To YA or Not to YA
by Amanda S. Green
I received an email yesterday from a friend that came at just the right time. I’d been trying to figure out what to write for today’s blog and couldn’t make up my mind. Sure, I could talk about the Borders being granted an extension to October to file its reorganization plan. I could talk about the importance of following guidelines when submitting to a publisher (yes, I’ve been reading slush this weekend and it always makes me wonder if NRP wrote its guidelines in Sanskrit or something). But, frankly, I didn’t want to. I wanted something else to write about. Then I looked up from the computer screen and realized that the movie I’d been watching was over and that, gag, Twilight was on. Yes, I know. There are masses of folks who adore the book and think the movie is to die for. At the same time, I opened the email and I had my topic and, oddly enough, it has a tie-in with Twilight.
It seems that yesterday, Meghan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal kicked up a firestorm by daring to question the appropriateness of some YA fiction for, well, young adults. She opens the article by recounting the trials of a mother trying to find something for her 13 year old daughter to read. Instead of finding something uplifting, she found row upon row of books she felt were inappropriate for her daughter. It’s not an uncommon feeling among parents, believe me.
YA has turned into the catch-all phrase for books spanning that vast gulf of ages from 11 – adulthood. Not, necessarily, in the minds of authors or editors, or even publishers, but in the minds of the booksellers. That, in turn, has made it the catch-all for the book reading public.
Add in the fact that so many of the books assigned students these days have to have a “social message” and you can see why parents view YA with a jaundiced eye. My son’s 21 now, but I remember the first summer he was assigned books from what I now realize was the YA list. One book ended with a graphic attempted rape by a human who was then murdered by a ghost, also depicted very graphically. Another detailed the life of a teen drug addict in detail. Another dealt with mental illness. If I remember correctly, there was also one centering on incest. My son, at the time, was still in elementary school.
My reaction was to go to the school as soon as possible and discuss the list with his teacher. I was told that the list was put together by a group of librarians, educators and administrators from around the country. I was also told that the list was actually for students who were at least two years older than my son. However, someone had decided that students in the gifted and talented program needed to be reading these books. The decision was made based on the average reading ability of the GT kids, not on their emotional or mental maturity levels.
And that is the problem with the YA classification right now. It is too broad. Books that are appropriate for a 16 year old might not be for an 11 year old or even a 13 year old. And, before the howls of outrage begin, I’m not short selling our youth. Having raised a kid who was always much smarter than I at his age, I am well aware of the fact that we need more than advance My Pretty Pony books for them.
But there needs to be a change in the industry to recognize that YA has become too broad of a term. Middle graders are reading it now. Why? Because it is popular and also because there just aren’t that many good middle grade books coming out. So, there’s the first solution. Bring out more good middle grade books AND PROMOTE THEM.
Perhaps publishers and bookstores need to do as the store in the WSJ article did and split their YA section into age categories. Isn’t that where the YA designation first came in?
I’m not sure what the final answer will be. There are always going to be parents who object to something on their child’s reading list. I don’t think we’ll soon forget all the challenges to Harry Potter because parents thought it taught their kids witchcraft. I have as much fun as the next person laughing at some of the reasons books are challenged. That said, as a parent, I do have problems with a 10 or 11 year old reading a graphic rape or murder scene. I still believe reading should be as much for entertainment and enjoyment as it is for education. (And this is something those putting together school reading lists seem to forget)
I guess what I’m saying is that there has to be a middle ground somewhere. Parents need to take responsibility to know what their kids are reading — and they should be reading it as well. That’s the only way to know what the book is really about and, gee, it also gives them something to talk about with their kid. Authors should keep their audience in mind and remember that a good story doesn’t always have to be dark and depressing. Publishers should consider putting a suggested age range on their YA books or creating age-specific imprints. Retailers should consider setting up their YA section similarly to how the Washington D. C. bookstore did. No censorship, no banning but a means of giving the tween/teen and parent a better understanding of what age the book is written for.
On a personal note, please, no more shiny vamps and emo werewolves and lots more rollicking adventures.
Or am I wrong here? (Entirely possible, I’ll admit.)