Kerry is working on a PhD at the University of Wales. Her dissertation looks at YA books that sell better and worse than their marketing predicts–as gleaned from a random sample of 200 YA books. She does not suggest you read 200 random YA books. It will make you hate yourself. Kerry’s YA novel, Secrets of the Mami Wata, placed in the Utah Arts Council writing contest for best Young Adult novel. She’s published various creative writing and some really boring academic stuff. She blogs at http://windmillwatching.blogspot.com where she particularly enjoys posting embarrassing things she has made her students do. She’s mean that way.
P.S. Kerry says she’s not a plotter but yet she comes up with complex, scary and, okay, creepy novels on a daily basis. Don’t let her fool you. She’s good. Really good.
A couple of years into my PhD program (or programme as they say in the UK) I was at home in Salt Lake working on my dissertation when I got a message from my adviser, Graeme. “I’m going to be in America!” he said. “Meet me there!”
The British don’t always have a solid understanding of U.S. geography.
So I found myself in Chicago. In February. There was some sort of writing conference going on and the convention halls of the hotel were filled with people who had long spiky purple hair, shapeless black clothing, thick-framed glasses, and brightly colored tights with holes in them. I believe this was the uniform.
Graeme and I met in the hotel restaurant for “a coffee,” which included an apple pastry the size of my head for Graeme and a cob salad for me (I didn’t want to eat the $40 octopus eyes that my hotel thought were chic. Again).
“So now that you’ve got your big 200 book random sample assembled,” Graeme asked, “what kinds of things are you going to ask? After you finish reading the books, of course.”
I still had about 100 to go at that point.
“Oh, you know,” I said. “Stuff about the plot structure. Protagonist gender. Tone. Maybe something about the cover.”
He grunted. Chewed. “Because the thing about YA…” He paused and looked down at his head-sized apple fritter. “My God this is huge. So American. The thing about YA is identity.”
I looked at his fritter and wished for the thousandth time that I ate carbs. “That makes sense,” I said, stabbing at an egg in my salad.
“It’s always something with YA, isn’t it? Vampires, spies, socialites, witches. Sometimes all at once. I seriously doubt the readers are any of those, though. They’re reading because they’re playing—their playing with identity. Trying a new one on like a cloak. Trying to be someone different than who they are, just to see what it’s like.”
I nodded. It made sense. Teens are all angst—they want to be like someone else, right? Isn’t that why they read?
“You should ask about that when you look at your sample. See if it pans out.”
So I did. After I got back on the plane and made it home (and finished getting those 200 books read—with a little help from some reading friends), I added it into my now-150-question-long list of questions.
When the results came back, though, they were surprising. No matter how we parsed it, we couldn’t make any sort of connection between “identity play” and audience resonance. It seemed that teens weren’t reading to see what it was like to be someone else.
Why were they reading then?
I scoured through the data, trying to put the pieces together. Reading data is a little like a slightly-more-reliable version of reading tea leaves. The individual data points don’t tell you much, but there are patterns. My statistician friend says that you can’t look at one number, you have to look at the story. (Ironic, right?)
A few numbers started to pop up.
Books with female story lines were more resonant by about 30%.
Books with super-rich protagonists were less resonant by more than 50%.
Books with race as a driving plot factor were more resonant by more than 50%.
So… were the teens just really P.C.? Maybe, I thought. But if they were all about understanding others, wouldn’t identity play have shown up as a factor?
Then I noticed a few more numbers.
Females make up more than 80% of the book market; but only 50% of YA books have a single female protagonist.
Non-white readers make up 20% of the book market; only 5% of YA books have a non-white protagonist.
Teens don’t read to find out about others, I realized.
They read to find out about themselves.
There are plenty of books about, oh, let’s say vampires. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ones that succeed are the ones whose protagonists are the most like the readers. A teen doesn’t want to know what it’s like to be a spy, they want to know what would it be like if I were a spy.
Adolescence is a time of self-discovery. A time when kids are desperately trying to figure out, who am I? And what am I going to become?
The urgency of these questions surpasses almost every other factor that can affect a book.
A fancy plot is nice, but only if the reader can see themselves in the protagonist. Pretty language is nice, but only if the reader can see themselves saying that. What makes Harry Potter and Bella compelling is that they are utterly ordinary. They face the extraordinary, yes, but they do so from a vantage point that easily allows teens to relate. A vantage point that allows teens to ask, what if I were facing something extraordinary?
And I’d imagine this is true for teens regardless of their knowledge of American geography.