Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Shift" by Jennifer Bradbury: Breaking a Cardinal YA Rule

This terrific 2008 debut novel by Jennifer Bradbury, a mystery involving a cross-country bike trip taken by two best friends the summer after high school graduation, has two things going for it that I'd personally like to see more of in YA:

1. Boy narrator

Yes, the elusive college setting! For half the book! Granted, it's only a few weeks into freshman year, but still -- I love it when rules are broken. When I first considered trying my hand at YA a few years ago, I attended a YA panel and asked the authors if early college experiences were okay to write about. The answer was a resounding "No." Apparently, and this was a surprise to me at the time, YA rarely ventures into college territory.

The theory is that teens like to read "up" about kids who are older than them. Junior high kids like reading about high schoolers, and young high schoolers like reading about older high schoolers, but older high schoolers don't particularly want to read about college kids, because by the time they're 17 to 18, they're reading "adult" and classic books instead. As a result, college-set books for teens have a hard time getting published. Thanks to Amy and her lending library, I can think of two recent exceptions to this rule: Naomi & Ely's No-Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn; and An Off Year by Claire Zulkey.

But now I can add Shift to the list. Told in alternating chapters (first semester in college, with flashbacks to the summer after high school, when the amazing bike trip from West Virginia to California took place),  Chris tries to figure out how and why his best friend, Win, disappeared. Win ditched Chris toward the end of their ride, and now the FBI wants to know what happened.

Last year, I read A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner, another YA novel that centers on a teen's epic bike journey to California. While the structure is similar to that of Shift (alternating chapter flashbacks), the stories and lessons are quite different. In fact, I'm hooked on bicycle-trip stories now. I want this to be its own genre.


  1. Fabulous post!
    Another great travel novel with some great emotional heft:
    AMY AND ROGER'S EPIC DETOUR by Morgan Matson

  2. One of my favorite YA novels is TWO-WAY STREET by Lauren Barnholdt, and it's about two teenagers who take a roadtrip to college. And they are exes!

    I really enjoyed that a bit of it was set at college. I also would love to read more YA set at college.

    What are your thoughts on this whole "New Adult" campaign from St. Martin's Press? I haven't heard much about it in a while, but I thought it was going to feature books with kids in college.

    Great post!

  3. Interesting. I hadn't thought about this before but you're right. I'm sure when I was in high school, even though I was reading a lot of adult literature (and most of my reading was required high school reading because that took up a lot of my reading time), I would have enjoyed reading about characters in college. I was the first of my sisters to go to college and I went there with only one little visit under my belt... I had no idea what it would be like. I would definitely have read more if it had been available.

  4. Thanks so much for commenting, Sara, Miranda, and Ms. Dangerous :)

    Awesome books recommendations, and I agree that I would've enjoyed reading about college when I was in high school. Plus, the transition to college -- the moment when one realizes that the old identity can be swapped for something new -- is a huge part of growing up, I think.

    As for St. Martin's "New Adult" category, I was thinking it was going to feature early 20s protags -- like maybe immediately post-college? I could be wrong, though -- poor college settings get no love ;)

  5. Oh, I so need to read this book! Jennifer was my critique group leader for my SCBWI Great Critique. You're right about the lack of college-aged books. Interesting hole. You'd think high school aged kids would be interested in reading about college life, but maybe it's too scary and college kids are too busy to read. I know I was.

    Interesting post.

  6. Thanks, Jennifer. So cool that Ms. Bradbury was your critique group leader! And you're right -- I didn't read a huge amount in college either, unless it was an assignment, and I didn't have much interest in reading about college while I was experiencing it. Though I wonder if that would've changed if there had been a selection of books like that available to me.