Thursday, November 8, 2012

In which I start thinking about YA books . . .


For the next few weeks I'm going to be putting down some of my thoughts about children's and young adult literature. If I had more time, these thoughts would be crafted and researched like an essay; I usually feel uncomfortable about making literary arguments without having spent the time and energy to place my own thoughts within the context of current scholarship on the topic. But, you know, LIFE. Also, STAY-AT-HOME-PARENT. So, whatever, I'm not going to worry about crafting this so much as try to clutch together a few threads that might crudely articulate my thoughts on the subject. Maybe I'll just call it "brainstorming" and if y'all want to jump in, feel free.



For this introductory post, I'll offer a few reasons why children's/young adult literature is on my mind:

1. After finally completing Perdido Street Station, I needed something to unwind a bit. So I scanned my bookshelf and came up with Garth Nix's Sabriel. It's not a perfect novel. It's kind of like working your way through 2001: A Space Oddyssey and then taking a break by watching The Avengers. The former might be the greater work of art . . . but there's still a real place for the latter, and not just as "fluff." I also recently finished Divergent, after hearing how it "trumped" The Hunger Games. My thoughts on that at a later date.

2. When I write reviews of popular sff, I sometimes get comments like "well, if you're going to analyze it like that, of course you won't like it," or "it wasn't intended to be great literature, so why apply that standard to it," or "screw you! THE HUNGER GAMES IS BRILLIANT!" These kinds of attitudes are particularly prevalent in relation to young adult literature, as there's the sense that it somehow deserves a pass from any critically rigorous effort. "It's written for kids/teenagers, of course, it seems stupid in comparison to adult literature!" Which of course overlooks the fact that some of the most erudite and beloved and accomplished authors have written novels primarily for children/young adults, and they are beautifully written, and challenging, and intelligent. I might try out a more exhaustive list in another post, but you can at least note Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring and White's The Once and Future King which I've reviewed on this blog. Maybe even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (I've been getting the hint from readers that I need to read the whole series before judging the first novel too quickly).

3. There's something about my favorite YA/children's literature that just charms me. It's got something to do with innocence and elegant simplicity and a contagious imaginative ebullience that often seems hard to find in "adult" books. I'm going to try to pin this "charm" thing down a little more as I think about it.

4. There's something about my less than favorite YA/children's literature that doesn't capture that same magic. And I've been wondering lately if it's because YA/children's literature has suddenly become lucrative, especially after that juggernaut Harry Potter. It sometimes seems that a lot of YA literature is being written more by ambitious fanboys and fangirls than by really experienced/talented writers with a desire to explore new territory.

5. Up until recently, most of my creative writing efforts were directed towards writing children's literature. I grew up on Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander and Isaac Asimov, and that's what I felt I had the best handle on when I started trying to write my own stuff. It turns out that I was having a harder time writing youth-oriented stuff than adult-oriented stuff, which makes for an interesting twist on what kind of skill it takes to write the kind of material that often gets presumptuously dismissed. I mean, it was hard for me to try to get my voice right for the right age level -- and I consider myself a reasonably competent writer.

Anyway, I know that this post contains a bit of a muddle of different thoughts, but that's okay. I'm not really trying to make an argument yet. Just trying to point out a few different directions that my thoughts may decide to go.

17 comments:

  1. The thing about YA resisting critical analysis is that YA is all struggling for legitimacy. You can't be considered legitimate literature unless you're willing to be analyzed. The whole thing is just ridiculous.

    As for Harry Potter, you should continue reading, although I really like the 1st one, so I don't quite understand your problems with it. It's clever in a way that most other books aren't. That said, 3 and 5 are my favorite. By far.

    And, because I'm curious, have you read any of my Shadow Spinner stuff?

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    1. Andrew, if it's struggling now, it's unfortunate, because I get the impression that literature for young people used to be more respected, with stuff like Charlotte's Web, the Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, and a whole lot of other stuff creating a modern link to more classic tales from the Grimm brothers or from folk traditions. Not to mention some greats like what Tolkien and White were able to produce.

      I've been on the verge of testing out some of your stuff, Andrew, but I mostly read hard-copies of books I already own while exercising at the gym. I'm working on the wife to justify buying an e-reader.

      And Harry Potter - scoring it where I did indicates I DID like it, I DID think it was clever...I just didn't find it particularly meaningful. But I've been thinking I need to try out the whole series with a little more care, and see if I alter that opinion.

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    2. Well, House is available as a physical book. Shadow Spinner will, too, but probably not until January or so. I'm still working on how I plan to deal with the physical copy vs the serialized version.
      I don't own an e-reader. I use the app on my computer, but you can't really do that at the gym.

      I think HP is pretty meaningful but maybe not very deep. It's more like Star Wars with very simple themes of growing up and confronting evil. Even though they're not deep, they are very powerful and meaningful themes. And Rowling was able to present them in a way where an entire generation was able to immediately identify. That's pretty powerful. It's all about the struggle to fit in, and that's the most meaningful thing there is to kids.
      I think the scene where Harry meets Draco and Draco offers to educate him on the proper friends to have is an incredibly meaningful scene and shows kids that doing what's right and standing by your real friends is more important than popularity. It doesn't get more meaningful than that.
      That said, the books get better. Except I didn't like the last two as much as the others.

      The difference with YA as it is now and how it used to be is that it didn't used to be. All those older books you mentioned were never YA books when I was younger. When I was in high school, the "YA" section was full romances for young girls. That was it. All those other books were located in other parts of the book store. Narnia and Middle Earth were sci-fi/fantasy, etc, etc. YA as a "thing" was created by, really, by Harry Potter. The problem is that they are still mostly just those romances aimed at young girls, just disguised with vampires and whatnot. So, yeah, it struggles, because there is HP, but, then, there is also Twilight.

