Can Young Adult Fiction Grow Up?

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The novel I’m working on, Ghostlight, is very clearly in the Young Adult Paranormal (YAP) genre. Bette is 17, a high school senior, as are her friends, and there are ghosts. Bam, YA, done. See also such series as The Vampire Diaries, Harry Potter, Twilight, the list goes on.

But she’s also a character I can easily see in what’s come to be called the Urban Fantasy (UF) genre: Bette in her 20’s, in a city somewhere, doing some manner of paranormal-related work, be it a professional ghost hunter, a PI, a journalist with a secret, and so on. In a number of ways, the story I’m writing is Bette’s origin story, her first adventure into the paranormal, the point at which her life changes, the events that set her on a certain path. See also such series as The Dresden Files, Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, Mercy Thompson, Greywalker–the list, again, goes on.

Really I just wanted an excuse to post this awesome picture.

What I’m writing for Bette now is the kind of story that the Urban Fantasy novels will often mention in passing, but don’t usually go into details on. Those novels largely skip ahead to when the character is established in their weird world; whereas for the YAP novels, this is the story that they cover, how it started, how the character went from normal to paranormal, how that world got weird in the first place. While both types have their similarities and differences, there’s one big difference I’m seeing right now: the YAP novels tend to be contained by a set number of books, usually a trilogy, while the UF novels are much more open-ended.

I can see Bette’s story being contained, spanning 3 or 4 books and then ending there, with the future becoming a big blank slate. But I can also see it continuing on, her growing up and finding a new place in the world, her being not just the YAP heroine, but the UF one as well.

As far as I know, this isn’t something that’s been done before, a Young Adult character/series developing into an adult-focused Urban Fantasy series. I can certainly see why, there are plenty of reasons for it. Who do you market the books to, those books generally (or at least often) have a very different tone and subject matter, there’s no ‘transitional’ genre out there for this. It’s the reason why TV shows about high schoolers rarely manage to survive when those characters go to college. You’ve got characters you like, a setting you like, actors you like, and the reality is that most people don’t all stick around in the same town they grew up in when they go to school.

Harry Potter: The Jack Bauer of Aurors

But, I can also see reasons why it could possibly work. For one thing, your readers are growing up, why not a character who grows up with them? As well, a book series doesn’t face the same issues of having to always be tied to one place, certain characters, certain actors. It’s easier to change those up in a book than in a TV show. And while one may say there’s no transitional, I’d argue that YA is the transitional genre. Some very real and meaningful events, thoughts, and conflicts can and often do come up in YA. Death, love, broken hearts, hardships, prejudice, poverty, family issues — all of these frequently come up in YA and are explored and dealt with in thoughtful, satisfying, and mature ways.

It might be challenging — and, of course, this is all assuming I finish this book, get it published, and have enough success to keep doing more featuring Bette — but I do think it’s possible. I’d like to approach the whole idea thinking it’s possible, and that because whatever adventure Bette has now may end, it doesn’t mean she can’t have more of them later in life.

Let’s be honest, if JK Rowling decided to write books about Harry Potter’s adventures as an Auror, who wouldn’t want to read that? It would be awesome! (No, I’m not saying I’m the next JK Rowling, as awesome as that also would be. But HP is a series that had many mature themes for what was a “kid’s” book, so it well illustrates my point here.)

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8 responses »

  1. Genres seem a fickle and arbitrary beast. I find my novels are so frequently riding the line, as well.

    Rowling, however, did have her series ‘mature’ (if not all the way). I don’t see why yours couldn’t follow a similar trajectory. Isn’t that what Buffy did, ultimately? It’s a formula that seems to have worked.

  2. Buffy is one of the shows that managed that gap from high school to college–I almost mentioned it in the post but didn’t. They successfully did this through a few ways:
    1) A few characters DID leave.
    2) Those remaining all had reason to be there–some for school, others who just didn’t go to school, some for a combination of reasons (Buffy: school & her duty, Willow: made a conscious choice to NOT attend a more prestigious school so she could stay and help fight the fight with Buffy).
    3) The school thing faded into the background pretty quickly, anyways.

    Genres are bendable and fickle, I agree, but I get the vague impression they matter to publishers and bookstores: where can I categorize this? What label can I put on it? That will tell me all the answers!

  3. They very much do matter to publishers, much to many writers’ chagrin. It all has to do with marketing, ultimately–easier to sell something it if fits in the same box as those other things you like.

  4. Fantasy often functions as a crossover genre- as you say, Harry Potter matures but it was read by adults and children alike, Alice in Wonderland is read by adults as well as children. Label it fantasy and let the level of writing speak for itself.

  5. This is a great question, one that I’d like to play devil’s advocate with, if I may. (And no, I’m not procrastinating and ignoring my own work, how DARE you.) While I agree with you on several points – and I think that a YA series growing up to an adult series SHOULD theoretically work, despite the publishing industry’s (very probable) reluctance toward it due to the genre/categorizing problem and several other reasons – there are a few reasons why I think it hasn’t been done much, if at all:

    -I think that while it’s entirely possible for teenage characters to grow up and star in their own adult series, a certain zing is lost along the way. We loved Harry and the gang’s adventures because they were growing up, finding themselves, going through all that awkward puberty stuff. As much as I’d love to see Harry as an Auror, I don’t know – might it become sort of like a procedural? Voldemort is gone, so all he has to deal with is a monster-of-the-week? Of course, It would be possible to institute a new Bad Guy to Rule All Bad Guys, but I’m not sure how much of that would be bringing something new to the table.

