by Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie)
While in Miami earlier this year to promote her latest novel, the thriller El juego de Ripper, bestselling author Isabel Allende was overjoyed to find that most of the audience were young readers. These high school and college-age students had perhaps encountered her previous work in Spanish for young adults, since three of her novels—La ciudad de las bestias (2002), El reino del dragón de oro (2003), and El bosque de los pigmeos (2004)—have been part of the nation’s school curricula for several years. “There were so many young people, they look like my grandchildren,” recalls Allende. “My books are taught in schools, colleges, and in universities, and so each year, I gain young readers, which is wonderful.”
M any other writers would love to be in Allende’s shoes, appealing to teenagers and young adults. Of course, the YA market for books in Spanish (trade and school) in the U.S. will never be as large as the one in English, but it is healthy, growing, and one that commands attention.
“The market for Spanish-language books in this country has grown for two reasons,” says Alex Correa, CEO of Lectorum, the country’s largest independent distributor of books in Spanish. “One, because the immigration of Latin Americans continues, so there are families arriving whose first language is Spanish. That is the language they read in, and that feeds a need. The second factor is that schools in the United States are adopting dual education systems, which provide education in two languages, mostly Spanish and English.”
This dual system, Correa points out, is not the same as the old bilingual system, which was hailed and criticized in equal measure. “What’s interesting now is that this dual approach is more inclusive,” says Correa. “English-speaking students as well as Hispanic students receive their education in Spanish and in English, and so the children of parents who do not know Spanish can now learn it, and they will eventually be able to read in Spanish.”
There are numbers that seem to support this trend. According to a study on the future of Spanish in the United States released by the Pew Research Center in September of 2013, “with more than 37 million speakers, Spanish is by far the most widely spoken non-English language in the U.S. today among people ages 5 and older. It is also one of the fastest-growing, with the number of speakers up 233% since 1980, when there were 11 million Spanish speakers.”
A 2011 study published by the U.S. Census Bureau projects the number of Spanish speakers in the U.S. to reach anywhere between 39 and 43 million by the year 2020.
Could these rosy numbers translate into readers? “One thing we must always keep in mind is that there are two very different YA markets. On the one hand, there’s the school market, and then there is trade,” says Silvia Matute, director, general books division, for Santillana USA. “Trade is well documented by Nielsen BookScan, although they don’t divide between children’s and YA.” Matute offers the following numbers: In 2013, 15% of the sales of books in Spanish in the U.S. corresponded to children’s and YA; 12% was fiction and 3% nonfiction. “As we all know, Hispanic youth in this country tend to read in English, unless they are recent arrivals or they are reading as part of their school homework,” continues Matute.
No matter their first language, there is something all youngsters have in common that has helped propel the YA sector in both English and in Spanish: the hip factor. “Young people move in groups chasing the fad of the moment,” notes Matute, “and thus sales are concentrated in a few titles.” Even today, when the furor over a trend such as vampires seems to have mellowed a bit, Santillana USA’s Spanish-language versions of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Crepúsculo, continues to be a top-seller.
“We believe the growth phenomenon in YA is not temporary,” Matute adds. “It is fueled by the success of social media among the young. Plus, the movies help bring readers over from other genres.” This is echoed by Jaime De Pablos, director of Vintage Español. “We have several YA series, and they are usually those that do well in the U.S.,” he says. “So we go after what works in the general market. Not much has been attempted with Spanish originals or books from Latin America. The Spanish-language market is small, and so we don’t have as many outlets for promotion and publicity, but of course when a book comes with a movie tie-in, there are many more ways of reaching people.”
“Translations do significantly better than original works in Spanish, especially those books that have movie tie-ins,” agrees Diane Mangan, divisional merchandising director Children’s, Small Press and Spanish, for Baker & Taylor. Approximately 50% of B&T’s Spanish YA book sales come from the school and public library markets and the other half from online retailers such as Walmart.com and Target.com.
For Vintage Español’s De Pablos, the YA market in Spanish is “quite stable. There is a nucleus of young people that read in Spanish, although it is also very possible that they are older.” Which is precisely one of the most unexpected factors that come into the sustainability and growth equation of YA literature, whether in English or in Spanish: who exactly are the readers of YA books? Surprisingly, many seem to be adults.
“Mainly female,” states veteran bookselling consultant and part of the management team at the Books & Books bookstores, Raquel Roque. “Young adult literature is widely read by adults. It is an underrated market.” Roque goes on to explain how the Spanish-language YA market is still developing. “You have teens who have recently migrated to this country. In Miami, for example, there are Venezuelan kids who have just arrived in the United States,” explains Roque, “although many of them quickly switch to reading in English as they are learning the language.” As a bookseller, she adds, she has noticed that these young readers will often buy both the English and the Spanish versions, with books in series like the Hunger Games and Divergent being favorites, and read them simultaneously.
Roque includes in her list of YA readers those enrolled in international baccalaureate programs; libraries, schools, and institutions; English-speaking students, both young and adult, who are learning Spanish; and a small group of readers who are young adults and who read in Spanish for pleasure.
Not finding anything he enjoyed reading as a teenager is what drove Miami-based novelist and scriptwriter José Ignacio Valenzuela to write YA books in Spanish. He authored a well-received series, Cuatro Ojos, and a trilogy, Trilogía del malamor, whose success he says surprised him more than even his publisher, Alfaguara, who distributes his books in the U.S.
“I’ve never written for movies, TV or literature based on what’s hot at the moment,” says Valenzuela, who’s publishing his first children’s book this year, ¿De qué color es tu sombra? “I personally don’t believe in labels. That’s for other people to decide. My first task is to entertain myself.” For Valenzuela, making reading entertaining is a way of attracting and holding on to readers from an early age.
“Had it not been for my mother, grandmother, and aunt, all writers, who would tell me, ‘Forget about El Mío Cid or Marianela, you’ll get to enjoy them one day—or who cares if you don’t? Read instead Crónica de una muerte anunciada.’ If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t think I would’ve become a writer,” says Valenzuela. “So for a long time I thought about how to make literature more attractive to young people, and I realized there was not much available. Finally, I created my own series, writing what I thought I would have enjoyed when I was 15.”