During this month, the first of the new year, we're taking a special look at beginnings, a focus that includes the books that help young people get their start for a lifetime of loving books and reading. Suzanne Sutherland is the author of a new middle-grade novel, Something Wiki, and also a new YA novel, When We Were Good.
In this guest list, she tries to break down what these terms actually mean, how authors operate within these genres (and beyond them!), recommending some great books in the process.
To the uninitiated, the labels so casually thrown around by those of us with a professional interest in reading and writing for kids and teens—middle grade! young adult! new adult?—can, at times, get a little bit murky. Defining a novel's ideal readership and the category it falls into isn't always as simple as looking at the age of its characters or of its author. Even trickier: we live in a country with a market that allows its authors the flexibility and freedom to write the books they want to, happily switching storytelling modes and genres as well as age groups at will.
Our books aren't always easily labelled. I started my own writing career with a YA novel called When We Were Good, but my most recent novel, Something Wiki, is written for a middle-grade audience (readers 9–12). I'll be heading back to the beloved shores of YA with my next book, and this freedom to roam is something that makes it exciting to be a writer in Canada.
And so, with that in mind, here's a brief exploration of what some of these labels look like on books by a host of outstanding Canadian authors.
Haunting of Heck House, by Lesley Livingston and Jonathan Llyr:
Lesley Livingston and I were recently on a panel on YA literature at U of T together, and it was an amazing opportunity to get to talk with her and our audience about the many challenges of writing YA and connecting with readers. And, like good flexible Canadians, we're both middle-grade authors as well. Haunting of Heck House is the second in her middle-grade Wiggins Weird series, and with its intrepid baby-sitting heroines and B-movie horrors, it's a fabulous break from the brand of YA she's known for.
Strange Times at Western High, by Emily Pohl-Weary:
Emily Pohl-Weary has done it all, and with considerable style and grace to boot. She's written biography, poetry, both YA and middle grade fiction, and has edited a collection of essays about fierce feminist women. She's basically a superhero. While her most recent book, the fresh and fast-paced Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, was aimed at an eager YA audience, her second novel, Strange Times at Western High, was a fabulous middle-grade mystery.
This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers:
I want to be as cool as Courtney Summers. Known for her, at times, unflinchingly unlikable characters, she tells stories about real people who happen to be teenagers acting the way real people who happen to be teenagers do. Except when she doesn't. In This Is Not a Test, Courtney turns her considerable skill to a YA story about the zombie apocalypse, and the result is incredible. Stay tuned for the sequel e-novella, Please Remain Calm, on January 20th, and her next stand-alone YA title, All the Rage, in April.
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki:
While Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki have each received considerable praise and accolades for their work independently—and we're all crossing our fingers that Mariko's YA novel, You Set Me On Fire, makes it to this year's Canada Reads—it's undeniable that the work they create together is pretty much magic, and This One Summer is nothing less than exactly that. But at the same time, it cleverly avoids any obvious labels of readership. The novel follows two middle-grade-aged friends spying on teenagers and adults doing very young adult, and, yes, adult, things. It's a great credit to the Tamakis' talent that a book so difficult to pin down and classify has been so lauded.
Summer Days, Starry Nights by Vikki VanSickle:
Vikki VanSickle knows kidlit—every inch of it, just about. I'm extremely lucky to count her as part of my own writers' group, and her particular in-depth knowledge, and love, of the art of middle grade makes her a pretty terrific friend to have. Summer Days, Starry Nights captures a more innocent side of summer than the Tamakis' graphic novel. Warmly unfolding the story of a season when everything changes for its central character, Reenie Starr, it has just a hint of Dirty Dancing thrown in. It's also nominated for this year's OLA Red Maple Award!
Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt:
Maybe the greatest genre and age group-jumper of all, Martine Leavitt has been nominated for nearly every major literary prize going, and consistently surprises her readers with radically different stories and styles each time she publishes a new book. Following up the success of her YA novel in verse, My Book of Life by Angel, about a young sex worker in Vancouver during the time of the Pickton murders, Martine's latest is a lush middle-grade nature novel in the tradition of Bambi, about Tuk, a bighorned sheep who must save his herd.
The PLAIN Janes by Cecil Castelucci:
While she may be secretly Canadian, Cecil Castelucci's publishing history gives away her Montrealer roots. She's an incredibly talented writer whose work jumps from YA to graphic novels, and from realism to fantasy. One of her best-loved books is the graphic novel PLAIN Janes, and its sequel, Janes in Love—published by DC Comics' now defunct imprint Minx. These classic middle-grade comics tell the story of a group of like-named friends making radical art in their neighborhoods. I'm not embarrassed to say that I found the book so inspiring I may have snuck a small reference to The PLAIN Janes into Something Wiki...
Come See About Me by C.K. Kelly Martin:
The last book on this list says something about how—elastic as we may be—there are still great books that remain unserved by these labels. C.K. Kelly Martin found success with her much-loved first YA novel, I Know It's Over, but only a few years later became known for being somewhat of a casualty of the growing pains of an industry struggling to figure out the difference between young-adult and what became known as "new-adult," and whether there was room and readership for the latter.
New-adult was supposed to be an emerging age category for books that followed characters whose experiences—and age—fell outside of the confines of young adult. While young-adult's audience could be described as 14 and up, new-adult's would more likely be described as 17 or 18 and up.
Whether this emergence ever really happened (or ever will) is still somewhat up for debate.
About Suzanne Sutherland's new novel, Something Wiki:
Jo Waller has three brainy friends, two mostly harmless parents, and one deep, dark secret: she edits Wikipedia for fun. But when her 24-year-old brother moves back home with his pregnant girlfriend, Jo is forced to reconcile the idealized version of her absent, cool older brother with the reality of romantic relationships and the truth behind so many embarrassing health class videos.
With the young couple moving back into the family home, there's barely enough room for anyone to move, let alone have any privacy. Throw in some major friendship turbulence, a seriously unrequited crush, and a mortifyingly bad haircut, and it's looking like Jo will be lucky to make it out of the year alive. When you're a pizza-faced dork who uses Wikipedia as a diary and would rather wear ancient hand-me-downs than shop at the mall, what's the upside? Jo is about to find it in the most unlikely way.
Suzanne Sutherland is a writer for children and teens. Her first novel, When We Were Good, received critical acclaim and was selected for the American Library Association's Rainbow List. Her second novel, Something Wiki, is out now.
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