Children's column: reaching the teens

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Friday, 3rd April 2009

Puffin has recently published a debut novel for teens, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden , by Helen Grant, under the Penguin logo. Research has shown that teenagers will not purchase books in the children's department of bookshops, and, although the book is edited and marketed by the children's books department of Penguin, the logo allows it to be stocked in adult sections. It is, after all, a chilling story of children who go missing, involving people who are accidentally burnt to death, and murdered bodies. In content and quality, it deserves to be a crossover title. This is not a new strategy for Puffin, which has used the tactic since Melvin Burgess's Doing It was published in paperback. But it is surely a good way forward.

Reaching the intended audience has always been the hardest challenge in publishing for young adults. The word 'teenager' is the kiss of death for most teens: it appeals to aspiring pre-teens, and maybe just to 13-year-olds revelling in their new status. Fourteen-to-eighteens, as I remember from a conference on teenage fiction organised a few years ago by Hodder, are scornful of the notion - despite the wealth of good literature published for this age group.
I have known an English teacher tell a class of 15-year-olds that they should now only be reading adult books - when Melvin Burgess, Meg Rosoff, Siobhan Dowd, Kevin Brooks, Tim Bowler, Graham Marks, Jack Gantos, Jennifer Donnelly, Aidan Chambers and Jenny Valentine, to mention a very few current writers for young adults, are all suitable for - if not aimed at - readers of 15+. As Puffin's teen-run website Spinebreakers shows, a mixed diet with books by authors writing for adults is what teenagers who are in the know choose for themselves. (Notably, the Spinebreakers site does not mention the word teenager.)
The problem used to be one of double stocking in bookshops: that it was too much of a demand on space to stock books in both the adult and the children's sections. Publishers did their best to reach both markets with the double-jacketed crossover, from Harry Potter through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (which deemed Chris Riddell a 'younger' illustrator than Dave McKean). Sometimes imprints for older readers have been tried - Random House Children's Books' Definitions imprint, for instance; but they did not always bypass the children's sections. Jacketing plays a part too: the logo of Atom (which looks age-neutral, even if not) and the sophisticated covers of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series have achieved precisely the intended crossover appeal.
Some booksellers have followed the example of Australian bookshops, which have long had a crossover category for 15s-25s. Many are increasingly realising that it makes more sense, for both thematic and stylistic reasons, to stock How I Live Now and Catcher in the Rye together; Linzi Glass's The Year The Gypsies Came and To Kill a Mockingbird; Gemma Malley's The Declaration and Nineteen Eighty-Four; Terry Pratchett's Nation and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ...

Perhaps, since the product is there, and the means are increasingly being found in bookselling to treat young adults as adults , the young adult book is enjoying the flowering of sales that it deserves. We just have to persuade that English teacher not to put off the intended audience.