Can We Have College-Aged Characters in YA Books? (Discussion)

Discussion Post

I’ve recently seen a few conversations happening around social media on the possibility of featuring college-aged characters in young adult books. While some readers are excited about the idea, others are not.  The two main objections I’ve seen are: 1) that’s what new adult is for and 2) we don’t want older characters stealing YA from teens.  Personally, I do see room in YA in college-aged characters, at least in the first-year/sophomore age range, and I actually think these would be of interest to teen readers, not a threat.

College-Aged Characters Don’t Really Fit in New Adult

Ok, technically, college-aged characters do belong in new adult books.  Characters around their early twenties who are just branching out into adulthood is the actually the defining idea of a new adult book category.  However, the reality is that new adult just hasn’t taken off as a concept in the publishing world the way some readers have hoped.  I don’t have official statistics here, but I have seen a number of literary agents tweeting that there is very little demand from editors to publish new adult books, and they’re not seeking to acquire clients or novels in the genre.

New adult has really struggled to break out of its stereotype of being comprised primarily of erotica, and it also hasn’t taken off as a category in stores.  (For example, I can’t walk into Barnes & Noble and check out the New Adult section because there isn’t one.)  Readers who are interested in college-aged characters in books that aren’t focused on romance/sex simply aren’t going to be able to find them in anything labelled “new adult.”

Featuring College-Aged Characters Doesn’t Have to “Steal” YA from High Schoolers

To address further concerns, I think it only practical that featuring some slightly older characters in YA books (say 18-20 years old) doesn’t have to shift the focus from younger teens.  I’ve had the experience in writing several discussion posts of commenters seeming to believe that when I say something like “Hey, why isn’t menstruation mentioned more in YA novels” I’m really saying something like “Menstruation should be in every single YA novel ever, and it should be a primary focus of the book.” I’m not.  I promise.  I’m simply suggesting that maybe the topic could be mentioned in a few more books than it is now.  The same applies here.

Readers who are asking that college students be featured in YA novels are not demanding that every YA novel be about a college student–just that some are.  In fact, there are already some older protagonists in YA.  Where She Went by Gayle Forman, for instance, features two protagonists who have graduated from high school.  One is college studying music.  One is going the less traditional route of trying to launch a music career.  Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series also features an older protagonist (though readers have questioned the YA status based on the amount of explicit sex scenes; I haven’t personally seen anyone object to Feyre’s age as the issue with categorization).

Sprinkling a few novels with slightly older protagonists isn’t going to amount to a wild take-over of the YA category.  These types of characters are already popping up occasionally, and barely anyone has noticed.

In Fact, High Schoolers May Want to Read about College-Aged Characters

There’s a belief among some publishing professionals that “children like reading about characters who are slightly older than they are.”  Typically these people are talking about the middle grade or lower YA character and suggesting that, say, ten-year-olds like reading about twelve-year-olds and eighth graders like reading about ninth and tenth graders.  It’s a belief that some readers, at least some of the time, like looking slightly ahead and imagining what life could be like for them in a couple of years.  There’s no reason the same can’t apply to older teens.

I could easily believe that, for instance, eleventh and twelfth grade readers could be interested in reading about characters in their first or even second year of college (or characters who are around 19 but not attending college).  Similarly, I can believe that there are plenty of YA readers in college who would love to read about these types of characters.  After all, once doesn’t graduate high school, or turn twenty, and wipe off one’s hands and say, “Well, I guess I’m not officially a high schooler/teen anymore.  I’m done reading YA!”  There has certainly been concern in the YA community about keeping the book category focused on actual young adults, but my impression has been that people are concerned that older adults are being catered to, not that anyone seriously begrudges a college first-year for being a YA fan.  I think there could be a real market in the older teen audience for books about college-characters, not that this is something that thirty-year-olds are demanding.

What do you think? Is there room for a few more college-aged characters in young adult books?

Briana

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The Traitor’s Kiss by Erin Beaty

The Traitor's Kiss

Information

Goodreads: The Traitor’s Kiss
Series: Traitor’s Kiss Trilogy #1
Source: LIbrary
Published: May 9, 2017

Official Summary

An obstinate girl who will not be married.
A soldier desperate to prove himself.
A kingdom on the brink of war.

