Don't Mourn J.K. Rowling's Young-Adult Fiction Career Yet

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She isn't the first novelist to put a dazzling young adult-fiction career on hold to write a book for grown-up audiences.

rowling_ap.jpgJ.K. Rowling "in her element," as a friend puts it—in the company of kids. (AP Images)

J.K. Rowling announced back in February that The Casual Vacancy, her long-awaited follow-up to the Harry Potter series, would be a book for grown-ups. And for young wannabe witches and wizards everywhere, the deflating news felt a little like being told that both butterbeer and Liquorice Wands would now be made available exclusively to joyless Muggles.

"My next book will be very different to the Harry Potter series,", Rowling said—and she wasn't kidding, as news reports have recently revealed that The Casual Vacancy deals with prostitution, class warfare, heroin addiction, and teen sexuality. "The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry's success has brought me." Rowling called her new publishing house a great partner in "this new phase of my writing life," and said in April that she might want to return to Harry Potter one day—but that one day might still be a decade away. "In 10 years' time, I might want to return to it," she said, "but I think it's unlikely."

A "new phase of J.K. Rowling's writing life" was, of course, infuriating news for those of us who were perfectly happy with the old one.

But Rowling isn't the first beloved young-adult novelist to transition into adult fiction. And the good news is that if we take a look at other beloved children's authors who seemingly "graduated" into the world of adult literature, we find that they frequently—more often than not, even—return to children's literature, sometimes permanently and sometimes as a parallel career.

The success of that transition can depend on whether an author manages to scale back the stark morality or the broadly drawn dramatic elements of children's literature and instead tell a subtler, more nuanced tale. Other times, beloved children's authors find that they've been so successful in children's books that they have trouble selling their product to the audience's parents, or they find there's more satisfaction—or money—in writing for an audience that stays the same age.

Whatever the reason, novelists who build a sturdy first home in literature for young readers almost always return to it at some point. Below are the tales of some other beloved authors who have strayed from children's literature—and all but one made a happy, welcome return.

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Geo. M. Hill; L. Frank Baum; Wikimedia

L. Frank Baum wrote 14 fantasy books for children between 1900 and 1920—the first of which was The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy's first adventure and its 13 sequels comprised just one of the several young-adult series Baum penned in his lifetime, but a number of others were published under different pseudonyms like Laura Bancroft and Floyd Akers.

In 1905, Baum published the successful adult book The Fate of a Crown—but attached to it the pen name Schuyler Staunton. It was a tale of foreign conquest that broke with the author's earlier formula: "To read a revolutionary tale [BE1] of South America that is not farcical or quixotic is indeed refreshing," The New York Times remarked. The talented, nonexistent Mr. Staunton then whipped up a sequel the next year, Daughters of Destiny, which also found an appreciative audience. In 1907, presumably emboldened by the positive reception to his last adult works, Baum attached his name to a humor book for adults called Father Goose's Year Book. Sections of it are startlingly racist, and it didn't last long in print.

Baum also released The Last Egyptian, an adventure-romance novel for adults, anonymously in 1908, but he spent the last years before his death in 1919 writing installments of his two most beloved series: the Oz stories and his Aunt Jane's Nieces series for adolescent girls, the latter of which he wrote under the pen name Edith Van Dyne.

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Starfire; Lucy Maud Montgomery

Lucy Maud Montgomery first gained recognition for 1908's affectionate, funny Anne of Green Gables. But the sequels that chronicled Anne's later adventures were published alternatingly with adult novels like A Tangled Web and The Blue Castle, which dealt with young people in Canadian society and the emotional complications of marrying or not marrying. Montgomery's 1910 Kilmeny of the Orchard was a full-scale romance novel that chronicled a young teacher's infatuation with a young, beautiful mute girl.

Montgomery's adult novels ultimately accounted for only a tiny portion of her body of work. The author, who wrote as a way of coping with depression, loneliness, and an unhappy marriage, wrote 15 novels for children during her lifetime, and her last novel was Anne of Ingleside—a late revisit to the world of Prince Edward Island and Anne Shirley, who was now in her mid-30s and a mother of five.

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E.P. Dutton & Co.; A.A. Milne; Puffin

Few authors have ever been so annoyed by their own success as A. A. Milne. Milne, to be fair, had already garnered some respect within literary circles as a humor writer, screenwriter, and detective novelist before he penned the Winnie the Pooh stories for children. But it was Pooh that catapulted him to literary fame in 1924.

After his own son, Christopher Robin Milne, had outgrown his beloved Harrod's stuffed bear and thus stopped inspiring new stories about little protagonist Christopher Robin, Milne released works for adults likeTwo Peopleand Chloe Marr, the latter of which was about the death of a mysterious high-society party girl. That chubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff, however, proved to be a curse on the rest of Milne's career. A recent New Yorker profile of Rowling recalls a famous complaint of Milne's about critics who seemed to always want to compare hisadult works to his children's works: "As a discerning critic pointed out: the hero of my latest play, God help it, was 'just Christopher Robin grown up.'[BE2]

"If you stop painting policemen in order to paint windmills," he grumbled, "criticism remains so overpoweringly policeman-conscious that even a windmill is seen as something with arms out, obviously directing the traffic."

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Random House; Judy Blume; Yearling

Judy Blume made a few forays into adult fiction after a long, acclaimed (and often controversial) career in youth fiction. In her 1984 novel Smart Women, the second of her three adult novels, what was once a strength of Blume's writing—its sympathy for the young mind rather than the grown-up one—was now its weakness. "Blume has often worked empathically within a teen frame of reference; and here, though the prime focus is on the highs and histrionics of a trio of 40-ish, divorced professional women in Boulder, Colorado, it's their kids whose common-denominator fears and angers ring true, Kirkus Reviews proclaimed. "As for the mothers, they're a rather vacuous and tiresome lot."

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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