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.)

18 thoughts on “To YA or Not to YA

  1. The upper elementary grades and middle school, for non-US parents, ten to fourteen years olds, ought to be perfecting their reading skills, and the best way to do that is with entertaining books. Mind you, I realize that books can be educational, can help kids deal with horrible things in their lives, or understand the normal trials of teenagerhood. It can be useful.

    But the majority of the catergory shouldn’t fall in that range. Sometimes I feel the YA classification was invented as a refuge for Literary writers, who couldn’t make enough money depressing adults.

    1. Pam, I think you’re right about it being a refuge. Add in the host of “helpful” educators who think they have to expose kids to all the negative aspects of life, whether the kid is ready for it or not, and you have those who make the reading lists these days.

      I’ve got no problem with putting issues into books and showing that all isn’t happily ever after. But, and this is a big BUT, it still needs to be age appropriate and entertaining, especially for youngsters who may not like reading in the first place.

  2. YA got prestigious, and everyone wanted a piece of it, is the short version. I have fond memories of the old Ashton Scholastic catalogs where they’d group the books by age range, and give a pretty clear idea of what to expect for each one. The idea was you’d go through it with your parents when you were little, and as you got older and better able to read the descriptions, you picked them. The books tended to be fun adventures, for the most part, but they still had their share of “issues” that they dealt with – they just dealt with them in a way that was appropriate to the age group they targeted.

    1. Kate, you have the key right there — “appropriate to the age group they targeted”. There was a conscious decision made about the books and what their audience should be. No such decisions are made today. If the book has a young protagonist, it’s YA. Or at least that is the initial, knee-jerk reaction to it when an author is describing it — or sending it out. After all, why would there be a young protagonist in a novel for adults? Sigh. I could say more but that would take me far beyond the no politics rule, so I’ll just shut up now.

  3. I agree with a lot of what you say. My 14yo daughter has basically given up reading fiction. It seemed, for a while, every publisher out there wanted to grab the Potter Readers buy pushing whatever they thought those guys would go for next. Most of it wascheesy supernatural romance and too old for the younger Potter readers.

    As to every book on the school list needing to convey some kind of social message, I don’t think that’s anything new. I remember hating all the books assigned by teachers right up until I got to university. You’ve got to really love books to study literature at school.

    1. Chris L, what got me about the Potter wannabes was the fact they all seemed to think Harry Potter was the first boarding school series ever written and there are so many others. But you are exactly right. And, after all the wannabe Potters, there were all the Twilight-lite, although that might just be an oxymoron.

      I also remember hating most of the books I was assigned in school…but they were books like Gatsby and Shakespeare (sorry, Sarah, I didn’t like studying it, at least not until I actually SAW one of the plays. Then it made sense) and other classics. But they weren’t classed as YA and they weren’t selected to “teach” us about social issues. They were chosen for their literary value, rightly or wrongly. But then, I did go to school in the dark ages. ;-P

  4. I so utterly agree with you.

    Sometimes, as a teenager, I wanted to protect myself (still do today, MUCH later). All I ask is one thing: ratings.

    Some of my friends were sexually assaulted when we were teenagers, so when I read about sexual assault in a book it is like watching what they went through. I can’t deal with that.

    I want to be able to look at a book and CHOOSE whether to have fun or to walk in the dark for a while. Both paths have value. But I don’t want to get jumped on and emotionally beaten up by a book that looked like it was all fun and sunshine.

    Speaking of middle grade – try Philip Reeve’s “Larklight” trilogy *swoon* and any of the “Samurari Kids” books by Sandy Fussell (it covers some dark stuff, but it is never graphic, and it always FEELS safe and warm). Both have male protagnists, too.

    Louise Curtis

    1. Louise, I couldn’t have said it better. And you did bring up a good point, a counter to one of the arguments posted via twitter against the WSJ article. That argument was that reading about issues such as cutting, etc., would show someone who suffers from it that they aren’t alone. Which is true. These kids need to know there are others like them out there and that there is help. But the authors and publishers also need to know that for every kid it helps, there’s another kid it will strike a bit too close to home for and can cause harm.

      And thanks for the rec for the middle grade books. I’ve passed the titles on to a friend of mine with kids that age.

  5. I remember reading two SE Hinton books for school one year apart. I hated That Was Then, This is Now but loved The Outsiders. Now I don’t think The Oitsiders was really that much better a book but I matured a bit in that year so was better as to apreciate it.

    It took me back when you mentioned Harry Potter because there was a bit of condemnation about how dark the later books became, since Rowlings was writing(or so she said) for the age Harry was in each book. I know my nephew read and liked the first three books and stopped after that since they stopped “being fun”.

