In the ten years since I wrote my first YA novel Pure Sunshine, the landscape for the genre has changed drastically. So much so, that I question if that book, a semi-cult classic, would ever get published today. Probably not.
At that time, the "teen" tag was a kiss of death for a book. However, the publication of a few high profile books started to renew the genre. Smack (or Junk as it's known in the UK), Speak, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower brought booksellers tenuously back into the fold. These new books were being written for that 15-20 year old reader, writing about their experiences. And guess what? It worked. Those readers gravitated to the books. Then a funny thing happened...
With the success of books like Twilight, the genre rapidly started to skew younger. The 11-13 year old girl became the target audience. Given that they read a lot more, it was natural that their tastes would soon dominate the YA shelves in book stores. In response, the more successful books in the teen category became safer and cleaner. I understand that. Publishers have an obligation to respond to a changing market...the question is, does the writer?
The answer is tricky because writing with an audience in mind can be dangerous. It's always better to tell a story the way it needs to be told and then find an audience for it. However, as a writer of fiction for children, there is a level of responsibility that comes with that. There's also a bit of savvy that comes with being a professional writer that requires you to know the market if you have a hope of being read. AND TRUST ME, all writers want to be read regardless of what they might say.
So what does one do?
I can only speak from my own experience and I know that when my first few novels came out, the majority of fan mail came from teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17. Then I noticed a trend. The letters started coming from younger and younger teens. When I got my first email from an eleven year old reader of Zombie Blondes, I have to admit I was a little surprised. Though definitely younger than some of my books, there's definitely some difficult and troubling scenes in there. I imagined an 11 year old reading the scene in Hannah's zombie boyfriend's bedroom. It certainly gave me pause to think.
I wouldn't say that I really changed anything drastically. I haven't changed the way I write and I don't sugar coat because of a younger reader. I trust that if they've decided to read it, they are mature enough to. What I have done though is to bring down the age of my characters. Instead of writing about 17 years old characters, I'm writing about 13 and 14 years old characters. That probably doesn't sound so significant, but it is. These characters see the world through a different lens. I haven't compromised anything. I believe I'm still giving an honest view of the world, I'm simply exploring from a different starting point that is more relevant to the audience.
One day, I hope there is room on the shelves again for edgier fiction. I have plenty of ideas still in the tank. But for now, I'm more than happy writing about the issues facing the actual readers.