"Know your audience." This seems to be the mantra of many agents and publishers. I've been taking workshops here and there in my arduous quest to become a published writer and illustrator, and the phrase just keeps coming up. And it's a perfectly acceptable concern, really. The publisher is responsible for making the money come in after being handed your little gem of prose, and the first thing they have to know is where to put it on the shelves. Is it fantasy, or merely fiction? Are we expecting this to be read by third graders or could parents read it to preschoolers? Are you talking to teens or tweens? And aren't those both considered young adults? Sheesh! I like to be as organized and efficient as the next guy, but I always balk at the idea of putting things into categories in the face of the creative process. How can I think about my characters if I'm thinking about someone else, or how that someone else is going to judge them? It's like high school all over again: if you go through your whole day worried about what others think of you, you will spend your whole life hiding in your locker wracked by crippling self doubt and angst.
Writers on the other hand, seem to be more of the school of "Write something you want to read." What a novel idea! I mean, it only takes a few days or maybe weeks to read a book, do you know how long it takes to make one?! Months and years! At the end of the day (months, years...) I'm the one who has to spend more time with these characters, this story, than anyone else. Of course I should write what I want to read. I've had a lot of trouble reconciling this with the idea of writing to targeted age groups, because growing up, I feel like I never quite fit in them myself. My reading level was generally several grades ahead of that of my peers. And with the downward spiral that today's school system seems to be in, I don't even know what "sixth grade reading level" means. Is it the same as when I went to school?
In addition to vocabulary and understanding plot structure, there's the matter of subject. What subject would intrigue an eighth grader? A high schooler? The thing that publishers forget is, there are a million different kinds of kids out there! They are all individuals! Some like cheezy romance, some like sci-fi, some like comedy, or suspense, or (cough* cough* dry heave) vampires. Some like all of those or combinations of them. And this just in, you grown up types, kid's HATE being put in boxes like this. I always hated when teachers would talk to me about reading level because I felt like they were being patronizing and talking down to me. As if there were lofty concepts in those golden tomes that I was too immature to understand. Granted, they may have been trying to protect me from "Mature Subject Matter" ie: sex. And maybe some violence, but I think nobody's really as concerned with kids reading about violence as they are them seeing it in film, but that's a topic for another day. No, what this issue comes down to, as most other do, is sex. The "Young Adult" label generally at one point or another comes with some sort of sexual encounter...or two...or three. Are they doing it because that's what teens want? Is that what girls want? I have to say, I always resented that as a teen, every time I wandered over to the shelves supposedly intended just for me, the books and graphic novels were filled with angsty girls and guys that were, in there own way, every bit as impotent as the Disney characters I'd grown up watching only at least Disney princesses had the decency/sexual repression to keep their clothes on and, I dunno, not get knocked up. I would be a fool if I didn't admit that teen pregnancy and all the emotions and confusion leading up to it weren't part of the teen/young adult experience. And I understand that teens need to relate to characters. But if you have to deal with that stuff all day, why would you read about it in your spare time? I have to say that I always took it a little personally to think that that's how publishers and writers perceived me as an audience member. So I wandered away into the Fantasy section and waited for Harry Potter to come out.
Speaking of The Boy Who Lived, Harry Potter is an excellent example of my last point: mass appeal. I love Harry Potter. So does the third grader my mother tutors. So do boys and girls, men and women, of all ages. You have a generation now who grew up reading it, and still more join the throng every day. Copies of The Half Blood Prince sold over 9 million copies in the first 24 hours of its release. The big question: HOW DID JK ROWLING DO IT?!!! How do you create characters and a story line that has this much appeal? I think it comes right down to what makes us all human. Rowling imbued her characters with humor, frailty, courage, and selflessness. She didn't make any of them perfect, and in doing so, crafted them perfectly. She didn't make them children, or teens, or adults. She made them people. She gave them qualities that no matter who you are or what your situation in life, you could relate to them. She also didn't add anything that didn't need to be there. Sex wasn't important to the story, so there was never a scene like that, although as the children became teens she could have orchestrated it that way. In terms of violence, the books take our heroes through a war, and violence happens in war. In addition, there was always the stark contrast of how the good guys and the bad guys used violence. The baddies are always needlessly violent, cruel because they can be. The hero rises out of need to defend those he loves. Those are ideas that we can relate to, idealize, and hold dear whether we are 9 or 90. That's why you have folks in their 50s who still love Star Wars. Why young professionals still collect comics. No matter what the window dressing, the magic, super-powers, jet-setting lifestyle, whatever, it all comes down to a human soul.