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How to Navigate the World of Literature for Grownups

Sarah Hannah Gómez

Staff Writer

Formerly a school librarian, Sarah Hannah Gómez is a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona, studying children's and young adult literature with a minor in social, cultural, and critical theory. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Clubhouse @shgmclicious

Recently I had to accept the news that I am in fact not the center of the universe, nor am I a youth. People my parents’ age like to tell me I’m still young, but the undergrads I teach assure me that I am not their peer. The time has come, the walrus said, to make a point of reading more books about people my actual age. Also, in the last half decade or so, thanks to bookish friends and Book Riot, I learned that #NotAllGrownUpBooks are eye-rollingly navel-gazing, white, male, and tedious.

Basically, I understood this tweet to be 100% true (and honestly still feel that way when it comes to what you see covered in legacy newspapers and the like):

Look, you can pry kid lit and YA out of my cold, dead hands. I don’t feel any sense of shame or immaturity in being a fan of it, and neither should you! But in the spirit of reading diversely, growing as a person, and finding more mirror books, I’ve tried to make a point of reading more Grown Up Books recently. This is also a requisite endeavor because in addition to being a professional YA podcaster and college “professor” (technically adjunct and teaching associate, but nobody outside of the tower actually cares about academia and its honorific politics) of children’s and teen books, I cohost our Read Harder podcast and work as a bibliologist for Tailored Book Recommendations, so knowing what’s up in the world of grownup literature is kind of important.

But where do I start?? Years of experience in the youth literature world have made me very knowledgeable and connected to major gatekeepers and creators, so I know what’s coming out, who writes what, what I’m likely to enjoy, the imprints and editors whose taste I trust, what exactly I can glean from a book’s cover or flap copy about its quality, style, or voice. I have NONE of that in the adult publishing world. I am (gasp!) a Regular Person here!

Note: there’s nothing wrong with being a normal person who is not constantly on Book Twitter and doesn’t have publicist emails on autocomplete in her gmail. But it is a problem for me because a) we all have different things that bother us, and this particular deficiency makes me feel like a basic bitch if I only know the five books being talked about in celebrity book clubs, and b) people are tuning in or literally paying me money to find them good books, and I can’t do that without a solid grounding in areas other than the one where my career was happens to have started.

Kidlit and YA people are a bunch of lovable, quirky weirdos, but I know a lot of us are stuck in that rut — it’s a beautiful one, but sometimes in all our efforts to celebrate good books and read diversely, we forget that there is this huge swath of the industry that we’re largely ignoring.

Case in point: I was hanging with a friend getting ready for an antiracism workshop for kid lit professionals. She was telling me who was on the attendance list, and at one point was like, “and then there’s Jenny — she’s the only adult coming,” and then stopped when she heard herself, and we both burst out laughing because we both knew exactly what she meant. Jenny (not her real name) was the only person coming who worked for an imprint that wasn’t for young readers!

Okay, but how do you find books for adults?

Here is how I’ve put myself on the road toward being the kind of person I am with kid lit and YA, but with grownup books. It’s still a growing process, but I’m proud to say that I’ve made huge strides already, and even more important, I’m enjoying it! There is good stuff out there! It’s not a chore! If you find yourself in a similar position, here are some ways to knock down that initial wall and start yourself on this new journey.

1. Literally just ask your friends what they’re reading and what they’re liking

But wait! Don’t ask just anyone. When I say “your friends,” in this context, I mean your bookish friends. And I don’t just mean your friends who like to read, I mean the friends of yours whose review style or TBR stack or whatever else really speaks to your own — there is a handful of people, some of whom aren’t necessarily my closest IRL friends, whose recommendations or reviews I trust most. It’s not that I think they are better than others, it’s that I know from experience that we have similar taste or interest, and I can tell from their reviews whether or not I’m likely to enjoy a book. When wonderful people in my life recommend a book to me that they enjoyed, I am genuinely pleased that they want to share book love with me, and I celebrate their love of reading — I don’t, however, tend to take their recommendations. I add books to my TBR when I learn about them from the aforementioned people.

2. Read the acks to find books for adults

Do you have a favorite YA author or two? Have some books you’ve enjoyed lately? Enjoy following some bookish folks on social media? Go and glom onto them like an uncool person trying to join the popular crowd. If the author of books you like is a Goodreads user, take a look at what they’re reading. If they’re on social media, see who they’re friends with and look at the books they’ve written. And please please please, if you’re not already in the habit, start reading the acknowledgments of the books you read! Dedications are so yesterday. In addition to the one pithy sentence and a name or two, authors nowadays have multipage thank yous to the many parties who made the book possible, from literary agents to research partners to critique groups. Follow those names. It’s very possible that not all of those folks are exclusive to YA and kid lit, and you already have an endorsement of sorts from a person whose interests and talent you do like.