With a sharp tongue and an unruly temper, Sage Fowler is not what they’d call a lady―which is perfectly fine with her. Deemed unfit for marriage, Sage is apprenticed to a matchmaker and tasked with wrangling other young ladies to be married off for political alliances. She spies on the girls―and on the soldiers escorting them.

As the girls’ military escort senses a political uprising, Sage is recruited by a handsome soldier to infiltrate the enemy ranks. The more she discovers as a spy, the less certain she becomes about whom to trust―and Sage becomes caught in a dangerous balancing act that will determine the fate of her kingdom.

Review

The Traitor’s Kiss is exactly the type of satisfying YA fantasy I like to read.  It has just about everything one could ask for: a strong protagonist, a mysterious love interest, clear world building, intrigue and politics.  Interestingly, matchmakers play a large role, and part of the plot is that a large group of eligible girls are going to be displayed and then set up for marriage (in a way reminiscent of books like The Glittering Court), and yet this isn’t the point of the book.  The point is that there’s a traitor in the kingdom, and everyone is in danger of losing their lives.

There are parts of the plot that are just…convenient, in a way I find is often common in YA.  I was willing to overlook these moments because I enjoyed the book in general, but they did keep the novel from being as strong as it could have been.  In general, however, I thought there were enough unique aspects to help the book stand apart from some of the YA crowd.

There’s a nice mix of characters in the book, though I admit some do run to tropes.  Of course most of the rich marriageable girls are mean to the protagonist, and they have a gorgeous blonde ringleader who’s the meanest of them all and tends towards less than modest dress.  And of course there’s the one nice girl of the group who befriends the protagonist.  And so on. However, I think this kind of stuff is common in a lot of books because people like it.  I certainly enjoyed the book, even as I recognized the patterns that many of the characters were falling into.

The book is one that I think functioned well enough as a standalone.  I understand the publisher’s impulse to keep momentum going on a good thing and an author’s impulse to further explore worlds and characters they have created.  However, this book was just in the space for me where I enjoyed reading one book…but I wasn’t captivated enough to want to read a sequel.  I’ll look for more novels from this author because I think she has talent, but I don’t think I’ll be reading more of this particular series.

3 Stars Briana

Water in May by Ismée Amiel Williams (ARC Review)

Goodreads: Water in May
Series: None
Source: Received from publicity agent for review
Publication Date: Sept . 12, 2017

Summary

Fifteen-year-old Mari Pujols believes that her unborn baby will be the one person in her life who finally loves her.  Her mother is gone, her father is in jail, her abuela never liked her, and Bertie?  Well, Mari’s not dumb enough to think Bertie will stick around.  But then Mari discovers that her baby has a heart condition and will need several surgeries to survive.  Everyone around her thinks she should abort the baby.  But Mari isn’t quite sure she wants to give up on him yet.

Review

Water in May celebrates the strength of single mothers.  Even while surrounded by her supportive friends, Mari sometimes feels alone.  And she knows that, when the doctors say her unborn baby has a heart condition, her friends will want her to abort the baby rather than face the challenges that lie ahead.  But Mari believes that her little Angelo can make it.  And she’s willing to do whatever it takes to fight for his survival.

This book can sometimes feel very heavy.  Feeling abandoned by the people around her, Mari increasingly isolates herself.  She loses friends.  She stops attending class.  Eventually, she isn’t even sure she has a place to stay.  But social workers?  No way Mari is going to deal with them.  She’s convinced she can do everything on her own.  She has to, if she wants her baby to live.

At the same time, however, there are redeeming moments of light.  Mari has a very supportive girl crew.  She can delight in the simple moments like dancing in the park.  And her love for her baby imbues the whole book.  Mari has a lot of love to share.  She just hasn’t had many people who were willing to let her share it.

Water in May challenges stereotypes about single mothers.  It presents Mari as a fighter, strong, determined, and wanting the best for her child.  The people around her might not think his life is worth saving, but Mari does.  And her love for him makes her capable of great sacrifice.  It’s a heartwarming tale about how one life can change and challenge others.

4 stars

Odd and True by Cat Winters (ARC Review)

Odd and True by Cat Winters

Information

Goodreads: Odd and True
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: September 12, 2017

Official Summary

Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.

