Can an author move from writing children’s stories to penning more complex literature, creating books that can keep adults happy?
Consider J.K. Rowling. Her series of seven Harry Potter novels are fabulous reads, devoured by children. The first appeared in 1997; the seventh and last in 2007 (they are filed in the Lennoxville Library in Audio Books and in C-258, and in French at C-200). They are so beloved that Rowling kept producing extras – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (C-160), Quidditch Through The Ages and The Tales Of Beedle The Bard (C-258). We owe her much. As a New York Times critic noted, “Rowling invented one of the most popular heroes of the late 20th century and, in the process, single-handedly rescued a generation that was in danger of turning away from literature. Even if she were never to write another word, her place in history and the gratitude owed to her by the publishing industry remain assured.”
And here’s the thing about the Harry Potter books: Adults love them, as well. Even though they were not written for grown-ups. So it’s possible to write a children’s book that can span the interest of the generations.
But as with many, there is a need to try new things. For Rowling, it was The Casual Vacancy (2012, filed in Adult Fiction in English and French, and in Audio Books, narrated by the Brit Tom Hollander). It was the book critics loved to hate. It is a novel filled with the signposts of an author who wants to be taken seriously as a writer for adults – the f-word, sexual scenarios, a hatred of middle-class mores, etc. The book begins with the description of the aneurism that kills a small-town politician. His disappearance creates a “casual vacancy” that must be filled with a by-election (the campaign is shorter than that of the current federal election, at least).
The book looks at the lives of the residents, both teens and adults. As in real life, some are charming, some are vicious, some are a confused mess. Reviewers have called Rowling’s tale a downer, and an adult book filled with some of the simple moralism of juvenile fiction. But Good Reads still found it to be an interesting book, if a slightly oddly written one.
Then came Robert Galbraith. Whether it was an accident or a planned leak to drum up attention, Galbraith was discovered to be Rowling’s nom de plume. The Cuckoo’s Calling was published in 2013. It was followed a year later by The Silkworm, a sequel of sorts, on the life of British private eye Cormoron Strike, a war vet who lost a chunk of his leg.
Silkworm is a send-up of writers and publishing culture, as Strike is hired to find a missing author. The eventual murder is particularly grisly, although the book is more traditionally British in feel (meaning it’s not an American-style break-neck-speed gore-fest).
There’s a lot of humanity in this book.
The gumshoe’s employers are spouses who’ve been cheated on, seeking photographic evidence of bad behavior. “They wanted a spy, a weapon… because overwhelmingly, they wanted more money. But Leonora had come to him because she wanted her husband to come home. It had been a simple wish born of weariness, and of love, if not for the errant [Owen] Quine, then for the daughter who missed him. For the purity of her desire, Strike felt he owed her the best he could give.”
It’s worth reading. You can find Galbraith in French and English Adult Fiction, and in Audio.
Bestselling author Stephenie Meyer wrote the sparkly vampire series Twilight, beginning in 2005 and ending a four-book run in 2008 (find them in Large Print and in Young Adult in French and English). In 2008, Meyer published an adult novel, The Host (filed in Adult Fiction). It’s set in a world where the invasion of the body snatchers has been successful: shiny millipedes are surgically introduced and curl up into our brains, taking over our lives and bodies.
Except every so often, something goes wrong. In The Host, the alien Wanderer discovers a strong-willed Melanie Stryder who refuses to die, and the two personalities end up co-existing. “No other host had made me feel such guilt for who I was. Of course, none of the others had stuck around to complain about the situation.”
The Wanderer eventually begins to lose herself, and falls for Stryder’s lover. He is a human male who, of course, despises the invaders.
This is a romance novel that Meyer’s fans will enjoy. It’s 600 pages.
And what about the other way ‘round? Can writers of adult fiction create something that will make younger readers happy? Youngsters are just as discerning, although they may be looking for different markers of quality.
John Grisham is an author who needs no introduction. (His bestselling legal thrillers can be found in Adult Fiction, Large Print and Audio.) You’ll be unsurprised to hear he has penned a series of Kid Lawyer books. The tales of Theodore Boone can be found in YA. But Grisham has also tried something a bit off the beaten trail (for him). Playing For Pizza is a 2007 YA novel about a third-string NFL quarterback who needs to accept that his professional career is over. No one wants him – not even the CFL.
When no one can see, Rick Dockery cries.
So Dockery, desperate for a paycheque and a bit more football, goes to Italy to play with a bunch of hobbyists. This is a quick read, and an at-times touching one, even if Dockery is not always terribly likeable. It’s hard to accept the end of a dream, and Grisham offers some guidance.
Here’s another adult author who’s published for Adults and Young Adults: Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Adult fantasy and mystery fans know his The Prince Of Mist and The Watcher In The Shadows (in Adult Fiction; there’s more in Large Print and in French Fiction). For completionists who love his work, or for those looking for an easy read, try The Midnight Palace in Young Adult (2011, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves). This horror/fantasy book was written when Ruiz Zafón was young, and it’s aimed at his older fan base. But it’s really a novel for high school students.
Popular crime writer Kathy Reichs (in Audio, Adult Fiction both English and French, and Large Print) has also made the leap. Start with Virals, her tale of a group of mutant youngsters, in Young Adult (English and French).
Many thanks to Lennoxville Library volunteer Donna Berwick, who pointed me to many of these authors.
Reading through some of the work of these authors shows how hard it is to move from one audience to another. Writers must re-educate themselves, in a way. Some do it fabulously well – James Patterson and Neil Gaiman, say. But it’s no easy thing.
Let’s return to Rowling’s first adult effort. NYT critic Amanda Foreman wrote, of The Casual Vacancy, “Rowling has always harbored a particular loathing for middle-class smugness and self-congratulation — the kind Dickens so effectively satirized in Oliver Twist. In Harry Potter, these twin evils are represented in the Muggle world by the Durselys’ obsession with respectability and in wizarding by the popularity of Lord Voldemort’s creed of pure-blood supremacy. In her move to adult fiction, Rowling has not been able to shed certain stylistic features that are acceptable or even expected from children’s authors. Juvenile literature often uses physical metaphors to highlight emotional states because in children the two tend to be so closely allied. The Casual Vacancy has various characters feeling guilt ‘clawing’ at their ‘insides,’ a ‘hollowness in the stomach,’ fear ‘fluttering’ inside the ‘belly,’ a ‘queasy’ stomach, a ‘lowering in the pit’ of the stomach, a ‘knot’ in the stomach. In adult fiction, it isn’t necessary to load so many actions — or objects — with adverbs and adjectives. Children thrive on heavily signposted plots, on moral exposition masked as dialogue. Adults don’t need or want such direction.”
That doesn’t mean you should ignore authors who try to switch it up. It just means you have to be more gentle in your expectations.
Here’s one more suggestion, in a slightly different vein. Jeffry Lindsay is about to publish the last in the Dexter series. Dexter is a gore-loving murderer who tries to lead a moral life, by only killing those he knows are themselves serial killers. You can find Dexter in Adult Fiction (and others in the series via interlibrary loan, and you can also order in some of the DVDs from the hit television series).
But check out the Young Adult novel I Am Not A Serial Killer, by Dan Wells (2010), which reads like Dexter as a teen. It’s a lot of fun, and recommended.
— Eleanor Brown, August 14, 2015