The topic of “new adult” has been talked about left and right. I even talked about it earlier this week.
As a take-away for the conversation starter than Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, and myself gave at ALA in June, we developed a fairly thorough resource list, with links to not only the articles, blog posts, and discussions surrounding the newly-emerging idea of “new adult” books, but it included a lengthy reading list of books that have been published as “new adult,” as well as books that weren’t published as “new adult” but which explored the themes we teased out as hallmarks to this category of books.
What is “new adult,” if it’s a thing at all? One of the definitions that keeps coming back around is that “new adult” explores the themes and challenges of being on your own for the first time — whatever that may mean. It could mean what happens when you go away to college. It could mean what happens when you move into your first apartment by yourself or when you’re moving back home with your parents after four years away at school. It could mean discovering how to navigate new relationships and new careers outside the safety net of high school or parental supervision. Roughly, these are books that explore the tricky things that happen in your life as a “new adult,” or when you’re somewhere between the ages of 18 and 26.
Of course, this is a slightly problematic definition in matching up what has been published as “new adult,” since nearly every book published in this category has been a contemporary (and steamy) romance. It doesn’t include those who marry young or those who don’t necessarily attend college but choose a trade to go into (or choose a gap year or choose not to do go into a traditional career path at all). Likewise, the differences in experiences of those actually attending college and those just out of college are so different it’s tough to wrap them all into a singular category and point to one media as an example of good “new adult.” In other words, saying that Girls is a prime example of the category points to “new adult” being something wholly different than pointing to a book about a girl’s first year in college being “new adult.”
I’m not sold on this being a category. I’m still solidly in the camp that rather than try to define a type of book that’s always been on the market as adult (or as YA, as the case may be for some of the books being lumped into the “new adult” category), we should look more closely at the importance of crossover appeal in books. The 18-26 age range is all about crossing over: you’re walking the bridge between adolescence to true independence and adulthood. Whatever that looks like depends upon the individual. There aren’t specific milestones to make because, unlike adolescence which is marked with somewhat shared milestones — think learning to drive, graduating high school, and so forth — adulthood is about defining your own milestones. Whether that’s choosing to rent an apartment for the first time, choosing to attend college, or choosing to pursue marriage/children/a career or all of the above in tandem.
To that effect, it seems to make more sense to pull from those books already being published within the traditional category definitions of Young Adult and Adult. These books exist and these books can fit into the reading interests and needs of those interested in the so-called “new adult” realm. I’ve mentioned before that by exploding the definition outward and reconsidering these books as crossovers rather than as “new adult,” then we’re opening the doors to the possibility that emerging adulthood is a much broader, richer experience than what we’re seeing played out right now as contemporary romance. The opportunity for change is here, but it seems like we offer more value and service to these books and their readers by building from what’s already here than trying to start fresh and limit ourselves to a singular idea of “new adult.”
As was mentioned during our panel in June and something I’ve been thinking about a LOT is that as it stands now, “new adult” is very white, very middle class, and very sexy. There is nothing inherently wrong with the books published as “new adult” being this way, but there is a problem if that’s the only experience being mirrored. Someone in the audience mentioned that perhaps if the definition of what a good “new adult” book is is what I’ve listed above — about the experiences of maturation and learning to make choices independently about one’s life and being able to do so without the constraints of adolescence — perhaps urban fiction offers a wealth of “new adult” books, as well, since they tread these themes and have been for quite a while.
Since the talk about “new adult” began, I’ve put considerable thought into the role that alternative formats may play in the discussion about the category and about the value they have in crossover appeal.
I’ve been a huge fan of graphic memoirs for quite a while now. I’ve read most of what’s been traditionally published in the last few years. I’ve talked before about my love for Julia Wertz’s graphic memoirs before. And in thinking about why it is I love these books, in conjunction with why I really like the show Girls, I’ve come to the idea that the reason why I like all of these things is because they hit upon the very ideas that books considered “new adult” hit upon. They’re about learning to separate from the comfort and security afforded to the narrator (generally the author, but not always) and come to understand one’s own place and roles as a new grown up. It’s not pretty, and in fact, much of the appeal for me in these books is that they are downright ugly because they’re true. Being an adult isn’t always about the pretty romance. Often, it’s about the baggage and the backstory and how those things inform the character and his or her choices. The character doesn’t always make the right choices, either. Sometimes those choices are downright dumb.
But it’s okay because they’re still new at this. They’re still learning when they can revert to the behaviors of their teenhood and when they need to put on grownup lenses to proceed. They’re walking the bridge and making choices.
