Thursday, July 7, 2011

Marketing and YA fiction

Sorry I am posting this is so late; I really have been busy this week. :)

Now then: where were we?

Oh, yes. The Young Adult Fiction market.

Here's something every parent ought to realize before browsing in the Young Adult section: YA fiction is marketed and sold to children as young as eleven. But YA fiction is written for teens, most of them at least fourteen or fifteen on up (and some content is really pushing it in terms of being appropriate for fourteen or fifteen-year-olds). In fact, I've seen, on a YA writer's blog, the admission that what makes YA fiction YA fiction is that it ought to have a teenager, even an "oldish" teenager, as its protagonist. Other than that, anything goes, and "anything" can include explicit sexual content, explicit violent content, explicit language, plenty of teen angst, a sense that adults are stupid or unaware or otherwise useless in solving problems, and an "us against them" narrative in which "us" are the teens and those adults cool enough to "get" them, and "them" stands for the adult world and its values generally.

From the standpoint of what ages might be able to handle some of these content elements, then, YA fiction seemingly ought to be aimed at older teens--teens, perhaps, ages 16 and up (though even then some of the books in the YA section are probably best left until adulthood, assuming that they are actually well-written enough to hold an adult's attention, which is a big assumption for some of these works). Yet the books are, as I said, marketed and sold to children who are much younger; eleven is the age that many YA publishers admit to seeking (though some authors and others have already dropped that age to ten), but some writers, publishers, and marketers admit that some of the most explicitly sexual or violent books on the YA shelf are actually being marketed to children as young as seven--provided they can read with sufficient ease by that age.

Even if a book with really dark elements, or explicit descriptions of sex or violence, might have enough merit to be worth the time of an older teen or an adult, is there anyone out there who really thinks that children between the ages of seven and eleven need these things in their lives? Few of us would give some of the classics I mentioned in this post to, say, an eight-year-old; so why on earth would we give a child of that age a book like this one (which, if you'll note, is listed under the "details" catagory as appropriate for ages 7-12)? Several reviewers spell out in graphic detail why they were horrified when their children in these age groups brought this book home, if anyone is curious as to why I'd think it inappropriate for an eight-year-old.

But why are children so young buying and reading these sorts of books in the first place? Why are children who should still be firmly in the "middle grade" or "intermediate children's fiction" age ranges so enamored of YA fiction?

In a word: marketing. The truth is that advertisers and marketers know perfectly well that the tween market is the one they want to reach, if they want the big sales. Actual teenagers aren't likely to buy and read the worst or most exploitative titles on the YA fiction shelf; even if they haven't completely outgrown the angst that can come with the teen years, they have hopefully, by age sixteen or seventeen, read enough of the great classics to be easily bored with the books that pander, exploit, or otherwise try to sell them on the message of cool teen rebellion and the uncrossable chasm between the teen and adult worlds. In fact, if they have begun to mature at all, they see the adult world as something they'd quite like to enter, not something to be distrusted and fought against at every turn--which makes the central theme of a whole lot of YA books start to seem a little silly.

Consider this, from a Canadian media awareness site:

Children are often aware of and want to see entertainment meant for older audiences because it is actively marketed to them. In a report released in 2000, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed how the movie, music and video games industries routinely market violent entertainment to young children.

The FTC studied 44 films rated "Restricted," and discovered that 80 per cent were targeted to children under 17. Marketing plans included TV commercials run during hours when young viewers were most likely to be watching. One studio's plan for a violent R-rated film stated, "Our goal was to find the elusive teen target audience, and make sure that everyone between the ages of 12 and 18 was exposed to the film."

Music containing "explicit-content" labels were targeted at young people through extensive advertising in the most popular teen venues on television, and radio, in print, and online.

Of the video game companies investigated for the report, 70 per cent regularly marketed Mature rated games (for 17 years and older) to children. Marketing plans included placing advertising in media that would reach a substantial percentage of children under 17.

and this, from the same site:

One of the most important recent developments in advertising to kids has been the defining of a "tween" market (ages 8 to 12). No longer little children, and not yet teens, tweens are starting to develop their sense of identity and are anxious to cultivate a sophisticated self-image. And marketers are discovering there's lots of money to be made by treating tweens like teenagers.

The marketing industry is forcing tweens to grow up quickly. Industry research reveals that children 11 and older don't consider themselves children anymore. The Toy Manufacturers of America have changed their target market from birth to 14, to birth to ten years of age.

A 2000 report from the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. revealed how Hollywood routinely recruits tweens (some as young as nine) to evaluate its story concepts, commercials, theatrical trailers and rough cuts for R-rated movies.

What is true for music, movies and video games is certainly true for books as well. In fact, the reason some YA books end up on the American Library Association's "Banned or Challenged Books" List is because parents or parents' groups ask, not that a particular YA book be "banned" from publication, but simply that it be removed from a middle-school library on the grounds that its content is not appropriate for middle-school children--yet no one is asking why the book in question was ever considered appropriate for children so young in the first place.

The truth is, the books end up on the school library shelves because they are being marketed to children that young--and the children or their parents ask for the books, or the school librarians see it in a catalog and order it. Questions about the book's appropriateness for the younger ages come up later, and are nearly always cast as "censorship," as if it is somehow impossible to discuss the appropriate ages for a book without incurring censure for being the sort of person who would burn books if given half a chance.

