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Wait — What IS This Book, Anyway? Genre Blending in YA Lit

YALSA’s upcoming YA Literature Symposium will explore the future of young adult literature. The symposium begins on November 2nd, but we wanted to get a head start here at The Hub, so we’re devoting October to 31 Days of the Next Big Thing. Each day of the month, we’ll bring you forecasts about where YA literature is headed and thoughts on how you can spot trends and predict the future yourself.

Mysteries. Science Fiction. Historical Fiction. Steampunk. Paranormal Romance. Action-Adventure. These are some of what we in the book and library industries call “genres.” Genres help us organize and identify books for readers. If you like an author or a series of books in a certain genre, chances are you’d like other authors and series in the same genre. Easy, right?

People, and not just librarians, organize like things together for one simple reason: It makes them easier to find. “Where are your mysteries?” is a question I am frequently asked when I am working the information desk. “Where do you keep the historical fiction … and what is that anyway?” is another. (What is historical fiction — that’s another blog post entirely!) Up until recently I’ve been able to point to a label on a book and say, “Look for these on the shelf,” or point to a whole shelf and say, “They’re all right there,” or hand over a list that has been painstakingly created and edited by a team of librarians who know mysteries or historical fiction or fantasy or paranormal romance better than anyone else because that’s their favorite genre. But lately I’ve been noticing that many young adult novels don’t exactly fall neatly into one genre or another, and this has been both confusing and exciting.

How would you label a book that is more than one standard, tried–and-true genre? Say, a book that is about aliens visiting Earth during the Civil War and meeting Ulysses S. Grant? (Science fiction / historical fiction.) Or perhaps a book about vampires in space after an apocalyptic war on Earth? (Paranormal / science fiction / dystopia.) A zombie-dwarf that solves mysteries on the back of a steam powered dragon? (Paranormal / fantasy / steampunk / mystery!) If we put a label on some of these books for every genre it covered, the labels would cover the entire spine! But if we choose only one genre, then someone who isn’t into fantasy but is crazy about mysteries might miss a book they would love because it was only partially labeled.

So yeah, this is confusing, especially to those of us who like to make sure that everything is labeled and categorized and easy to find. How can I line up all of the science fiction so it is easier to locate in the library if half of them are labeled something else? In all my years of working in libraries (which isn’t that many, but enough for me to have been around at least a decade), I’ve never seen so many books that I can’t call just one thing. Well, actually, I can call all of these books just one thing: Exciting!

They are exciting because this genre-blending revolution is relatively new (and unclassified) territory. There are plenty of older, classic titles that cover more than one genre but are definitely more one than any other (For example, Phillip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke, which is a great mystery set in Victorian England, is more a mystery set in a time period than an historical novel that has a little mystery.) Now we’ve got young adult titles coming out that are just as much a mystery as a paranormal romance. A person who loves mysteries might never get into fantasy but for the zombie-dwarf Sherlock Holmes on a steam-powered dragon. (Someone seriously needs to write that one!)

Instead of looking at this as a labeling problem though, we should be looking at this for what it really is: These new titles are a boon! Books that don’t fit into one category can appeal to more people. You can recommend them to more people. You can get more people interested in them. They don’t just fit in one genre; they fit in many. They are multi-taskers and introductions to whole new worlds all rolled into one. And here’s the scary wonderful part: we’re flying without a net now. No more labels telling us what’s what!

Remember those lists I talked about? The ones pulled together and crafted by librarians who read nothing but fantasy or science fiction or mysteries? Now we’ve got historical paranormal romance dystopias and steampunk fantasy mysteries. How do you even start to put those onto a list? Well, I’m a librarian, and I like a challenge, and so do many of the librarians I work with. Even if you’re not a librarian and are a teacher, or a student, or just a reader, there’s a brand new opportunity out there for you to find something you may never have found before and share it with a friend. Did you love a mystery but just couldn’t get your historical fiction-loving friend to buy into it? Maybe you’d both like Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series: It’s full of mystery in an historical setting with some steampunk fantasy thrown in to boot.

This blending of genres is an opportunity to experience new authors, new ideas and new styles. No longer will we be confined to just one type of book! No, now we can have our paranormal fantasy and our science fiction, too. Our reading lists just grew exponentially!

— Carla Land, currently reading Steampunk! An anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J Grant

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