They are crossing over.
I think any discussion of “new adult” without exploration of graphic novels — and graphic memoirs in particular — is one that overlooks an entire category of books with tremendous crossover appeal for the readers looking for these themes (and character ages) in story. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer up a reading list of some strong graphic memoirs that definitely fall into what we’re thinking about as “new adult.” These books have great crossover appeal to them: teen readers looking for stories about being a young adult will find something here, as will adults who are looking for books that either they relate to because they’re of the age the main character is or to adults who are looking for books that explore those tough times of emerging adulthood.
This is a format and genre I turn to when I’m looking for something “different,” and I find that I’m rarely disappointed. I love the way the art interacts with the narrative, and I love the narratives themselves which are compelling and often quite relatable (I’m not too far removed from the age range that many consider “new adult”). I love that sometimes these stories take place at the end of high school and sometimes they take place when the main character is in his or her mid-20s. Sometimes the story is told entirely through reflection and isn’t from a current perspective at all — in other words, it’s looking back at this time and age, rather than living through it.
My list isn’t exhaustive, and I’d love to know of additional graphic memoirs that might fit the bill. I’m especially interested in the male or diverse experience — I was going to include Persepolis in this list, as well, and perhaps I could since it fits a nice crossover niche as well. Are there historical graphic memoirs worth looking at, too?
All descriptions are from WorldCat.
Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges: When Nicole Georges was two years old, her family told her that her father was dead. When she was twenty-three, a psychic told her he was alive. Her sister, saddled with guilt, admits that the psychic is right and that the whole family has conspired to keep him a secret. Sent into a tailspin about her identity, Nicole turns to radio talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger for advice– Calling Dr. Laura tells the story of what happens to you when you are raised in a family of secrets, and what happens to your brain (and heart) when you learn the truth from an unlikely source.
Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume Ages 0 to 22 by MariNaomi: Recounts the author’s romantic experiences, from first love to heartbreak.
Life with Mr. Dangerous by Paul Hornschemeier (not technically a graphic memoir but it’s so close to the storytelling in the otherwise listed memoirs that I’m including it): Somewhere in the Midwest, Amy Breis is going nowhere. Amy has a job she hates, a creep boyfriend she’s just dumped, and a best friend she can’t reach on the phone. But at least her (often painfully passive-aggressive) mother bought her a pink unicorn sweatshirt for her birthday. Pink. Unicorn. For her twenty-sixth birthday. Gliding through the daydreams and realities of a young woman searching for definition.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney: Shortly before her thirtieth birthday, Ellen Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Flagrantly manic but terrified that medications would cause her to lose her creativity and livelihood, she began a years-long struggle to find mental stability without losing herself or her passion. Searching to make sense of the popular concept of the “crazy artist,” Ellen found inspiration from the lives and work of other artist and writers who suffered from mood disorders, including Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Styron, and Sylvia Plath.
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel: Graphic memoir about Bechdel’s troubled relationship with her distant, unhappy mother and her experiences with psychoanalysis, with particular reference to the work of Donald Winnicott.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: This book takes its place alongside the unnerving, memorable, darkly funny family memoirs of Augusten Burroughs and Mary Karr. It’s a father-daughter tale perfectly suited to the graphic memoir form. Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian house, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned ‘fun home, ‘ as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift, graphic, and redemptive.
Little Fish by Ramsey Beyer (September 3, with a little more emphasis on prose than art): Told through real-life journals, collages, lists, and drawings, this coming-of-age story illustrates the transformation of an 18-year-old girl from a small-town teenager into an independent city-dwelling college student. Written in an autobiographical style with beautiful artwork, Little Fish shows the challenges of being a young person facing the world on her own for the very first time and the unease—as well as excitement—that comes along with that challenge. Description via Goodreads.
My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf: You only think you know this story. In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer, the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper, seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, ‘Jeff’ was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides. In [this story], a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche– a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.
French Milk by Lucy Knisley: A lighthearted travelogue–rendered in the form of a graphic novel–about a mother and daughter’s life-changing six-week trip to Paris is comprised of the graphic artist daughter’s illustrations of the sights and scenes they visited while each was facing a milestone birthday.
Relish by Lucy Knisley: Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe– many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.
*Between the two, I think that French Milk falls more into the “new adult” category, as it explores more of the college experience than does Relish. Both both are excellent.
The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz: These are comics filled with the sometimes messy, heartbreaking and hilarious moments that make up a life. (What’s particularly good about this one is that it explores what happens when the career you thought was in your back pocket ends up not being so — and all when you’re young).