Before the advent of modern publishing for the teen market, two novels, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Lord of the Flies (1954), drew the attention of adolescent readers. Unlike more recent fiction classified as Young Adult (abbreviated as YA), these were written primarily for an adult audience. The American author S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) made definitive shelf space for the coming-of-age novel. And in one of those moves that go down in history as a stroke of genius, a clever suit eventually branded the category that publishers are now flaunting as one of their hottest selling.
Through the golden age of YA fiction internationally (1970s to mid-1980s) and till today, these books have been largely imported or republished for the Indian market. One can credit Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series juggernaut for a new phenomenon: Indian publishers, having recognized the immense potential of the savvy adolescent readers’ market, are now commissioning original YA fiction.
Random House released its first India-centric YA novel this April, a delightful take on the superhero genre, Herogiri by Mainak Dhar. Hachette India has its first batch of three books forthcoming this year; HarperCollins has its first two in book stores (and four more in the next six months). Even Scholastic India and Roli, publishing houses that attempted YA earlier than the others, seem to have stepped up their focus, with two books forthcoming from each.
Storytellers: (from left) Samit Basu, Giti Chandra, Siddhartha Sarma and Tushar Raheja. Location courtesy The Book Shop, Delhi; Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Fantasy fiction writer Samit Basu, whose book Terror on the Titanic will be released by Scholastic India this month, says several publishers have been approaching him to write books they could market as YA. “Five years ago, when publishers approached me to write books for children or adolescents, they were clear that they wouldn’t pay me a decent advance, make a big deal about my book or try to sell it abroad,” says Basu. Now, publishers are hungry for writing in this category and the systems and processes are falling in place. “They all want to do it in a big way,” he adds.
Basu’s first YA book features a detective outfit called The Morningstar Agency and the central character is a young Anglo-Indian agent called Nathaniel Brown. In its pre-order stage, the book has already reached the top five status on Flipkart, an online book-selling platform. Through the next month, Basu will be travelling for readings in schools to promote his book. There is talk of sequels and possible video-game adaptations.
At the heart of this new wave are a motley crew of authors who’re trying their hand at this genre with all seriousness. Blogger Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan has been published before but Confessions of a Listmaniac (Scholastic India) will be her first YA book. In it, a 17-year-old protagonist called Layla drives the narrative ahead with her blog-styled diary. A PhD candidate at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, Tushar Raheja, who has published a campus novel before, is making his YA debut with Run Romi Run (Roli), which features a group of cricket-obsessed 14-year-olds. One of Hachette’s authors, Giti Chandra, is an associate professor of English at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College. Her debut novel is a children-YA crossover fantasy novel set in Iceland and Gurgaon, with six protagonists aged between 2 and 18, titled The Fang of Summoning.
The YA category has elastic boundaries. The US’ Young Adult Library Services Association defines it as the 14-21 age group but different publishers have their own age bands (some start at 12, some cap at 18). The age group shows a high variation in developmental and emotional levels. This is part of the reason why the category has been a blur in India, where reading levels are especially varied.
“Children’s and YA books in India have been traditionally dominated by low prices, low margins and low-quality competition in a largely non-discerning market, with a small clutch of writers of any quality,” says Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, editorial director, children’s and reference books, Hachette India. Banerjee adds to the list of problems that have plagued the category: The media attention given to children’s and YA books is insignificant and the books are rarely reviewed. “The category suffers from not having shelf space to itself in most book stores. The whole chain has been weak.”
While parents buy “children’s books”, YA books are bought by young adults themselves, making price points strategic. All of the HarperCollins books, for instance, are priced low at Rs199, including a non-fiction book called Body Talk by Anjali Wason, which is an innovative sex education manual in Q&A format for teenage girls.
Publishers hope the sheer numbers will help the category gather momentum. This makes one wonder if the branding is an artifice. Sayoni Basu, publishing director of Scholastic India, doesn’t think so. “This is an age group where the individual’s vocabulary and comprehension levels are practically adult, but their interests and perspectives are somewhat different. Therefore, it definitely demands a different kind of book.” Typically, the protagonist of a YA book is an adolescent or it’s a mixed cast with an adolescent, and the themes, subjects and storylines connect with the protagonists’ age, experience and environment. Beyond that, the lines are blurred and all adult genres may be explored.
Writing for this age group is tricky. The author needs to empathize with the adolescent psyche without being didactic. Chandra, a diehard fan of the Percy Jackson and Twilight series, believes it is far more difficult to write for teenagers. Her book was a learning experience for her, with her editor Banerjee frequently sending back paragraphs marked as “uninteresting for the young reader”. “I realized that you don’t need to dumb down for the adolescent reader but there are themes and characters that work and ones that don’t,” she says.
For Siddhartha Sarma, who made his debut with the critically acclaimed novel The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, December), YA isn’t synonymous with the coming-of-age diary. His book is set in Assam during World War II, pinned on the friendship between two boys. He travelled extensively to the region to research his book. “I tried to stay under 65,000 words to retain the interest of the young reader. I used a linear narrative and relatively simple language—but those are good measures to follow for any book,” says Sarma, who is now working on adult fiction but is committed to writing more YA books in the future.
Bloomsbury UK has recently bought the international rights for Sarma’s book, making one believe that there’s room for growth. Indeed, this might be the summer that the Indian Young Adult novel comes of age.