At the beginning of September I learnt about a special event happening in Cognac. When I read the programme, I immediately cancelled all my appointments. No, Mika wasn’t coming to visit. Nor the Queen. And it wasn’t another street theatre festival.
The event was called ‘Lire l’Europe with the Chippendales’.
OK, I admit it was just ‘Lire l’Europe’, or ‘Read Europe’ in English – a literary conference without a Chippendale in sight, organised by the Littératures Européennes team. What excited me was that the afternoon session, entitled ‘From Classics to Booktubing’ would be devoted to discussing Young Adult (YA) fiction.
In case you didn’t know, I have written a YA novel: Tree Magic will be published by Impress Books’ Watchword imprint in January 2017. When I wrote the original story and sent it off to a competition, the judge placed it as a runner-up and suggested I rewrite it for the YA market. Which I did.
Between then and now, I’ve read quite a lot about YA fiction in the English-speaking world. So I was fascinated to find out if the French approach is different. Off I went to Cognac’s auditorium, my notebook under my arm, to meet the European Literature festival organisers and learn about lectures ado.
The morning was spent with Gérard Meudal, a French literary journalist who often comes to Cognac to host author events. He also happens to be Salman Rushdie’s French translator. He has a very accessible way of talking about books, and took the audience through a description of all the novels featuring at the European Literature festival (17th-20th November in Cognac – see my blog post). I now have a very long list of books I want to read.
On stage in the afternoon were an author, a publisher and a bookseller. The author was Anne Percin, who writes both YA and adult novels, notably the bestselling series Comment (bien) rater ses Vacances / son Love Story / etc. She also teaches in a secondary school. The publisher, Sylvie Gracia, publishes the DoAdo imprint at Rouergue and also writes for adults. And the bookseller was the dynamic Pauline Fouillet from Ruffec’s ‘Livres et Vous‘. Finally, to keep the ladies in order, Gérard Meudal took the chair.
“What is booktubing?” was the first question addressed. Pauline explained that it’s where you use YouTube to tell your viewers about your favourite books. It’s popular with teenagers. The panel agreed that this obviously worked better as a teen marketing tool than a review in Le Monde.
“What makes a book YA rather than adult?” Anne replied that the way of writing isn’t different at all: she applies the same intensity and the same attention to quality. The protagonist’s age often makes the difference. If he/she’s a teenager, the story is more suited to younger readers. It’s not always clear to her, however, as the theme also plays a role. Anne delves deeper into a theme with adults than with teenagers. With YA fiction, she just scratches the surface.
Sylvie said that she has tried writing for teenagers, without success. She told us an anecdote about a discussion with children’s author Hélène Vignal, in which they came up with the concept of a mental age: some people keep the maturity and imagination of a child or teenager all their lives, which means they lean naturally towards children’s or YA books. This obviously made the audience chuckle.
Anne pointed out that what’s great with teenage characters is that they are going through a pivotal moment in their lives, through an existential crisis. This is attractive for an author wanting to explore character.
“Do teenagers read books?” According to Pauline, 70% of teenagers read. In her experience, children start to read less in 6ème (Year 7: 11-year olds) and this only starts to pick up again in 3ème (Year 10: 14-year olds). At around 20 years old, the people who read when they were children come back to reading. This is unlikely to happen for those who didn’t read when they were young, or whose parents didn’t read to them. The panel agreed that out-loud readings are very powerful. They give the audience a taste for reading and help sell books.
“At what age do teenagers pass from YA to adult fiction?” At Rouergue, many books are on the border between adult and teen. Sylvie finds that at 15 years old, teenagers will be reading both types of book. Pauline added that what is more important than age is the type of reader: either teenagers are big readers, in which case they will move towards adult books, or they’re occasional readers, and will prefer YA. For Anne, there’s a ‘doudou’ (cuddly toy) effect with YA books. She cited the example of some young men at a reading who bought her latest adult book because they had fond memories of her YA novels.
“How do teenagers choose books?” Pauline told us that when parents come to her bookshop to buy a book for their kids, she advises them to come back with the kids in question. When a parent chooses a book, there is already a barrier to reading it. Pauline added that at external events she always takes a selection of YA books if it’s an adult event, and adult books for YA events. This is because adults are moved by teenage themes. Anne suggested this is also because there is more liberty in the YA themes available during a literary season – adult books tend to have similar themes for each season.
Word of mouth works best with teenagers (including booktubing). Films and TV have a ‘carrot’ effect: teenagers turn to the books afterwards, seeking the extra details that aren’t in the films. Classic advertising by adults has little effect on them. For Anne’s bestselling series, she created a Facebook page for her protagonist – which would be unthinkable for adults, but which worked well for teens. Teenagers are interested in the characters, not the writer.
“What criteria do teenagers apply when looking for a book?” Aha: this was interesting. Pauline said that they often ask for something that’s not too long. Girls like true stories at the moment – vampires and werewolves are old hat. True stories enable them to learn about subjects they feel uncomfortable discussing with their entourage. However, boys buy more books. Sylvie added that thick books and series do have their place, as teenagers also like to plunge into the familiarity of a story world.
“Are ebook sales higher for teenagers than adults?” Sylvie replied that this medium doesn’t work well with French teenagers, because you need a credit card to buy on the Internet and teenagers don’t have one. What’s more, it’s difficult to tell if an ebook is short or long, and therefore booksellers find it hard to recommend according to the type of reader.
I didn’t regret cancelling my appointments to listen to these wise words (even if there were no Chippendales). I now know I have a teenager’s mental age. That explains a lot. The next question is how many shopping trips will it cost me to persuade my kids to booktube about Tree Magic and set up a Facebook page for Rainbow?