Thursday, May 21, 2009

College Daze

My little cousin Kristin will be graduating soon from high school. (Yay!) Come late August, she'll be heading off to the hallowed halls of Wellesley, one of the so-called "Seven Sisters," and famous as the old stomping grounds of Hillary Clinton (then Hillary Rodham).

College is such an exciting time in a student's life. It's a time of firsts, of changes, a time to find yourself. Sounds just like a YA novel, right?

Yet many YA publishing houses don't seem to want to publish books set in college. The general rule you hear flying around the literary agent blogs is that 20-something college students is a very difficult sell for YA. You would think it would be perfect, because teens read up, so of course older teens would want to read about college students, but for whatever reason, it's just a very hard sell.

Take my own manuscript, PARTY LIKE IT'S 1899. When I originally wrote it, I had the heroine as a 19-year-old college sophomore, and the hero was 20. This was the version that finaled in the Golden Heart last year.

When we subbed it to editors, however, the general consensus seemed to be that it should be in high school. In fact, one editor even requested two rounds of massive revisions, including requiring that I turn my 19-year-old college sophomores into 17-year-old high school juniors.

This isn't a completely unheard of phenomenon, either.

Jessica Burkhart originally wrote her series with her students as 21-year-old college students. When her agent signed her, she said that Jessica would have to rewrite it with the characters 16-years old and in high school, "so we can sell it to Simon Pulse." So she did. When her agent submitted it to Simon Pulse, the editors there liked it, but didn't think it was right for that line, so they passed it on to their colleagues at Aladdin (Simon & Schuster's tween line). The Aladdin editors made on offer, on the understanding that she would have to rewrite it yet again, to change her characters to 12-year olds in middle school.

This book later became the first in the popular and prolific "Canterwood Crest" series of books about girls who love horseback riding. Looking at the end result, it's difficult to imagine that it was ever originally in a college setting, but that's because Jessica underwent major revisions. Changing your characters from 21 to 16, then from 16 to 12? Yikes! And I thought 19 to 17 was a big change!

So let's look at books actually set in college, shall we?

Probably my favorite college-setting series is Diana Peterfreund's "Secret Society Girl" books. (In fact, the last in the series was just released this past Tuesday!) Many people mistake this series as YA. It's not. It was sold to Delta Trade, which (until Bantam Dell imploded) was an adult Random House imprint. It's published under an adult imprint and shelved in the general fiction section of the bookstore. It's marketed to both adults and teens as a crossover book, but not shelved in YA because it's not technically a YA book. Many people think it's YA because the NY Public Library called it one of the best "Books for the Teen Age" but there were also several other adult books on that list, too.

One of the best suspense novels I've read all year was Kayla Perrin's WE'LL NEVER TELL (St. Martin's), which is about a hazing gone wrong, murder, and coverup at the University of Buffalo, and the pledge that three sorority sisters make never to reveal the truth of what happened that night. I believe the characters are juniors and seniors, and this was definitely published under an adult imprint.

Speaking of thrillers set in college, there's always the classic KISS THE GIRLS (Grand Central Publishing) by James Patterson (which was much, much better than the movie, but I digress). It tells the tale of two psychopath killers stalking female students on the Duke and UNC campuses. It's definitely a good thing I didn't have time to read for fun in college, so I read this one during the summer in between my sophomore and junior years. Why? Well, I happened to have lived right next to where one of the killers used to prey, according to Patterson. Needless to say, I probably never would have been able to walk alone -- or at all -- at night if I'd read it during the school year. Oh yeah, again, this is an adult book.

But there's got to be some books set in college that actually are YA books, right? Yes, of course there are. But I've got a theory about this.

Kate Harmon's "Sorority 101" series (Puffin) is pretty much exactly what it sounds like -- a series about what it's like to go through sorority rush. But the characters are actually still in high school at the very start of the first book, albeit like one day away from graduation. It then quickly shifts to two months later, at college move-in and orientation. So yes, it's set in college, but in many ways, it's still a YA book because the characters are teenagers (most are 18 and a couple are 19) and it's very much a "finding your place" type of's college orientation with lots of changes.

Another example is Rosemary Clement-Moore's HELL WEEK (Delacorte), which also takes place during sorority rush. This is the second book in her Maggie Quinn series (following PROM DATES FROM HELL), and by the second book, Maggie is in college. But the first book took place in high school, so I can see why she's able to get away with a college setting in a YA. (Her third one, HIGHWAY TO HELL, was released in March, and is a Spring Break setting, but again, she already had a high school setting, so it's merely the proper progression.)

Same with "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" (Delacorte). The first 2 books, the girls were squarely still in high school. The third book took place during the summer after graduation. The fourth book (FOREVER IN BLUE) took place during the summer after their freshman year of college. But since she began the series when they were just sixteen, it's still a YA series, even if they're no longer in high school.

Anyway, this is just my theory. Feel free to tell me I'm full of you-know-what.

What are some of your fave books set in college? Are they YA or adult books?


  1. I think it also has a lot to do with where the market's at when you sell the books. When I sold SSG, in 2005, the YA market wasn't printing a lot of college aged books. They'd probably look at it more closely if submitted now. I'm also pleased to see a lot of younger-adult books being repackaged int eh strong YA market (Maria Snyder, etc.) and wonder if that's what will end up happening to my adult series. The more readers, the better!

  2. Diana makes a good point--it can definitely depend on the market too.

    Those are great examples, and I like your theory!!

  3. I think a lot of trends just haven't happened yet because it takes a few breakouts to knock down the walls. For instance, vampires were not a hot seller in romance until a few got past the gatekeepers. Now bloodsuckers run amok.

    I think we will see more college fiction coming up. The first generation Harry Potter readers will probably eat it up. I mean, once they got past the Harry Potter stage the YA scene exploded.

  4. Some of my fave college-age books (not counting the ones you already mentioned, Amanda!) are:

    TAM LIN by Pamela Dean (adult fantasy)

    PAPER CHAINS by Jane Langton (which I'm pretty sure was released as YA -- a long time ago, though)

    And oh, hmm...I'm sure I'm forgetting some. Wish there were more, though!

  5. great topic! I also notice on the TV shows they have the H.S. kids acting alot older. Gossip girl, 90210 etc.

  6. Besides Kate's and Diana's I can't think of any!