Neither Harper Lee nor her publishers ever expected her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a book marrying adult morality with a child’s worldview, to see any form of success. Of course, they underestimated their audience. July marks the 50th anniversary of Lee’s book, a commercial and critical hit that’s become a school-curriculum staple. But what would happen if To Kill a Mockingbird — or even J.D. Salinger’s 1951 classic of high school angst, The Catcher in the Rye — were published today? There’s a very good chance both books would end up on the young-adult shelves next to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.
”If an agent received those manuscripts now, they would seriously consider pitching them as YA,” says Megan Tingley, publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, the Twilight saga’s publishing house. ”The market is incredibly robust.” While overall U.S. book sales fell 3.3 percent in 2009, sales of young-adult and children’s titles rose 2.3 percent. And since series like Harry Potter and Twilight have led to movie franchises and merchandising bonanzas, YA has gained a commercial cachet. Authors like John Grisham and Candace Bushnell are only the latest adult authors seeking to cash in on the teen-book boom. ”It’s no longer ‘I guess if I can’t get it published as an adult [title], I’ll do it as YA,’ ” says Scholastic’s David Levithan, who edits Suzanne Collins’ popular Hunger Games series. ”If anything, it’s the opposite. We see people all the time trying to shoehorn books in that don’t really belong, especially genre novels.”
Book sales are one thing, but critical acclaim is another. The literary establishment and book-prize committees still tend to snub titles aimed at young readers. That may be one reason the publishers of several recent books with teenage protagonists but literary aspirations — including Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep — decided to market them to adults after considering YA releases.
”There’s an age-old bias against ‘books for kids,’ ” says Diane Roback, children’s-book editor at Publishers Weekly. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, but if it were released today as a book for teens, many agree that its award chances would be slim. ”The Pulitzers don’t have a young-adult category — that’s the problem,” says Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation, which created an award for YA books in 1996 (Louis Sachar’s Holes and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian have both been winners). ”There was a growing belief among publishers and the people who sit on our board that young-adult literature was not only growing in impact but growing in artistry.” And this artistry is increasingly recognized in some very grown-up circles: The big-screen adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 illustrated YA novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret will be directed by Martin Scorsese.