Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Alice Bliss"--Could It Have Been Published As YA?

I just finished reading Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington, an elegantly written story of a fifteen-year-old girl's life while her father is deployed in Iraq. (Skim Harrington's blog for all kinds of background info relating to the writing of the book.) I am not a fan of coming-of-age novels, which Alice Bliss most definitely is. In case readers don't get it, on page 289 the third-person narrator says of Alice that something that has happened "makes her feel that she is not a kid anymore; that the most essential part of growing up has happened overnight." What grabbed me about the book, though, was that while Alice is totally consumed with what is going on with her model father, her life is continuing to go on. Life does that, especially adolescent life. That aspect of the book, the quality of the writing, and the fact that I haven't read any other fictional accounts of the homefront experience for our present wars, made me plow right through this book.

And, of course, I was curious about why a book with a fifteen-year-old main character wasn't published as YA. I can only speculate, of course.

1. That coming-of-age scenario (theme?) I just mentioned. That may be more popular with adult readers than with younger ones. (But, please, if someone can rattle off a list of coming-of-age YA books--especially popular ones--please do so.) Coming-of-age books tend to romanticize the splender of childhood and get misty-eyed over its sudden loss through some significant or even traumaticizing event. Boo-hoo, now the child has lost his/her innocence and is one of us. YA books may respect the YA experience, itself, and stay focused with what is going on during that time in life, without including a transition to what comes next.

2. I have heard a theory that books dealing with YA characters within the family are adult, books dealing with YA characters within the peer group are YA. Thus, Alice Bliss, dealing primarily with family, would be an adult book. I suspect that that is just one editor/publishing houses's stand. What about Margo Rabb's Cures for Heartbreak, about a fifteen-year-old girl whose mother dies of cancer? That was published as YA, and while I haven't read it, this excerpt certainly sounds focused on family and family history, not peers. A Certain Slant of Light would be another example of a book that doesn't fit the family vs. peer group formula. If memory serves me, both these books were written as adult fiction. The decision to publish them as YA was editorial and made after the fact.

3. Point of view. Alice Bliss is written in the third person, which is a hardsell for YA. For the most part, it uses a point-of-view character (Alice), but there are odd little shifts into other characters' minds, often adult characters. Not particularly YA friendly.

4. Voice. Though Alice Bliss uses a third-person narrator, it still manages to maintain an odd, wry voice. That could be a stumbling block for YA. Though you often read reviews or blurbs that include lines like, "A fresh new voice in YA!" most YA voices sound remarkably alike.

5. There's a serious amount of suffering in Alice Bliss. That's not a reason to keep it out of the YA category, of course. Lots of angst in YA. Alice Bliss does teeter on going over the top sometimes, though. I once read that a problem with books about suffering is that while the characters in the book are experiencing their trauma over, say, many months, we readers are getting it all at once. Readers can get to a point where they feel, Okay. Everything's terrible. We get it. Are YA readers more likely to get to that point than adults? I don't know.

6. Alice Bliss has the teen girl with two guys interested in her. That set-up is beloved in YA. (Twilight! Hunger Games!) And there is a mysterious couple of pages where two characters may have had sex or may have just engaged in a serious makeout session at a really inappropriate time. YA readers would love to discuss that.

There's plenty to talk about here regarding the YA vs. Adult question. I'm guessing that in many cases, these decisions are just random. When Margo Lanagan was asked at an event I attended why her book Tender Morsels was published as YA in the U.S., while it was published as adult in Australia, she said that her contract with her American publisher was for a YA novel. So YA it was.

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