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ALA 2013: Adult Books for Teens: Making the Call

INFINITY-Fotolia.comAt the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, the Alex Award program featured three of the ten authors who won Alex Awards in 2013: Derk Backderf (My Friend Dahmer), Julianna Baggott (Pure), and Robin Sloane (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore). When the panel was asked whether they were writing with a teen audience in mind, only Baggott had a sense of teens as potential readers. But then, Baggott has published seventeen books, targeted at all age levels. Neither Backderf nor Sloane thought about the age of their readers at all.

What is it about these books, then, that place them in the category of Adult Books for Teens?

Each year, the members of the Alex Award committee grapple with this question. The suggested selection criteria leaves room for lively debate:

Titles are selected for their demonstrated or probable appeal to the personal reading tastes of young adults.

Appeal and popularity are not synonymous. In addition to the question of appeal, committee members should consider the following when assessing titles: language, plot, style, setting, dialog, characterization, and design.

Note that the ten Alex Awards are not intended to form an inclusive list balanced by fiction/nonfiction, genre, or format. They are ten individual awards that represent the best books of the previous year that meet the selection criteria. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the publishing trends reflected in the selection of these awards.

To Day Nothing of the Dog by Connie WillisFor example, of the ten books chosen in 1998, six of them are nonfiction books, including memoirs, true adventure stories, and teen interviews. The others include Connie Willis’s award-winning To Say Nothing of the Dog, a complex time-travelling adventure weaving through history. The protagonists are college students and older, focused on retrieving a bird stump from Victorian England. It’s 493 pages long. Where is the teen appeal?

I can’t speak for the committee, but I would say it’s in the parody. It takes a familiar genre (time travel, history, romance) presented as quasi-serious, with a hilariously offbeat undercurrent. The reader gets the over-arching jokes that aren’t visible to the book’s characters. And teens are big on parody: it’s an appealing way to approach the adult world with intelligence and maybe a touch of superiority. To Say Nothing of the Dog is loaded with literary references, including the title, that offer further avenues of discovery.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting that this book should rise to the top as a choice for teen readers. Neither of the later books in the series, Blackout and All Clear, made it as far as the vetted nominations lists. Have teens changed? Or librarians? Or … possibly, publishers?

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi PicoultThe 2005 Alex Awards included Jodi Picolt’s My Sister’s Keeper, which scored big with teen readers, helping to secure Picolt’s position as a reliable adult-for-teens recommendation. The novel focuses on thirteen-year-old Anna, the younger sister of Kate, who is suffering from leukemia. Anna’s perfect-match bone marrow means regular surgeries, transfusions, and hospital stays — whatever is necessary to prolong Kate’s life. Indeed, Anna was conceived to play this role in Kate’s life. Now Anna is beginning to wonder: What about her life? Picolt’s books are published for adults since much of the story is from the adults’ points of view, but her solid portrayals of teen characters facing moral dilemmas has garnered her a solid audience in the younger crowd.

Placing a teen in the center of the drama has played well in terms of adult books with teen appeal. It’s very apparent looking at the 2013 Alex winners and nominations: Over half of the winners and seventeen of the twenty-two nominations are novels either fully or partially told from the point of view of a teen. Sounds like a trend. What riches for the Alex Award committee!

And what tough choices. We won’t know which books the Alex Award committee has chosen to nominate for several more months, but we can get a peek at some possible contenders. School Library Journal‘s blog Adult4Teen (edited by Angela Carstensen and Mark Flowers) has compiled their “Best of the year, so far, 2013.” Check it out!

Have you read anything this year that calls out “Alex!”? Don’t be shy about suggesting it to the committee!

— Diane Colson, currently reading My Friend Dahmer by Derk Backderf and listening to Sisterland, written by Curtis Sittenfeld and read by Rebecca Lowman