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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

What We Talk About When We Talk About Teens

Thank you to Angela, all of our reviewers, and our readers for the warm welcome to this blog.  I thought it might be a good idea to start this relaunch by setting myself up for immediate backlash by trying to answer the impossible question of what exactly we mean by “Adult Books 4 Teens.”

The phrase has two parts, one easy, and one very hard. “Adult Books” is simply books that have been published for adults. When Angela launched the blog the first time, she said, “This blog is here to help librarians who work with teens find out about the best books published for the adult market . . . .” This definition nicely mirrors the Alex Award’s charge to choose “title[s] from a publisher’s adult list” and complements the Printz Award’s limitation to titles published for 12 to 18 year olds. So that’s easy.

But what about “4 Teens”?  What does that mean exactly? Here’s what the Alex Award policies have to say:

  1. Titles are selected for their demonstrated or probable appeal to the personal reading tastes of young adults
  2. Appeal and popularity are not synonymous In addition to the question of appeal, committee members should consider the following when assessing titles: language, plot, style, setting, dialog, characterization, and design.

So, teen appeal means the books appeal to teens . . . but not necessarily all teens. Not very helpful. Over on our sister blog, Someday My Printz Will Come, Sarah Couri tried out this definition:

YA books are about what it means to be an adolescent — to be someone who is between, who is moving. Who is changing. Who is trying on faces the way you or I might try on hats.

This seems like a much more promising start: if we look at last year’s Alex Award Winners, eight of the ten titles have an explicitly teenaged protagonist, and The Lover’s Dictionary is clearly about adolescent concerns of love and relationships. But Sarah’s definition doesn’t seem to quite fit Robopocalypse, and our own list of Best Books from the same year included such titles as Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston’s Homeland Directive. When She Woke and The Tiger’s Wife do feature youngish protagonists who have some of the traits of adolescence, but it seems like a stretch to say that they are “about what it means to be an adolescent,” and Homeland Directive is about very adult concerns about privacy and government control. And I haven’t even mentioned nonfiction. A science title like How I Killed Pluto really has nothing at all to do with adolescence or growing up. It is just about a fascinating topic which many teens happen to be interested in.

So how do we decide what books to review for this blog? To be honest, each of our reviewers makes the decision based on her own experiences with books and teens, and we don’t always agree. But as I asked around, I found that we definitely share a certain set of beliefs about teen appeal.

First of all, we all seem to agree that the books we read don’t need a teenaged protagonist. Priscille Dando said it best: “I feel strongly that adult books for teens don’t require a teen character or perspective, although those books have extra potential.” Some of our reviewers did mention Sarah Couri’s adolescent concerns. Sarah Flowers, for instance, said she looks for themes such as “coming-of-age, of course, but also themes that have to do with issues of concern to teens: self-identity, family, faith, friendship, etc.” And Francisca Goldsmith brought up the important point of books that “support the high school curriculum,” which might help explain a title like How I Killed Pluto.

One of the most common things our reviewers mentioned is that the book should have a strong, relatively fast moving plot:

  • Sarah Flowers: Generally I’m looking for a plot that moves along briskly. In fact, generally, I’m looking for plot, period. I think slice-of-life and character studies are a harder sell for teens
  • Amy Cheney: My teens, as a whole, and in general, like “action.” so I look for books that also have action in them
  • Priscille Dando: All books I judge to be appealing to teens appeal have that elusive “wow factor” that Nick Hornby talks about when he refers to the Alex Award as the “not boring” awards. For me, that means a compulsion to keep turning pages, having the unexpected occur, gaining deep insight into a character or situation, having an emotional response of some kind

But all three of those reviewers hedged their statements and pointed out that they could think of books with teen appeal that don’t have fast plots. When it comes down to it, we all have to rely on a combination of our own experiences as teens, and our experiences working with teens. Sarah Flowers asks herself “would I have read this book as a teen? Would my sons have read this? Can I think of a teen I would recommend this to?” Connie Williams says “I nearly always end up reading with specific teens in mind.” And Laura Pearle says “I think back to” my childhood self “and ask ‘would SHE have enjoyed this?’ I also think about the voracious teen readers I know and ask ‘would THEY enjoy this?’”

For myself, one of the most important traits I look for is the quality and relative difficulty of the prose.  Teens, of course, can and do read books at the most difficult levels of language–my high school offered a course on James Joyce’s Ulysses, and at least until recently it seemed like every teen had to read at least one Shakespeare play.  So I don’t mean to disparage the reading abilities of teens in the least.  But I do think that the books we review for this blog should generally be accessible to teens who haven’t taken college-level  English courses.  But then my ideas of what a “teen reading level” is are really just based on my personal experiences of being a teen and working with teens, so it remains pretty anecdotal.

So if this all seems too amorphous, blame the whole concept of creating Young Adult as a separate category. Connie Williams thinks we should do away with the whole thing:

I think an adult book for teens is one whose words, theme, and characters speak to the human condition. Age of the character isn’t always the main factor for a ‘good read’ for a teen. The big picture is important. The line between ‘adult’ and ‘YA’ is very flexible and maybe it’s really time to stop trying to draw one. There are so many books written ‘for children’ that adults like to read, and there’s a whole body of work that gets ignored because adults think of them as ‘kids’ or ‘YA’ books. English teachers will often ignore any book deemed to be ‘YA’ because of the very fact that it has a ‘YA’ designation, and so many teens never get exposed to some good reading simply because it gets passed by as they grow up through a school system that categorizes books by ‘age’. I guess I would just say that I’m in favor of dropping both the ‘adult’ and ‘YA’ designation and let us all have access to the whole body of written works!

Until Connie’s dream comes true, we’ll have to keep muddling along, trying to weigh all these factors–theme, plot, personal experience—to make our decisions. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) this is a conversation that never ends. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts and definitions below.

About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark


  1. Diane Colson says:

    I was thinking about teen appeal as I read J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy. The most frequent description of this book that I heard prior to reading is that, “It’s not a children’s book.” True. Certainly it’s not Harry Potter. And admittedly, a story that portrays the political and social complexities of a small town in England would not ordinarily be a topic to draw teen readers either. But the teen characters in the book are extraordinarily vivid. Rowling’s empathy for young people enduring the years of acne and unrequited lust is keen. In the context of this story, it is their actions that are pivotal to the movement of the plot. (No spoilers here, so you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree!) Like so many of the adult books we recommend for teens, not every single teen will enjoy Casual Vacancy. But the heart of this novel pulses with the fears and desires of teen characters. That is one way that I judge teen appeal.

  2. Funny, these days almost everything I read is YA, and the adult books I pick up tend to be things I think the kid in me enjoys. And most are either fast-paced action or have the kinds of characters that make me feel something in myself. It’s not the reading level, or the age of the protagonist as much as it is what I get out of the book. I think I like Sarah Couri’s definition best. I would add, someone who does not yet know all the answers, who is imperfect and makes mistakes, but then learns from them. That is what I like to read and what I try to write in my books. And that is what the actual teens I know, the ones who come to our library, anyway, want to read.