Thanks to everyone who came out yesterday for my panel at Baltimore’s CityLit Festival! I had a great time talking about publishing in the digital era, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my thoughts spurred by the panel with you. First, though, I want to highlight some of the great events I attended at the festival. One of the more interesting panels was the Women and Words reading featuring Elissa Brent Weissman, Amy Stolls, and Jessica Anya Blau. Of course I’m always keen to hear from women who write, but one of the things that interested me most about this panel was that all three writers had written for young adults or middle-graders, but only one had done so intentionally.
Amy Stolls made her debut with a young adult novel, Palms to the Ground (March 2005), and will follow it this May with a novel for adults, The Ninth Wife. Jessica Anya Blau’s The Summer of Naked Swim Parties was released in May 2008 for adults but also found a niche among teen readers; her second book, Drinking Closer to Home, was published in January 2011 and is aimed at adults. Elissa Brent Weissman was the odd one out as the author of three middle-grade novels: Standing for Socks (March 2009), The Trouble with Mark Hopper (July 2009), and Nerd Camp (April 2011).
Unlike Amy and Jessica, Elissa writes for middle graders and has never had any intentions of looking for a different audience. “I wrote Nerd Camp because I used to teach at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth, which I affectionately called nerd camp. There was this funny moment when I was sitting in a classroom full of new students, and they were all very quiet and awkward and not saying much until one boy asked how many digits of pi everyone else knew. They were all chiming in, ‘I know six!’ ‘I know fourteen!’ ‘I only know three.’ And that was how these kids related to each other.” She shared a funny, poignant, chapter in which a group of Nerd Campers discover that one of the campers can answer math problems—and maybe all the questions of the universe—in his sleep.
When I asked Amy Stolls to share some insights on crossing over between teen and adult fiction, she chuckled. “I didn’t write my first novel for the young adult audience; I just wrote it.” It was after writing the book, when she was seeking publication, that she learned that it was best suited to teen readers. “At first, I have to say, it felt a little junior varsity,” Amy said. “But I’ve come to love the genre. Young adults really interact with their writers. They write letters, they blog about the book. I sort of felt like I was a young adult author all of a sudden, living among all these other young adult authors who really knew their audience. I felt kind of lost. But I really liked it.”
On the other hand, Jessica Anya Blau wrote her first novel for adults and saw it marketed to them initially. “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties was published as a crossover novel,” she said. “We got it out there and got all the major reviews in and everything, and then a few months later we started pushing it towards young adult sources and publicizing it that way.” Though the book was written and edited with adults in mind, HarperCollins made the most of its potential audience by putting it out there for teen readers as well.
It’s interesting to me that the initial push towards two different audiences didn’t occur simultaneously at the start. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is common with crossover books, especially in light of controversies over books for which the crossover is surprising, like the debates that arose when Stitches was nominated for a National Book Award in 2009.
“It was a bigger deal five years ago, when we were selling my first book,” Amy said. “Back then you had to figure out where to shelve it. If it was for young adults, I had to worry that my friends walking into bookstores wouldn’t see it. Now, even though it hasn’t been that long, it’s not as big a deal to cross over because Amazon doesn’t separate books that way, and people are buying books online a lot more often.”
Still, will Amy or Jessica ever write another crossover book, or a novel specifically for the children’s book market? It’s hard to say. Neither of their most recent books are intended for teens, but it’s clear that both authors could cross over again if they wanted to. “With any luck, this author will continue writing young adult novels,” Jeffrey Hastings said of Amy Stolls in a School Library Journal review of Palms to the Ground. And maybe someday she will.