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    3. There are probably all sorts of good things to say about the way Harry Potter did good things for young readers. But I really try to focus on what any given book does for ADULT readers. When I review The Graveyard Book really well, for instance, it's not because it's such a great read for kids (though I think it is) but mostly because it is a great read for adults. So when I say Harry Potter didn't strike me as particularly meaningful (though not bad), I mean in terms of an adult choosing to read it. Though I have to say again that I'm gradually being convinced that I need to take another, more careful look at it than I had originally.

      I think I get what you're saying about "YA" as a specific designation. It straddles a strange zone between kids stuff and adult stuff. But there HAVE been books written for young people more generally for a long time (as I recall, Tolkien worked on his middle-earth stuff for his kids?). And the Newberry Awards (among others), for instance offer as a good place as any to find really great stuff for young people, going all the way back to 1922.

      You raise some good complications to discussing this stuff, and it makes me feel I may simply want to broaden my label and talk about "literature for young people."

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    4. Last about HP: I think there are plenty of things for adults to get from HP, too. That's why I liked them. Those struggles that Harry goes through are in many ways central to what kids are dealing with, but adults deal with the same issues, just not in the same setting.

      As for YA:
      Yes, books written for kids or younger audiences have always been written (LotR is not one of those things, though. That was only The Hobbit. The rest of Middle Earth was meant for adults.), but they weren't necessarily written -for- kids, not just kids. Like Narnia. Lewis wanted to answer a question when he wrote Lion, and he did that by writing a story about kids, but it wasn't meant to be a kid's book. I think that has been the genius about a lot of literature "for" kids prior to the last couple of decades: it was for kids but not -for- kids. It wasn't juvenile and dealt with real issues. Like Charlotte's Web. Of course, then you have Dahl, whom I don't really like, but that's because his stuff really was -for- kids. The stuff we have now that's called "YA" and "MG" bears no resemblance, on the whole, to the stuff that came before.

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  2. I disagree with Andrew. While I do think you should keep reading HP, 4 is by far the best! ;)

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    1. I'll have to steal the whole series from my brother when I go to visit over the Holidays.

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  3. What do you disagree with? Just which HP book is best?

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  4. Looking forward to more! Adding to your thoughts about how hard it is to write YA Fiction, I sometimes struggle just to read it and bring myself back to the concerns of younger readers. I remember specific books from my childhood less than I remember the books I read. I remember when I read my first "really long" chapter book (I tried to tell someone the next day on the bus and they were like, "okay...good for you"). I remember the first time I stayed up horrendously late to finish a book (I still do this). I remember when I read my first book that talked about sex. Maybe my more meaningful and lasting thoughts about books didn't come until I started reading older books? Maybe I've always just been a total dolt?

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    1. Oh, that was a little more stream-of-consciousness than I intended... sorry.

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    2. Hey, no worries Jeremy. It's interesting to think about difficulties relating to young characters. I've never had a particular problem that way, except for when kids are written to be like adults, just dumber. If kids are written with respect, they can be plenty smart and insightful, but it does mean some different, less experienced points of view. For instance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn certainly channels a kid's voice and perspective, but there's a heck of a lot of nuance and layers there.

      I have only vague memories of a lot of the stuff I read up until about third or fourth grade, but by fifth/sixth grade I was reading Tolkien and Terry Brooks and a whole lot of other sff fare that probably usually goes towards older readers, and that I would often revisit every couple years.

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  5. I'm really curious to know what you think about Divergent. Because though it was mostly entertaining while I was reading it, I actually sort of hated it in retrospect. That is, it all fell apart about ten minutes after I finished. Looking forward to your thoughts on it!

    As for Harry Potter, I find it hard to speak objectively. I read Sorcerer's Stone aged seven - I grew up with the series. But when I recently reread it, I realized that I do think that the first books have that magic you're referring to. I sincerely enjoy Rowling's writing style, and sincerely enjoy the way it develops as her characters grow. Obviously I'd recommend reading the entire series, but I personally think that though the later books are better, the series opener is excellent and magical in its own right.

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    1. I'll be getting a review up sometime this month, probably, if I can find the time with the impending holidays. I didn't hate the book, but it didn't stand out strongly for me. I found it doing some things better than the Hunger Games, and some things worse. I scored the Hunger Games right around a 5, I believe, in overall recommendation.

      For Harry Potter...it's world-building was really wonderful, and I agree it suggests a sense of "magic" that a lot of others struggle to find.

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  6. I find it hard to read YA as an adult. I think it's because I've read it before as a youth and don't with to relive it again. Or maybe, it's just something my mind doesn't really connect with.

    Or maybe, I'm working on 18+ work and I do find that YA stuff does pull me back from it too much.

    Whichever it is, I don't like it. But I have written some YA stuff - just strange stories - and put them onto cd for my niece and she loved them! Even her Mum thought they were okay, so did her Dad (he said I should try writing for YA all the time, but I do find it hard to stay in the mind of a teenager). I think it's because I didn't have a great teenaged life that I don't wish to go back to it through fiction.

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    1. I think there's YA, and then there's YA. Like any categorization, there's a lot of chaff to wade through, but I think it's very possible to find excellent stuff to appeal to most any taste, so long as you use a little imagination and are willing to give different points of view the benefit of the doubt.

      To me, reading a young protagonist is like reading a woman, or someone with a mental disability, or reading an alien life-form. There's no reason why I can't grapple with different points of view. Though I'll be the first to admit that my wife says I'm still a kid, which may account for how easy it is for me to read stuff for young people. But I AM picky about it.

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  7. I'm so very glad that someone is taking on the YA genre. It's about time.

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    1. I'm hardly the most qualified, but I'm gonna give it my best shot.

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