3. Memorize the colophon

I’m going to assume that once upon a time you maybe read one book for adults that you enjoyed. At least one. If it’s still on your shelf, go find it and look on the spine. Is there a word or symbol (or both)? That’s the colophon, a publisher emblem used to identify a book’s provenance (kind of like the favicons we recognize for sites like Facebook, Google, or Wikipedia, where all we need is that one little thumbnail to know exactly what site it is, or logos like the Nike swish). Similar to following the taste of people you know, following a publisher or an imprint may lead you to books with similar themes, content, or sociopolitical viewpoints as the one you just read. Note that your mileage will vary with this one; it’s more telling with smaller publishers than gigantic corporate ones that publish any and everything, and it’ll be more helpful in nonfiction than fiction. I have my go-to imprints for politics, romance, and artsy books, for example.

4. Start with what you know

There are a billion reasons to love YA and kid lit, but for me, I know part of its appeal is that it’s not about 40-somethings who are, you know, riddled with ennui and contemplating an extramarital affair. YA is about growth, possibility, and stages of transition. An easy way to jump into grownup land is to look for books with characters who are on the younger end or who are going through major transitions or changes in life like graduation, job searches, marriage, breakups, or pregnancy. You might also get this same feeling from books with a strong sense of grounding in a particular time or place that is akin to your own, whether that’s a geographic region or something like wartime, elections, or environmental catastrophes (or pandemics! lolsob).

5. Use a better algorithm to find books for adults

“People also bought” is a super unhelpful algorithm, because sometimes when I buy a book, I also realize I’m out of toothpaste. And unlike Netflix, with its trademark hyper-specific tags like “Female-driven historical adventure-comedies based on comic books” (I have no idea if that specifically is a real tag, but I do know that if you like that, you will surely love this article), Goodreads isn’t all that great at parsing the difference between book themes, writing style, content, and genre. Its recommendations often don’t match what you’re actually looking for. Just because I read a book of poetry doesn’t mean I’m interested in absolutely every single kind of poetry ever published.

I highly recommend more robust, reader-centered, not-so-money-hungry search engines and social networks like NoveList Plus (which you’ll access through your public or academic library), The StoryGraph, or Readerly (freemium). These services understand that a reader’s desire rarely lies in something so simple as “any old western” or “any old romance” or “something literary.” What readers are actually looking for — but have trouble articulating — are things like mood, pace, tropes, or voice. Visit those sites and type in a YA book you loved that you want read-alikes for, then find recommendations for that book in particular. On NoveList, the way this works is that once you’re on a specific book’s record, you can look on the right sidebar for read-alike recommendations (some are generated automatically by the system, but what makes it such a genius database is that what comes up first is stuff from actual humans who come up with a read-alike and tell you why it’s such a good fit. You can also scroll down past trade reviews and find a bunch of subject tags. Unlike your typical Library of Congress subject headings, these are much more in depth, so you can select from tons of checkboxes (ranging from voice to theme to style to content) and then search for other books that have those elements! And then you can further filter by publication year or audience (or a million other things). The StoryGraph and Readerly have similarly human interests, but that happens more behind the scenes, and they look more attractive when they spit out your recs, so you don’t have to do all that clicking yourself.

6. Work like a professional, even if you’re not one

You don’t have to have a job at Book Riot, work in publishing, own a bookstore, or even write a book blog to take advantage of many of the tools available to those of us who do. No, I’m not saying you should go out and misrepresent yourself just to get free books or insider knowledge. (Please don’t.) What I am saying is that being on publisher email lists or visiting sites like NetGalley, Edelweiss, or Publishers Weekly will serve you well. Looking at publisher catalogs (typically seasonal, and in the case of bigger publishers, often published as gigantic PDFs and as more manageable booklets based on imprint or genre) will give you the news and buzz you may not be seeing if you mostly operate in the kid lit and YA world. (Hint: Book Riot Insiders also has a new release index that would be PERFECT for you!) This means you can stay abreast of what is coming down the pipeline and what you may have missed.

7. Check the Alex Awards to find books for adults!

Did you know the American Library Association doesn’t just have literary awards for various youth and adult books, they also have an award specifically for adult books with teen appeal? Now you do! Combing through their annual list of Alex Award honorees is a great way to find books for adults that multiple people have already agreed are great for YA fans.

I hope these tips help you broaden your horizons. Yes, there is plenty of ennui out there, but if you can do your own taxes, I know you have the fortitude to find books for adults and give them a try. Happy reading!