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Big Books Feature

The Big Questions

Science Fiction and Young Adult Fiction Share Themes and, Hopefully, Readers

Daniel Krall

Big Books Issue 2008

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By Adrienne Martini | Posted 9/24/2008

Unless they are forced to do so, most adults don't wander into the kids' section of any major big-box bookseller. For your average science-fiction reader--a book shopper who gets itchy even around the "normal" fiction--the back of the bookstore isn't on their map, as if they fear falling off of the edge of the world if they cross over its threshold. Which has been a puzzle, frankly, because most science-fiction readers cut their teeth on young adult fiction long before it existed as a marketing category. While Robert Heinlein is known for his adult fiction, like Stranger in a Strange Land, it's his earlier works that were aimed at early teens, such as Have Spacesuit, Will Travel or Citizen of the Galaxy, that many current SF readers cut their teeth on.

"Earlier SF titles for teen readers had been called `juveniles' (as in `Heinlein juveniles,' a phrase that has taken on the patina of classic craftsmanship, like Limoges china or Shaker chairs)," Locus Magazine's Gary K. Wolfe writes in the July 2008 issue. "And I suppose the YA label is no worse: SF had enough problems being regarded as `juvenile' even when not intended for juveniles, and those problems haven't entirely gone away (nor has the kind of SF that prompted this attitude)."

Still, if you walk into the SF section, you'll find Heinlein's juvies snuggled next to his grownup books. But back in YA, you'll find fiction that is just as fantastic and as genre-rich as those touchstone texts written 50 years ago by a grand master. And, in terms of sales, these YA SF novels are kicking the pants off of genre titles in the front of the store.

Some of this can be chalked up to the 800-pound J.K. Rowling gorilla. Technically, all of the Harry Potter books are for kids, and their mighty sales numbers skewed the category. The Potter bubble has passed, yet those readers--and their younger siblings--are still buying books by the bucketful.

Especially when you compare the sales of YA to those of science fiction and fantasy (SF/F for short), which best-selling SF writer John Scalzi did in May 2008. The Bookscan numbers, which are not accessible to those outside the book industry, were provided to Scalzi by an anonymous friend. "Without mentioning specific numbers or titles . . . the top 50 YA SF/F bestsellers outsold the top 100 adult SF/F bestsellers (adult SF and F are separate lists) by two to one," he wrote at Scalzi.com. In short, Scalzi concludes, those 50 YA books sold twice as many copies as the 100 SF/F titles on the list.

Does YA sell so well simply because teens have more free time? "Certainly teens have more time to read, but they also are less genre-identified," New York Times best-selling YA and SF author Scott Westerfeld says in an e-mail interview. "I've met adults who read only Tom Clancy knockoffs, for example. But teens haven't specialized nearly as much as adults, in reading as in everything else. Quite simply, this means that SF for a YA audience is going to get a larger slice of the population, not just the 10 percent of us who don't mind having a spaceship on the cover at age 30.

"This brings me to another point about sales comparisons: Teens are more networked than adults," Westerfeld adds. "When they really like a book, they make their friends read it and ostracize those who don't. Yay, them."

Publishers Weekly critic and YA writer Gwenda Bond concurs that teen audiences are willing to step beyond genre boundaries. "I honestly think it has a great deal to do with the fact that young adult is a free-for-all in terms of marketing and packaging and sales," Brooks says in an interview. "Fantasy and SF aren't starting from the disadvantage of being segregated, and the publishers aren't desperately trying to keep the fantasy titles from brushing up against the mainstream stuff. Fantasy is, arguably, the mainstream in YA. It's a much more equal playing field."

Genre writers are noticing this quiet sales windfall. Some wander into YA because they think the writing will be easier--and are usually surprised that it's not. Some, like Westerfeld, find a natural affinity and joy in writing for this audience. Because it is a little-noticed and relatively new category, the YA label offers writers new freedom to experiment.

"YA is a bit like airplanes in the early 20th century: There are biplanes and triplanes, flapping wings, and engines front and back," Westerfeld says. Plus, he adds, with a teen audience, a high level of narrative tension is built in.

"As Cory Doctorow has put it: The teen years are a time of irrevocable first experiences," Westerfeld says, quoting an SF writer whose YA whose Little Brother spent four weeks on the Times' best-seller list. "Not just your first drink or sexual experience, but the first time you tell a significant lie, stand up to a bully, or betray a friend. The consequences of our actions are huge in those years--or at least feel that way--so it's not surprising that YA lit reflects that intensity. A fantasy where a protagonist has to save the world is fundamentally more believable to a teen. Adults don't think they can save the world anymore, and they rarely feel their setbacks as acutely."

Books for young adults have always asked big questions, largely because their audience is also asking them as they struggle to find out who they are and how the world works. Science-fiction writers have long asked big questions, too. How does the universe work, they muse, and how does humanity fit into it?

"There's a lot of coming-of-age issues with YA, a lot of big questions about what matters to the protagonist, about who they want to be and how they want to live," Colleen Mondor, Bookslut.com's YA columnist, says in an interview. "Those are major growing-up issues. SF has always addressed that, so it is a perfect mesh."

Scalzi, whose newest title, Zoe's Tale, is found in the adult SF section but is also being marketed to the YA audience, sees the marriage of YA and SF as less one of ideas but as one of mechanics. "The alliance between YA and SF/F is the simple fact that both prize actual storytelling--that is to say there's a strong narrative arc featuring a main character, and actual plot to get through, rather than mere writing craft to admire," he says in an e-mail interview. "People who read genre and YA readers both want stories in which things happen, and the reader is along for the ride."

And an added bonus of this most recent YA/SF love-in is that, like the Heinlein juveniles that came before, Westerfeld, Doctorow, and company are building future SF readers in a genre that is starting to gray at its temples. These young adult works should act as a gateway drug as current readers mature out of the market.

"I read all the Heinlein juvies by the time I was a young teen," Scalzi says. "But at the same time I was reading Starman Jones in seventh grade I was also reading Dune, and I suspect that lots of precocious readers were the same way, reading everything in science fiction they could get their hands on without worrying too much about whether it was YA or adult-oriented."

Ultimately, the YA categorization speaks to the fundamental heart of bookselling, no matter which genre you enjoy. "While YA seems to be just a publisher's label, it is actually a very useful way for readers to find books that deal with significant coming-of-age situations," Mondor says. "Yes, teens can read adult titles and love them a lot, but a book written about a teen protagonist who is in a situation similar to their own will go a long way toward having an impact on their lives in ways adult titles rarely can. A Wrinkle in Time is one of the most significant books I've ever read and has stayed with me on an emotional level for more than 25 years."

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