Artemis Fowl II is a very bad boy. The 12-year-old is a crime prodigy who takes the skills he learned from his Irish mobster father and thwarts his opponents — who are fairies, by the way — through a quick wit and state-of-the-art tech. Fowl would fit in far better at a meeting of Miami's Russian mafia than at the Miami Book Fair. Or so you'd think. But as the title character in one of the biggest children's book series since Harry Potter, Fowl is part of a new plot: to finally give the young-adult genre the respect it deserves.
Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl series, will help kick off the Miami Book Fair this Sunday. He'll share rare air with headliners such as journalist Jorge Ramos and Daily Show host Trevor Noah. Within the fair's vast children's and teen programming, Colfer is just one small piece; nearly 30 young-adult, or YA, authors will present this year. But it's rare for a YA writer to earn a place among authors for adults. Nicole Swift, the Miami Book Fair programming director in charge of its youth events, says there are many reasons Colfer snagged a top spot: He's an industry veteran with a wildly popular book series that's been called the next Harry Potter, and he's traveling from his home in the UK to make a rare appearance in the States. But it's also part of a fair-wide effort to bring readers of all ages together.
"It's been my mission... to integrate the children's and YA component of the fair much more into the general authors program," Swift says.
That mission follows reading trends around the world. The increasing influence of teen fiction on contemporary literature and wider pop culture is nothing new. From Harry Potter to Twilight to the The Hunger Games, stories for and about teens have topped best-seller lists and inspired film adaptations for more than a decade. But institutions such as book fairs have had a difficult time programming young-adult authors, in part because of stubborn, sometimes sexist attitudes that downplay the quality and influence of the genre. Now, as more grownups than ever are reading young-adult work (and, perhaps more important, willing to admit it), the Miami Book Fair is working to change attitudes by bringing the genre into the spotlight, with the most ambitious program of children's and teen programming in its 33-year history.
"In my first year [working at Miami Book Fair], we started off with maybe 20 kids' authors total," recalls Swift, who joined the fair in 2010. "This year, I have more than 70. I also run the comics program, so between comics and kids, I have over 100 authors this year."
Fans of young-adult lit point to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series as a turning point in the genre's history. "Harry Potter broke the New York Times best-sellers list and forced them to start counting children's books. Until then, children's books were not listed on the New York Times list," recalls Melissa de la Cruz, who's authored more than 30 books, including Something in Between and Double Eclipse, which she'll promote at the fair.
The first novel in Rowling's series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, sold 107 million copies, ranking it among the best-selling books of all time. "I feel like we all owe a huge debt to J.K. Rowling. I don't think we'd be here if her books weren't as popular," de la Cruz says.
In the nearly two decades since Rowling's first Harry Potter book, readership of youth books among adults has skyrocketed. In 2012, a study by Bowker Market Research estimated that 55 percent of these books are sold to grown adults; last year, Nielsen put the number at 80 percent. Some of them are gifts for younger readers, but most are for adults in their 30s or older, inspiring campaigns such as Scholastic's "I Read YA" for grown-up fans and a #whyadultsreadYA hashtag that spawned thousands of tweets in 2013. That's a lot of readers, considering that children's and young-adult books outsold traditional adult novels as recently as 2014, according to the Association of American Publishers. The Twilight series sold 120 million; The Hunger Games trilogy racked up 65 million in sales. Compare those numbers to series for adults, such as George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which sold just 60 million despite having more installments than the Twilight and Hunger Games series.
Still, attitudes about grownups reading "kid stuff" have been more difficult to change.
"Even today, you still get [people saying] that YA and middle-grade books are somehow inferior writing, compared to adult fiction," says Alexandra Bracken, best-selling author of the teen fantasy series The Darkest Minds, who'll attend the Miami Book Fair for the first time this year. "I get asked all the time when I'm going to write a book for adults. That's sort of like asking a pediatrician when they're going to become a real doctor. It's a completely different focus and different frame of mind when you're writing."
Part of that stigma is rooted in sexism. The young-adult genre is an overwhelmingly female space, both in its characters and in the authors who write them. And as in every other pursuit in which women take the lead, YA often gets written off by men as "girl stuff."
"A lot of the books are based on fairy tales, and... the term 'fairy tale' is gendered. It's cemented in our subconscious that for some reason, fairy tales are a girl thing," Swift says. "But these readings are not girly writing. Sometimes it's fantasy, but sometimes they're made into thrillers." She points to Victoria Aveyard, whose books such as Red Queen add a dark, dangerous twist to the classic tales. "[She] takes the whole idea of a queen and makes it really scary. She also makes it adventurous and thrilling; it transcends the whole gender aspect. But there's a reluctance in readers," Swift says, to offer these tales to boys.
Both Swift and Miami Book Fair founder Mitchell Kaplan say the stigma hasn't affected their programming. "We've always tried to present the best writers available," Kaplan explains simply. But Swift has noticed a change in the audiences at teen-lit panels.
"These last two years, especially last year, at the YA room we were turning people away," she recalls. "Every single time I passed by, there was a line outside of people waiting for the next session. And every time I went in, it was a completely packed house, sometimes with people standing in the back."
Swift's new mission, for this year and beyond, is to provide even more opportunities for readers to discover YA — and any of the other myriad genres represented at the Miami Book Fair.
"The book fair isn't just for adults, and Children's Alley isn't just for kids," she says. "The fact that we're increasing our kids' program means that more families are coming. Maybe those families are attending other adult sessions or going to the Porch or going to the Kitchen and seeing the chef authors. Maybe all of this happened because they wanted to bring their kids out for a nice family day.
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"Our goal is providing a community gathering space, and community is basically an extended family," she continues. "So if we can make families comfortable here, we can build the book-fair community."
Miami Book Fair
Sunday, November 13, through Sunday, November 20, at various locations within Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami. Eoin Colfer will speak Sunday, November 13, at 5 p.m. at the auditorium at 300 NE Second Ave., Miami; admission is free. Melissa de la Cruz will speak alongside author Matt Phelan at "Good vs. Evil/Evil vs. Good" Sunday, November 20, at 2 p.m. at Children's Alley; admission is free. Alexandra Bracken will speak alongside authors Leigh Bardugo and Romina Russell at "Dark Forces Breed Complex Villains" Sunday, November 20, at noon at MDC Live Arts Lab; admission is free. Call 305-237-3258 or visit miamibookfair.com.