‘Crossover’ novels are a big thing in publishing these days, since the success of children’s and young adult writers such as Stephenie Meyer, JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, who have found readers on both sides of the age divide. But it’s also a controversial thing, at least for some critics.
Here, crossover doesn’t mean adult novels crossing over to young people’s reading: that’s taken as a desirable given, whether those are of classic or modern authors, literary or popular writers. No, what is meant here is the traffic going the other way: children’s and young adult novels being read by adults. And in a subset of that, novels which appear to be directly aimed at readers in that ‘crossover’ time of life, here often taken to mean from about 18-25, or even up to 30.
I’d like to look at both things separately, because I think they’re separate things. First of all, it seems to me that despite the huffing and puffing of killjoy critics like Harold Bloom and Frank Furedi, fulminating over, say, adult readers’ embrace of Harry Potter, the love of adults, young or otherwise, for certain evergreen young people’s stories has always been with us.
Most of the ‘crossover’’ children’s titles are fantasy and adventure, as these are the classic crossover genres, with traffic going both ways. In classic ‘golden age’ literature, there’s The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Books, Treasure Island and Kidnapped (in fact anything by RL Stevenson), Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, The Princess and the Goblin, the Tintin books, Lord of the Rings – and lots, lots more. All these books have not only nourished children’s and teenagers’ imaginations, but plenty of adults too. Written with a beautiful simplicity and clarity, they also have a core of great profundity, with multiple layers of meaning. Nobody seems to think it odd that plenty of adults love these classic books and still get a lot out of them and even write learned books and articles on them; so why the panic now?
But why do adult readers want to read these books? It’s pretty simple, to me–their authors tell a damn good story, often in surprising ways. They haven’t forgotten the central importance of story, even though their prose style can also be elegant. They haven’t forgotten you need to care about the characters, and that you need some sort of point to the whole thing. And that above all you need pleasure in the reading experience too–pleasure which includes not only losing yourself in a work, but being stimulated and sometimes challenged as well. They are not subscribers to what I call the Bran Theory of Literature which is altogether too present in all too much ‘adult’ literature – that what is ‘good’ for you must of necessity be arid and a trial to get down!
But, say the critics, doesn’t this mean that adults are becoming ‘infantilised’? Doesn’t this mean the end of civilisation as we know it?
CS Lewis once said, paraphrasing St Paul, ‘when I was a man I put away childish things, including the fear of not being thought grown-up’. That about encapsulates my answer to the first objection. As to the end of civilisation stuff, well, it seems to me that in fact the opposite is happening: that the great surging sparkling stream of children’s and young adult literature pushing up into adult reading means renewal and refreshment, or as Tolkien put it in his great essay ‘On fairy tales’, recovery, escape and consolation.
But what of the other aspect, the notion that the publishing category of ‘‘young adult’ is being deliberately moved up to include a supposed new generational band, ‘twixters’ or ‘‘emerging adults’’ as some people are calling it – people from 18 to 30? Or to create a completely new category for people in that age range? Is it a problem? It’s certainly true to say that there have been attempts by publishers to do just that, market certain books and writers as being specifically appropriate for people in that age band.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to market books specifically to out-of-school young men and women. Quite the reverse! But I’m not sure if it actually works. And it can become a real problem if a writer falls between two stools – not becoming crossover, but rather disappearing into a never-never land of failed marketing.