Since finding out that the average YA book of today only clocks in at around 60,000 words or so, I’m rethinking how to pitch the book I’m currently querying. It’s definitely charactered primarily by teens and kids, though all but the youngest have been aged into adulthood by the end, given that it covers the years 1959 to 1974. However, the protagonist is five years old when the story begins, even though it’s definitely not a story for kids that young. As she ages, the voice gradually becomes more mature, sort of like how each succeeding Little House book has a more and more mature tone, with Little House in the Big Woods being rather juvenile and These Happy Golden Years being the most advanced. Suffice it to say that kids who grow up poor in Manhattan neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Hell’s Kitchen aren’t exactly going to be as innocent and sheltered from real life as their counterparts in a nice moneyed neighborhood like the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side!
YA books are about teens and their concerns, though my protagonist doesn’t become a teenager till 1967. Her older siblings and their friends are all teenagers by that point, but for the most part, they’re not the main focus of the book. Most kids like to read about characters who are a little older than they are, which explains why the Baby-sitters’ Club books are written about girls who are 12-13 yet at more like a third or fourth grade reading level. What teenager is going to want to read about little kids, no matter how much they’ve been forced to grow up before their time? And by the time Part IV, “The Velveteen Ragdoll,” opens in January of 1972, with our shero now seventeen years old, she’s still not dealing with typical teenage issues. Except for teens who already enjoy historical fiction, how many modern teens would relate to a character who gets married and has a child at eighteen? That was considered normal, maybe a little young by 1972, but still within the parameters of normal for the era. Most modern people in their late teens don’t get married, have kids, or have to run households by themselves. And coupled with the above-average page length, even if I do split it up into three different books, it’s gonna be a hard sell for the typical modern YA market. I called it literary historical fiction in the dozenth query I sent out, though it’s obvious from the query itself that it’s a growing-up story and about young characters.
With my Russian novel, the primary set of characters are seventeen at the outset, in April of 1917. My female protagonist’s best friend and on-again, off-again love of her life is eighteen, about a year and a half older than she is. The book ends in 1924 in New York City, when all but one of the primary set of characters who came to America has married and had kids. So even though they start as teenagers, they’re not really going through the typical modern teenage things. It’s sort of like how, in the beginning of the book version of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett and Melly are only sixteen years old, yet because of what they go through and how there was no real sense of adolescence in the 1860s, the reader only sees them as mature, adult, grown women. They’re not portrayed at all as teenagers, but only adult women, and indeed I pretty much lost sight of the fact that they were so terribly young when I was reading the book.
I’m still going to market my four mid-century YA series as YA, since they pretty much keep to the average length and are only aged out of childhood in two of them, but I think the Russian novel and the one I just finished could have crossover appeal. They’re not written about teen or kiddy concerns, and the issues they face are ones that don’t know an arbitrary age cut-off. I guess it figures that I’d be so out of the loop regarding what’s considered typical YA these days, since I read so relative little of it myself and jumped straight from JA books to Hermann Hesse! Once you’ve started reading Hesse, how can you go back to shallow, superficial stories of girls pining over boys or trying to impress the in crowd at school?