are confused and lost and hopeless. Seniors know what they're doing, at least to some extent. Actually... on second thought, perhaps yes. I think I'm pretty much the same as I was a few years ago. I guess it's a bit of both.