The genre of young adult fiction has always been a safe repository for cautionary tales about wayward teens.
‘Usually, there would be a kid who is an alcoholic and then something would teach him the error of his ways. It would all be followed by a neat resolution,’ says Marc Aronson, an editor of young adult fiction at Henry Holt & Co. in New York City.
A slate of YA books released over the last year and a half, however, is breaking with this tradition. Absent from these books are any cute resolutions; instead, a moral relativism informs these dismal stories, in which authors describe worlds in which brutal turns befall their teen characters.
Smack (Henry Holt), by Melvin Burgess, follows two teen runaways who leave their dysfunctional families and fall into a world of heroin addiction and prostitution, with no hope of escape.
In Virginia Walter’s Making Up Megaboy (DK Ink), the 13-year-old protagonist takes his father’s rifle and decides to kill a local store owner for no apparent reason.
The Facts Speak for Themselves (Front Street Books), by Brock Coles, concerns a young female teen who, when she’s not being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, is abandoned to raise her two younger brothers.
‘The difference with these books is that, as readers, you’re not getting the `bad’ to get to the `good,” says Aronson. ‘You’re just getting a world in which stuff happens.’
Despite that absence of a moral framework, or perhaps because of it, the books are finding their audience with teens.
DK Ink has sold nearly 20,000 copies of Making Up Megaboy since it was released in the spring of 1997, doubling the unit sales for its average YA title. Smack has moved 10,000 copies since it was released last April, and Facts has yielded comparable sales since hitting stores last October. They’re incredible numbers considering all three books are still in hardcover, says Roger Sutton, editor of Horn Book, a magazine that reports on the young adult publishing business. Another indication of the titles’ burgeoning popularity? All three publishers inked lucrative agreements for the U.S. paperback rights before the books even went to press.
Hollywood has come knocking, too, offering feature film deals and proposals for one-off TV movies.
In terms of marketing, DK Ink is promoting Making Up Megaboy as being suitable for readers 11 to 14; Henry Holt and Front Street Books have both listed teens 14 and up as the target group for their respective titles.
Retailers seem to be following the publishers’ lead. Borders is positioning Smack and Facts in its young adult section, and Megaboy in its middle grade readers’ area, says Ann Binkley, a spokesperson for the company. Judy Sarick, owner of the Children’s Bookstore located in Toronto, Canada, is showcasing the books in a similar fashion. According to both Sarick and Binkley, of the three books, the strongest selling title has been Smack, which has already racked up a number of awards in the U.K., where it was originally published as Junk in 1997. Borders has also featured Smack in the Other Voices section of Inside Borders, its monthly publication on upcoming releases.
Even with the positive sales and press the titles have garnered, publishers say they’re not looking to cash in on the emerging trend by expanding their roster of `Bleak Books,’ the coined phrase that one New York Times Magazine writer used to describe them. All three companies say they published the titles based on the quality of the prose, not on profit expectations. They all agree, however, that the truncated nature of adolescence today makes them wary of believing they’ve discovered the zeitgeist of teen life.
‘I think in the era of the Starr Report, what the teenage market is assumed to know and not know is really up for grabs,’ says Aronson. ‘While we’re seeing movies, like I Know What You Did Last Summer or Scream, that recognize there is a teenage market, I don’t think people have figured out what its limits [in terms of content] are. Take films like Kids and Trainspotting [two movies that depicted adolescents engaging in sex and drug use], for example. The question is, How many kids went to see Kids? How many rented Trainspotting? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the studios are seeing that market and trying to figure out what will fly, and part of that process involves looking to books to get an idea of the parameters.’