In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

Review

Odd and True is the electrifying yet heartwarming story of two sisters who team together to hunt monsters in early twentieth century America.  I’m always in favor of a good story about sisters, and Odd and True puts that relationship in the forefront, as the protagonists—Odette (Od) and Trudchen (Tru)—support each other even as they work through different opinions and try to come to terms with the fact that both of them have secrets.

Family in general is at the forefront of the story, as Od and Tru deal with their troubled past in different ways—partially because, as the older sibling, Od has totally different memories of their early childhood than Tru does.  The book switches between their points of view, with Tru narrating the present day action of their new quest to hunt down a devil they believe to be terrorizing the area around Philadelphia, while Od’s chapters focus on the past—her childhood and then a few teen years she spent away from true.  The result is a richly textured story that addresses love, loss, identity, and the definition of family itself.

The monster hunting aspect of the story is deliciously creepy yet not always the most compelling part of the story.  Winters plays coy, making readers wonder what exactly about monsters is real and how the story as a whole is going to play out.  It’s also worth noting that she keeps the story tight by featuring one primary monster the sisters go after.  This may be disappointed to readers who expected a little more gallivanting and epic showdowns, but I really liked it.  Some books in a similar vein cram in so many monsters that the fights seem episodic or even repetitive; Winters builds the excitement up around one main moment that’s really worth it.

I had never read a book by Cat Winters before Odd and True, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  If you read my reviews regularly, you probably know I have a tendency towards disgruntled mutterings about the sad state of prose in contemporary, particularly YA fiction (as much as I love YA).  Well, Winters’s prose is beautiful.  She drew me into the story with it from the opening pages, and the beauty never flagged. The chapters from Odette’s point of view have a particular tendency towards the magical and whimsical which really worked with Winters’s style.

I would be willing to read another novel by Winters just because of the writing in this one, but the story and character development are also remarkably well done.  It’s a great blend of magic, historical fiction, and real world issues.  Highly recommended.

4 stars Briana

Book Vs. Movie: NERVE by Jeanne Ryan

Nerve Jeanne Ryan

I’ve been talking about Nerve by Jeanne Ryan since the book was published in 2012.  (I’ve written a review, a personality quiz, and a list of reasons you should read the book.)  So I’m a bit surprised myself that I’ve only now gotten around to watching the movie adaptation that was released in 2016.  My primary reaction, now that I have is “Wow, this is different from the book.”

Certainly the overarching premise is the same: A normally introverted high school student named Vee feels like she needs to shake up her life by being more spontaneous, so she signs up to be a Player in a new virtual game of dares (which are proposed by paying spectators called Watchers).  But things start to go horribly wrong and the game begins dangerously taking over her life.

The first half of the movie keeps this premise from the book, with some changes to what dares the Players must complete (and I think Vee is a little older, 18, in the movie to make some of the dares less clearly an issue for minors).  However, the major themes are different between book and movie.

The book is really about character development and Vee’s shyness.  Vee becomes worried her introversion and caution are keeping her back from living life to the fullest, so she enters the game in a attempt to be more spontaneous and, well, daring.  I’ve seen some readers critique this and suggest that the overall message of the book is “Being shy is bad,” but I’d argue the opposite; the game gets dangerous enough that Vee can begin to see that the way she’d been living life might have been just fine after all.  The book also explores the character development of some of Vee’s friends who get sucked into the game as either Watchers or Players themselves.

The movie is less concerned about the individual.  Though Vee is still the focus, the message of the movie seems to be not about her but about the Watchers in general. The film takes on questions of mob mentality and how people’s behavior changes when they’re anonymous. (And actual scientific studies have shown that being anonymous frequently equates to being a much more horrible person than you would normally be.  Even having a pseudonym online will encourage people to behave better than it they are 100% anonymous.)  These are interesting, relevant questions, and I can see why the movie makers thought it was worth bringing them to the forefront.  It simply isn’t what I would have expected to see happen in the movie, based on what I’d read in the book.

I don’t necessarily think one was “better” than the other, but I did find the differences between the book and the movie quite interesting.

