Young adult authors: big draw at Book Fair

Not so long ago at Miami Book Fair International, the authors of young adult books were as elusive as vampires on South Beach. One, maybe two, would show up to talk to students during Friday’s school outing. They weren’t literarily sexy. They weren’t the stars.

Now, in the wake of the cravings produced by such series as Twilight and The Hunger Games, young adult and ’tween authors are in the spotlight, and fair organizers have paid attention, starting with the well-attended appearance of Eragon author Christopher Paolini in 2011.

“In the past three years, we’ve gone from having one or two authors to something like 24 to 30,” says Lissette Mendez, the fair’s programming director. “I remember going to the library and checking out teen Harlequin-type books. They were nice books. But they didn’t have the impact on popular culture these teen and ’tween books are having now.”

There are 32 teen/’tween authors at this year’s fair, ranging from two-time Eisner Award winner and comics guru Paul Pope to novelist Lauren Oliver, author of the Delirium series.

The fair’s increased attention on Y/A books comes at a time when the market has grown and shifted. This year’s coincides with the release of the second Hunger Games feature film Catching Fire, which is significant. In the first half of 2012, total sales in the children’s and Y/A segment rose by 41 percent, according to the American Association of Publishers.

The AAP reports that sales dropped dramatically during the first half of 2013 — 37 percent for hardcovers — but the change was predicted: Y/A book sales are often tied to movie releases, and The Hunger Games was released in March 2012. With Catching Fire out this week and a film version of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series on the horizon, we could be due for another big boom.

Miami author Alex Flinn, whose novel Beastly was made into a movie starring Alex Pettyfer, agrees that times and expectations have changed for young adult writers.

“When I first started writing, the main market was the school and library market,” she says. “If you sold 5,000 copies to libraries, you were good. . . . Now, if that was the whole market now, my publisher would not be happy.”

Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of novels for adults and teens and editor of the new Y/A imprint Merit Press, says she has seen a big difference in how Y/A books are perceived.

“My book All We Know of Heaven was published as a young adult title, and people would say to me, ‘Why? It’s good enough to be an adult book,’ ” says the author of the young adult thrillers What We Saw at Night and What We Lost in the Dark. “They don’t say that anymore. I think books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and the Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins have really pushed young adult fiction to the place it rightfully belongs.

“If you think back, some of the books we consider part of the canon — To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Catcher in the Rye — those are young adult books about becoming an adult.”

Still, authors sometimes are reluctant to embrace the “young adult” tag. M. Evelina Galang, director of creative writing at the University of Miami, never intended her new book Angel de la Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery — a coming-of-age novel set in Manila and Chicago and using a blend of English and Tagalog — to be marketed as a Y/A novel, and had concerns about the concept.

“I had no perspective of young adult; I just wanted to write a good story,” she says. “But the protagonist is 14 when the book starts and 17 when it ends. [Coffee House Press] had to convince me to market it like that. . . . I really struggled with it. But then I did a lot of events with young adults, and the kids read the book and just ate it up. They’re actually the best readers for this book. They have no questions about the language; they accept it.

“When I gave them a writing exercise set in the Philippines, they used some of the words and phrases. Adult readers actually say, ‘I don’t understand these words. What does this mean?’ The older readers have a more difficult time with the concept of the global citizen. The students have kids from Taiwan and Nigeria in their classes. I thought that was really interesting.”

Adults, of course, make up a significant segment of the Y/A audience. Publisher’s Weekly reported that a recent study from Bowker Market Research indicates 55 percent of the readers buying and reading Y/A books are 18 or older, with the largest group 30 to 44. And 78 percent of the time they say they’re buying the books for themselves, not their kids.

“When I go on tour, probably 50 percent of my audience is over 25,” says Lauren Oliver, author of Requiem. “Potentially even over 35. . . . The young adult books available now are ever more pertinent to adults. The age of adolescence has been defined as extending to 25. People get married later and don’t have kids right away, so the search for identity can last through adulthood. People change careers and get divorced. The themes endemic in young adult literature are still resonant to them.”

Andrew Smith, author of Winger, also sees a lot of grown-ups paying attention to his books.

“I think that there’s a lot of interest in the genre because it’s such an important time of life,” he says. “I got an email a couple months ago from a guy who picked up my book for his son, who is named Ryan like the kid in the book. He said, ‘Is there something wrong with me because I’ve never read a young adult novel before, and this is about the best book I ever read? Am I immature?’ My book isn’t aimed at a particular age group, but about a particular period of life. There’s a difference in writing for somebody and writing about somebody.”

Realism has grown more popular in young adult titles, the writers agree, but fantasy elements — especially those involving a dystopian future — still draw readers in droves. Mitchard has a theory as to why they’ll forever remain popular, at least with young adults.

“All teenagers believe they live in a dystopian future with mutants for parents,” she says, laughing. “They really believe the horror of getting up with these fat people who don’t understand anything. Every day is a drag on their quicksilver existence. I have three teenagers — 14, 15 and 17 — and the way they look at me sometimes! While they love me, I can see the level of disgust they feel for the fact I’m still alive and maybe even still kissing.”