Who are “young adults,” and how do you write for them? French graphic novelist Mathieu Reynès, creator of Harmony, the artist of Alter Ego, and writer of Water Memory, and Matthew J. Kirby, the American writer of middle-grade and young adult novels, including Assassin’s Creed: Lost Descendants (published by Scholastic) discussed their takes on these questions at Comic-Con International at San Diego in a panel entitled “How Old Is Young Adult in Europe and the USA?”
The discussion began with the title question. Reynès thought the age range was between 10 and 16. “When I go to conventions in France, the younger readers are about 10 years old,” he said, adding that fans of Water Memory were mostly girls, perhaps because the main character is a girl. “This public is very eager,” he said. “They love the character. They want to know the character like it’s a real person.”
“There’s a big difference between a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old,” Kirby said. “They can read widely divergent material and be ready for things at a different pace.” For him, the key is that the stories are about questions of identity, rather than independence (which is the focus of his novels for younger readers). The search for identity is central to the period of adolescence, which starts around age 10 but continues even into adulthood. Perhaps this is why so many adults enjoy reading YA novels.
Graphic novels created specifically for teens are a recent development in France, Reynès said. With no European publishers catering to them, teens were reading manga and American comics—and the publishers finally took notice. But when Kirby asked him if he had written Water Memory specifically for this new market, Reynès said “No. It was the story I wanted to tell. Maybe I am still a young adult in my head. I tell what I want to tell to readers, and it seems like the people I have touched the most are young adults.”
Kirby said it was the same for him: “I have the story I want to write, and I know how it needs to be told honestly, and so I write that story and then—to be somewhat flippant—my publisher decides what it is,” he said.
In terms of age-appropriateness, Reynès said that young adult books couldn’t have bad language or too much blood. Kirby concurred, noting that his Assassin’s Creed novel mirrored the game setting that allows the player to dial down the gore.
Fantasy has long been a major genre for young adult fiction, and Reynès said he likes to bring it into everyday life: “What I like to do is to write a realistic story with only one fantastic element,” he said. “In Harmony, for example, everything is very real, but the girl has telekinetic powers. In Water Memory, it takes place in a little town in Brittany, in France, so the people are leading normal lives, but there are creatures in the water—we don’t know if they really exist or if it’s myth. I like when it’s real life and there is just one fantastic element that disturbs everything.”
If the work is solid, the young adult audience doesn’t discriminate among genres, Kirby said. “For the most part, they just want a really good story,” he said. “If you deliver that, I think they are open to reading a lot of stuff.”
Written by Brigid Alverson
Cover image from Harmony © Mathieu Reynès