Briana

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Information

Goodreads: Flame in the Mist
Series: Flame in the Mist #1
Source: Library
Published: May 16, 2017

Official Summary

The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review

I know Ahdieh has a great reputation as an author and a strong fan base, but I actually DNF’ed The Wrath and the Dawn a couple chapters in simply because I couldn’t get into the story. The summary of Flame in the Mist sounded like so much fun, however, (a girl defying her destiny and falling in with a band of thieves?!) that I wanted to give Ahdieh another shot. Ultimately, I did enjoy the plot, but I’m not sure I’m invested enough in the characters to continue reading the series.

The story really does deliver all that it promises. In feudal Japan, a spirited young noblewoman bound in duty to marry whomever her parents decree suddenly finds her life uprooted; she is the victim of an attempted assassination and determined to infiltrate the criminal group responsible to find out why. Admittedly, this is not an entirely unique plot in young adult literature, but it’s always one I love to read, and this is no exception. Ahdieh does a fabulous job laying out the intricacies of the tensions between criminals, common people, and nobility, and protagonist Mariko quickly comes to learn that the world may not be exactly as she believed.

Tied into this, some of the characterization in the novel is strong. The bandit gang is represented as deep and complex; they all have shadowed pasts and clear motivations for how they ended up in a criminal life. Ahdieh is careful to portray them as people, not simply as villains, and they have layer upon layer that Mariko slowly uncovers. I wish Ahdieh had done the same for some other characters in the novel; some choices that ought to be more difficult for Mariko suddenly become easy as the lines between “good guy” and “bad guy” are made needlessly clear cut near the end of the story.

I wanted to care more about what’s going to happen in book two because I enjoyed the storyline of book one, and I was invested in the slow burn romance. However, the ending here makes it pretty clear what’s going to transpire next, and I have definitely seen this ending in multiple YA novels. (I’ll refrain from naming any to avoid needless spoilers.) This book was enjoyable while I was reading it, but it’s just not original enough or complex enough for me to want to continue investing time in Mariko and her friends.

3 Stars Briana

Duels and Deception by Cindy Anstey

Duels and DeceptionInformation

Goodreads: Duels and Deception
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Published: April 11, 2017

Official Summary

Miss Lydia Whitfield, heiress to the family fortune, has her future entirely planned out. She will run the family estate until she marries the man of her late father’s choosing, and then she will spend the rest of her days as a devoted wife. Confident in those arrangements, Lydia has tasked her young law clerk, Mr. Robert Newton, to begin drawing up the marriage contracts. Everything is going according to plan.

Until Lydia—and Robert along with her—is kidnapped. Someone is after her fortune and won’t hesitate to destroy her reputation to get it. With Robert’s help, Lydia strives to keep her family’s good name intact and expose whoever is behind the devious plot. But as their investigation delves deeper and their affections for each other grow, Lydia starts to wonder whether her carefully planned future is in fact what she truly wants…

Review

Like Anstey’s first novel, Love, Lies and Spies, Duels and Deception is a light-hearted Regency romance that will keep you vastly amused if you like spirited girls and swoon-worthy guys in historical fiction.  The novel is, in some senses, ridiculous.  The dialogue seems a bit overdone with the author’s attempts to make it period, and the action is certainly on the absurd end (kidnappings and conspiracies and scandals, oh my!).  To top it off, the whole plot is incredibly predictable.  And yet…it’s just so.much.fun.

Anstey, I have to admit, is just good at what she does.  I don’t normally read books I would call “fluffy,” yet that’s exactly what Anstey’s fiction is, and I love it.  You can tell she had such a good time writing it that you can’t help but have a good time reading it.  Part of me can’t even say that this novel and her first are distinctly different (they are but they aren’t), but I don’t care.  I was entertained, and I kept turning the pages.

The highlight is really the plot, but the characters help make the book, as well. Anstey write heroines that don’t quite conform to the expected gender roles of their time, but they pay just enough deference to propriety that they don’t seem unrealistic.  And she is fabulous at writing romantic love interests who are thoughtful, intelligent, and brave.  Secondary characters ranging from good friends to absurd family members to nasty villains round out the cast.

I have no idea if Anstey plans to continue churning out Regency novels in this vein, but I’ll keep reading them if she does.

4 stars Briana