The narratives that are standard fare in YA books seldom appeal to older teens or adults, with a handful of exceptions for the rare books of merit that will crop up in this section of the bookstore just as they will crop up in other sections. It is not the eighteen-year-old who is working a part-time job as she saves for college who wants to read about the glamorous world of high-school romance, after all; it is her much younger sister, to whom that world is still a far-off mystery. And while that might not have been much of a problem back when our shared cultural values were still more or less in agreement about what is or is not appropriate for younger children to read, it's a big problem now, when the "teen romance" books may contain material that would seem unbelievably gratuitous and salacious to many adults.

So: what do parents do, exactly? How do we allow our older children, not yet adults, to explore at least some of the more escapist, less literary fiction without handing them books which are really counter to our values and to their own? How can we encourage them to figure out for themselves whether a book that is popular among their peers has any merit? How do we help them navigate the world of books?

We'll look at that question tomorrow.


Turmarion said...

I haven't really had anything to say about this till now for a couple of reasons.

When I was a kid, my reading level was always several grade levels ahead--I was at level 12+ by the fourth grade. Thus, I didn't read much "young adult" fiction, but tended towards adult science fiction and fantasy (with some mystery thrown in). This was in the seventies, and though there was a trend starting towards greater explicitness in sf, most of the books in the local libraries were older, so there was very little untoward stuff.

I would note, though, that I think the librarian at the high school must have thought that sf was all harmless Buck Rogers stuff, since the school library had Frederick Pohl's Man Plus which had plenty of sex (and in its posited future, priests and nuns are no longer celibate--don't know where he was going with that) and another book about Mars, A Double Shadow, by Frederick Turner, which had straight, gay, hermaphrodite, and group sex in it. Whew! I think I came out OK, though, and those were the exceptions.

Anyway, even since young childhood, I've probably read three times as much nonfiction as fiction--my fiction reading was usually genre stuff for pure entertainment. It wasn't really until adulthood that I started reading outside of genres and reading for depth and meaning. I do have an eight-year-old, but she's not old enough for this to be an issue yet, and we always select appropriate stuff. I don't see letting her read the dark stuff at all when she gets older.

I guess this post confirms something I've thought for several years now. It's great that the Harry Potter series (which I like very much and have ready for my daughter when she gets a little older) made reading "cool" for kids and has opened the door to a veritable flood of kid lit, some of which is actually pretty good, too.

On the other hand, I can't help seeing this as consumerist commodification on the part of media conglomerates who push the latest kid or YA books the same way fast food joints push fattening food or the music industry promotes the latest crap down the pike. It's good that kids are excited about reading, but a lot of it is hype and more about reading the next BIG thing than about loving reading in itself and becoming a broader reader. It's not about reading--it's about marketing. And that, independent of quality or appropriateness, is a bad thing, and probably a large part of the cause of the other issues which you point out.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Marketing is a big factor in many of the raunchier cultural influences. If you look way, way, back, "rap" was a style that produce non-sexual political lyrics, like Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and harmless lyrics like "Hello there, is your name Bob, did you lose your girlfriend, when you lost your job?" Even in the early 1990s, there were still artists like Paris who went for content of more substance.

But that isn't what the Japanese executives who owned the music industry and their "white" managers wanted "black" children listening to. They wanted, for various reasons, to boost the most explicit and self-destructive lyrics available, so that's what got played up. Reasons could range from the obvious thought that more money could be made faster this way, to the possibility of a genocidal conspiracy.

Whatever the motive, several generations of kids have now had "my culture" ISSUED to them by advertising, RATHER THAN passed down from parents to children. There is nothing indigenous about it. Even the notion of a "generation gap" had to be invented by some pundit or other, before it was taken up by people gullible enough to believe it. There are babies born EVERY year, so where exactly does the boundary between one "generation" and another lie anyway?

rdcobb said...

You make an interesting point about how a lot of older teens aren't the ones reading YA fiction; it's really the tweens that are clamoring for it. The same thing could be said for magazines like Seventeen. I had my subscription to YM in junior high, where I learned explicitly about rape and birth control with no awareness or input from my parents.

And the books for the most part package the same extreme image of high school as Disney and Teen Nick. It packages the teen perception of high school (a time of high highs and low lows) rather than the reality, which is really rather shallow and bland for most teens.

I also thought the article's comment that children 11 and up don't consider themselves children anymore very interesting. A lot of homeschoolers are questioning "The Myth of Adolescence", and maybe the children's perception of themselves is more accurate than we want to admit. Unfortunately, the marketers are playing into the theory that teens are children who should be given many adult privileges (such as more privacy and less parental accountability) without any of the adult responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

I was allowed to read adult novels - Jane Eyre, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen mysteries, etc - when I was a child. I read at a 10th grade level in the 3rd grade. I notice some posters recommending these classic mysteries, along with Josephine Tey and Dorothy L.Sayers for the Y/A reader.

But of course even those books have adult themes - murders,after all, are acts of violence, committed because of blackmail, or embezzlement, or adultery, even in Christie and Sayers and Tey and Queen. Sayers' primary female character lives with a man without benefit of wedlock, one of Tey's novels features a transvestite, and so on.

And regarding the past, I think we forget that adolescence as a "special" time is a relatively modern thing; before the mid 20th century, older adolescents married and started their own families and careers - Laura Ingalls Wilder for instance was 18 when she married and that was hardly an isolated example. There was little to no attempt to create special literature, or drama, for what we
call Y/A.