    -Plus, I don’t know about anyone else, but if anyone chronicled my twenties it would be the most boring book ever written, even if I were doing cool paranormal stuff the whole time. Have you read The Magicians? After they graduate from their magical high school and all the fun is over, they just become whiny hipsters who happen to have powers. Meh.

    -People like endings. That’s why an amazing ending can sometimes save a not-so-amazing story. I like to know that an author has put great care and thought into wrapping things up, and that they haven’t just been winging it the whole time. This might be a more personal choice than anything – I just happen to like finite stories rather than open-ended ones (see: my hatred of procedurals). But prime example: Scrubs. It knew it was going to end, and the series finale was fantastic. Then they tacked on an extra season with new characters at med school rather than the hospital, and it was awful. Some of the old cast stuck around, but it wasn’t the same. And I just didn’t care anymore – there had been a lovely ending and I was happy with that, so the last season just felt very uncomfortable. Then again, Friday Night Lights did an excellent job of graduating their old cast and bringing in new people, new kids that I cared about just as much as the old ones. But if you followed those kids to college, or the Taylors to their new jobs…I don’t know. I’d watch, of course, because wild horses couldn’t drag me away from the Taylors, but I suspect I’d have a lot of qualms about it.

    -But I suspect the main reason is much simpler than anything having to do with story: authors get sick of writing the same world, same characters. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my characters with a fiery passion – hell, even more than some people in real life – but I keep itching to try something new, explore new worlds. And that’s only with a trilogy. If we’re talking more than that, with multiple books extending into the years past adolescence – especially considering the glacial pace of publishing – we’re talking YEARS of writing the same stuff. Decades, even. Of obsessing over the same tiny details, the same characters, getting the same criticism, the same stuff running through your head at odd hours of the night. Plus, it’s the nature of creative folk to try new things. I would personally end up feeling very claustrophobic if I committed to a long-term series.

    Not that I’m discouraging you in any way! Just wanted to add my two cents to the discussion, since I have asked myself this same question before. But different things work for different writers, and if that’s where you see your story potentially going, run like hell with it!

  6. I was hoping & thinking you would have some good insight, what with having an upcoming YAP novel that is set to be a trilogy! 🙂

    All perfectly good points and reasons. A lot of these depend hugely on the author, really–do they want to keep writing, is their writing good enough to sustain it, etc. Good endings are a great point–I didn’t watch Scrubs, but I’ve heard that from most people who did. FNL, agreed, they managed to cycle people in & out gracefully; at the same time, they ended at the right time, because the Taylors were the core of that show, and it got a little more difficult with Julie off to college.

    A lot of authors manage to write a series in an open-ended way and still do well with it. Dresden Files is a great example: 13 books and going strong. Each story is a great contained piece of fiction, but the author (Jim Butcher) has also stated clearly that the series has an endpoint, and we’re about halfway there. Sure enough, the signs of a larger plot arc have grown as the series has continued. So he’s weirdly a good example of both things, open-ended series and at the same time, gearing up for a great ending. He also did a side series that was six books long, and a totally different kind of setting entirely–which I suspect helped battle feeling tired of one particular setting and genre.

    (On the other hand, Laurel K. Hamilton’s two series are big arguments for Yes, please, stop already! One series reached the end of its initial long story arc and…then kept going for some reason. The other has been going on for a long-ass time and the characters resemble their original selves in name only at this point.)

    And like I said, it’s all very theoretical right now–I’d do well to finish the one book before I go thinking too much about others–but as an idea that’s been on my mind lately, well hey, enter the blogging outlet. 🙂

  7. Personally I think it could work – I can’t think of a specific example in extant fiction, but I don’t see why Bette couldn’t keep on having adventures as an adult. I would totally read the adventures of Harry Potter, Auror (and I will never stop growling at IGN for teasing us with that awesome Aurors trailer, even if it was obviously a joke), and by the same token, I really enjoy the glimpses we get into Harry Dresden’s past and wouldn’t mind reading the adventures of Harry the teen wizard. (Er, other teen wizard.) Actually that sort of puts me in mind of the Young Indiana Jones books and the like – YA fiction that explored the past of a decidedly adult character. So it’s been done that way. Why couldn’t it be done in reverse?

    I do think it might be best to avoid telling the story of the transition to adulthood, except in flashback – do Bette’s high school adventures, sure, but then skip the young adult phase and jump to Bette working as a private investigator. Because I think it’s the transitional phase that kills. Veronica Mars’s third season wasn’t great, for a lot of reasons, but partly because college is neither high school nor full adulthood. Veronica Mars at the FBI? HELL YES.

    So all in all, I encourage the dream. 🙂

  8. I was thinking of the flashes we’ve gotten to Harry Dresden’s past–I’d enjoy a few short stories of teenage Harry. Probably not too many, just since at this point we’ve come so far we adult Harry there isn’t much point.

    Yeah, I’ve had a few notions of how Bette could go from teen to adult, and where some stopping points might be. None involve lengthy stays at college.

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