Is You Is or Is You Ain’t Young Adult?

by Clay and Susan Griffith

Thank you for inviting us to contribute to this blog. There has been a lot of august company before us, so we hope we’ll have something interesting to say.

Here are 2 comments we got from different readers of our book The Greyfriar: Vampire Empire Book 1 via our blog and email.

1) I’m in the awkward between spot between teenage and adulthood so I’m not usually…one who will pick up an adult novel…. I wish I could find as many books in (the) adult genre as this that interests me.

2) (Y)our book is only for the teen audience – I am a 48 year young married guy – and enjoy(ed) the book thoroughly!

These two comments raise the question: Is The Greyfriar Adult or Young Adult?

And they raise the further question: Does it matter?

We didn’t write the Vampire Empire trilogy to be YA, or rather, we didn’t write it intending for it to be categorized as YA in bookstores. We did want it to be accessible to a wide scope of the reading public of all ages. We purposefully kept the violence level acceptable (no extreme gore) and the sex level to a minimum (i.e. no sex), although with strong romantic elements. We intended for it to be an adult book, but wanted teens to be able to enjoy it too. Since we have a background in comics, writing stories acceptable to a general audience comes natural to us.

When we found an agent, she never thought of The Greyfriar as YA. Our publisher (Pyr Books) never considered the Vampire Empire trilogy to be YA. In fact, at the time they bought the manuscript, they didn’t even publish YA (they do now). The trilogy was categorized as mainstream fantasy, and The Greyfriar was shelved in the adult sci-fi/fantasy section in bookstores. But soon after it went on sale last year, something interesting began to happen. We started to get glowing reviews on a lot of YA blogs, and we received lovely emails from teen readers saying how much they liked the book. This was unexpected, but not inexplicable. By happenstance, The Greyfriar included a lot of elements popular in YA books – fantasy, vampires, romance, dark futures, angsty heroes, and an adventurous female lead.

No matter what we intended, we were thrilled to be adopted by YA readers. Since we had become an honorary part of the YA revolution, we started to talk about why it was happening, and that made us think back to our own teen reading years (several decades ago!). Back then, there was no real “young adult” category for books. There were children’s books and adult books, and you moved from one to the other at some point in your teens. We were both voracious readers of sci-fi/fantasy and adventure, and the adult sections of the bookstores were full of titles we could enjoy. The fact that they were adult books didn’t mean they were full of gruesome violence or explicit sex, which would systematically deter younger readers.

These days, however, it seems it is necessary for books to have violence and sex to be considered “adult.” There are far fewer books now for a 13-year old to select from the adult shelf, or at least books that wouldn’t send shivers down the spine of a parent to know their kid was reading them. Like movies, over the last decades, any book meant for a mature audience seems to require content that would merit a PG-17 or R.

And so the “maturing” of the adult shelf created a hole in the book-reading market that YA came along to fill with compelling stories, interesting characters, and well-crafted prose, but light on the sex and gore. Many of today’s YA books would have been considered adult titles when we were teens, although likely the protagonists would’ve written as adults rather than teens.

So our experience with Vampire Empire indicates that novels which resonate with a young adult audience don’t have to be created specifically to be a YA novel. It’s tried and true advice in the writing game to write the book you want to write. Don’t worry (too much) about labels. Don’t latch onto the hot new trend because that trend will be played out by the time you finish your book, and you’ll have to shove that manuscript in a file cabinet and go hunting the next hot new trend. It will be very clear to an editor that your book is just a product to you, not a labor of love. And if you don’t love your book, why should an editor?

You can never completely predict or calculate what will find an audience, except good books. That trend almost always works. Find the book you want to write and stick to your plan; don’t panic (too much) as trends rise and fall. For example, in the time it took us to plan, plot, and write The Greyfriar, the vampire wave came and went…twice. And while we were working on the book, we certainly never expected it to grab a YA readership to the extent that many people would assume our novel was published as a YA book. We are, however, really glad it did. We LOVE our YA readership. They are enthusiastic and loyal. They love good stories and resonating characters, and they love to talk about books.

They remind us of us when we were teens wandering the aisles of our local bookstore looking for that next adventure. There were so many to choose from then – and there is today too.

Clay and Susan Griffith are a husband and wife writing team who are the authors of The Greyfriar: Vampire Empire Book 1, a rousing combination of fantasy, steampunk, pulp adventure, and romance. The Rift Walker: Vampire Empire Book 2 will be published in September 2011. 

Clay and Susan have also written comic books including The Tick (NEC Press), and the upcoming Allan Quatermain and It Came From Beneath the Sea…Again (both from Bluewater Comics).