Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reader poll: How do you define "YA"?


I mentioned a few weeks back that I'm spending some time thinking about literature for young people. At first I called it "YA" literature, but I'll be honest that I don't really have a solid handle on what to call the stuff I'm referring to. It's bigger than "YA." It may at one time have been merely labeled "children's literature," referring to anything not written specifically for adults. "YA" as a label is not necessarily inclusive of all of the great stuff that's been written for younger audiences, and I was really intending to be more inclusive. The Graveyard Book, for instance, is marketed for younger-than YA audiences, even though it's significantly more sophisticated and well-written than, say, Twilight. Here's a snippet of what Wikipedia has to say about the "YA" designation:


The term "YA" obviously gets fuzzy at the edges. But to be clear: YA is a marketing term, perhaps more now than it ever has been. It's used by booksellers and librarians as a crude way to offer a space between things for children and things for adults. It can be a pretty arbitrary division. By it's basic criteria, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird could have been called "YA" novels. But I don't think anyone would argue that those two are in a different league from, say, The Hunger Games or Twilight, both novels that have inspired a slew of copycat teen romance novels that have sort of hijacked the label.

For the moment, I'm going to side-step the tricky and baggage-laden term "YA," and just say that I'm interested in things that are either written for young people, or that hold appeal for them. That includes The Hobbit (review forthcoming!), which includes no characters between the ages of 12-18, but which is beloved by many pre-teen children as well as many adults; it includes Watership Down, which hasn't any human characters at all, much less adolescent ones; it includes The Lord of the Flies, which hits teenage protagonists dead on but which was written for adults, and it includes Never Let Me Go, a novel with characters that start as children and end as adults, but which beautifully details a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and which is as subtle and captivating (and critically acclaimed) as anything else written for anyone. There are obviously a lot of bases to cover. And this doesn't even touch the classic canonical works that teenagers are required to read in school. If a young adult reads them, and identifies with them, can an argument be made that they are "young adult" books?

Having said all this, I've still got to reiterate that I'm no expert on literature written for young people; I've only read a lot of it. This isn't an essay, it's a conversation starter. There are plenty of other essays out there, and a lot of interesting research. I'm just interested to hear y'all's ruminations on how things written for young people can or should be different than stuff written for adults. Why do some people never graduate from young adult literature? Why do others refuse to touch the stuff? And why (if you agree with me) are both cases so unfortunate?

8 comments:

  1. Personally, I hate the term YA, and I hate it even more when people refer to it as a genre. The whole thing is ridiculous and is, as you say, a marketing gimmick (even though you didn't use the word gimmick). When I was kid, there was no YA section at the book store. No real one, anyway. The closest we had to it was teen romance books aimed at young girls, which got their own section because there were so many of them. Lewis and L'Engle and, well, everything were just shelved in their actual genre locations, which is as it should be. Harry Potter changed all of that, because Potter made publishers realize they could really market to that age group, so anything that's remotely close gets lumped in there now.
    Oh, I want to go on, but, really, I have work to do, so I have to stop. That's a taste of what I think about it, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Though I've read some of the stuff, it's only recently that I've started actually understanding the way YA is pigeon-holed and carries so much stupid baggage with it.

      Ah, Harry Potter, you cut both ways. If only it were possible to have something great without also having bad imitators.

      Delete
  2. Good starter.

    L. M. Montgomery wrote for people. Her stories read by women and men. But because society has become just so, nowadays it is marketed towards YA girls. And other demographics miss out on a great written series which describes middle class life in another century.

    I like slim YA books, on the heuristic it contains less bloat. But the classics are always good.

    When I were a girl, the YA section contained stories dealing with YA issues such as teen anorexia, and growing up in a non-conventional family, and being different, and having strong female lead characters, and comic horror by R.L. Stine.

    Is Roald Dahl really suitable for kids? Yes, I said back then. Now, I'm not so sure. I guess innocence meant I didn't understand the subtext.

    Catch-22 amused me back then. I must have skipped by the boring bits dealing with sexual appetites.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There IS something quite appealing about a slim novel, especially something that has some elegance to its simplicity. I'm sure there are plenty of "YA" novels that have that elegance, still, but it seems like not many of the big-name ones do.

      I have to admit that Catch-22 is one of my all-time favorites. Wrote papers on it in high school and college (along with Slaughterhouse-Five). Can't deny some "adult situations" in it, but compared to a lot of other stuff I've read since, it might even be called tame or quaint. I'm thinking...Game of Thrones, for one. I really identified with what I read in Catch-22 as a teenager, which maybe explains something about the person I am today. I don't know.

      But you're right, it's really interesting to see how our perspectives change as we age.

      Delete
  3. I'm of two minds on this subject. On the one hand, a lot of dreck gets published under a YA label, and I think the excuse for this badly-written garbage is 'Well, teens won't really notice the writing,' which is lazy and condescending.

    On the other hand, as a former teen (haha) it would have been VERY useful for me in the '90s to have a "YA" section. I didn't have mentors to guide me to good, age-appropriate literature. My parents didn't care or didn't notice what I was reading. As a result, there was a lot of Sweet Valley Twins in my early teens, a fact which still causes me to shudder. Once I hit about 15 I discovered classic dystopian novels (1984, Brave New World) on my own and I haven't looked back. I think about this periodically, especially when my friend's 14-year-old daughter asks me for book recommendations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The impression I get is that a lot of the popular YA fiction now is written by fans as opposed to artists. It's the same problem that fantasy fiction in general has had for a long time, I think...that people who just wanted to keep living in a world like Tolkien's decided to write stuff so that they could keep living in it. The thing that many of these fantasy (and YA) writers don't mimic is the "art" part.

      While I was getting my English major, I came across quite a few people who hated almost every class, and just wanted to get lame old art appreciation over with so they could get to their true dream of writing Twilight or Harry Potter, Redux.

      Having said that, it hardly means that all that's under the "YA" banner is bad; only that the flagship titles don't necessarily represent the great gems that can be found.

      Delete
  4. Robert Heinlein wrote a lot of stuff that today would be classified Young Adult ("Juvenile" is the term that was used in his day). His last juvenile book--Starship Troopers, one of my favorite books. He believed that his youthful readers could handle big ideas. If I ever break down and start writing Young Adult literature (what else can you do with a literature degree), Heinlein is the model writer that I am going to be using.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think you could go TOO far wrong with Heinlein. He's definitely a big idea, guy, and I've enjoyed him. Interesting, though, that he seems to me to be capable of both exceptionally good stuff, and surprisingly bad stuff.

      Delete