    While it is obvious kids will read at different levels that doesn’t mean we should be forcing them onto books they have the intellectual ability to comprehend, but not the maturity to understand.

    1. Brendan, I think your son reacted like a lot of folks did. Yes, the Potter books were wildly successful, but they also became too bloated over the course of the series, imo, and often left behind those they initially appealed to. Would it surprise you to know that now, some publishers even have a list of words middle grade and YA authors should work into their books because we have to worry about giving challenging vocabulary — read, standardized test words — as well as a message and then the story?

      1. It wouldn’t surprise me about the word list. It is probably an over reaction to the dumbing down of books that used to occur. I know it was a complaint from Australian authors that they use to be asked to change scads of material to make it easier on the US audience.

        My favourite story about this tendency is when Mem Fox sold Possum Magic to a US publisher. She was told kids wouldn’t understand what lamingtons were and could she change them to brownies. Now this was a picture book with mostly Australian animals as characters and pages of pictures of lamingtons which would have to be re-drawn. Mem stuck to her guns and they backed down, but a society that worries kids are going to be turned off picture books because they couldn’t understand one word, is a society in trouble.

  6. Amanda, I went to an event staged by the Children’s Book Counicl of Australia where one o the librarians on the panel of judges who pick the notable books and the winner, explained their reasoning behind the books they chose.

    Basically, in the YA section they chose books that dealt with issues that they thought teenagers should be exposed to. As opposed to the books that teenagers might actually want to pick up and read because they are fun!

    1. Rowena, that’s exactly the explanation I got when I asked after starting to read some of the books my son was assigned. While I understand the desire to expose teens to the “real world”, I also think these folks making up the list need to remember that the age group spans a number of years or so and that what is appropriate for a 16 year old isn’t for a 12 year old. As I said earlier, YA has become some a catchphrase now and needs to be refined so the market can be better informed about the product.

  7. You know, even as a pre-teen I was capable of choice. And that I think is point that the firestorm of reaction to this article misses. It’s not the author’s fault. (although it may be their choice to follow what appears to be formulaic and politically correct playbook. Or not. Some may be the writing what they know best) that theirs is yet another angsty graphic misery book (where the villian will inevitably be someone else, 99% male, white anglo-saxon) The problem is not that such a book is on the shelf. It’s –as the writer and her case study (later) point out, that NOTHING else is. The argument raised by one of the authors mentioned for example is that at some stage 1 in ten (and I have no idea of the quality of the stats or reference point to exactly what self-harm means) kids will self-harm, and 10 million females and 1 million will have some some kind of eating disorder (out of we assume 330 million?) and, um, to add my own rejoinder here, chances are a high degree of commonality between both of those groups (ie chances are if you have issues, you have issues that manifest in various ways.) So: these are substantial groups that probably justify someone writing something that may be relevant to them. It also implies that of the reading population out there, somewhere between 90-97% will have no desire to starve themselves or cut themselves. Which in turn suggests that 90-97% of books will be aimed at a different audience. An audience who would not choose to read these type of misery-books. Only as the article pointed out (a point which seems to have been missed) that 10% max is almost all of it. And that (a problem in publishing, not with the highly offended writers) is what is wrong. Children and parents will choose books that appeal to them. In some cases (maybe 15% – if you include friends who are wanting to understand these things) those choices will be misery-tales. but the bulk really shouldn’t be. (I can see the the wailing greek chorus starting up already ‘but it’s our duty to EDUCATE them about it’.) Horse sh!t, frankly. If ‘education’ was a viable goal (which I don’t think it is), then everything from drug addiction to child abuse figures should have dropped precipiously. And if you want to educate, give your books to an educational charity. I pay over money to buy a good read. If you want to éducate’ me, you’re going to have to do it pretty subtly not to ruin that.

    1. Dave, absolutely. Between teachers using reading as a punishment — yes, I’ve had that experience as well and it took me three years or more to show my son that reading can be fun, despite what educators and the like try to make it — and mandatory reading lists that are designed around political agendas and the “need” to educate our children about what the “real world” is like and is it any wonder our kids don’t want to read? Other than those books he had to read for school, my son basically skipped the YA selections because they weren’t what he was interested in. Sure, he read the Harry Potter books, although I’m not sure he finished the last one. But he much preferred raiding my bookshelf for good sf/f or going to the library for manga and books on tape mysteries. The difference between those and the books he had to read for school — they were entertaining, even when they had a message or portrayed cutting, rape, murder, drug abuse, etc.

  8. Not directly related to your post but the subject line reminded me of a recent panel I was on at an SF convention. The subject was “Is a Science Fiction Renaissance Right Around the Corner.” My lead question was to ask for a show of hands for folk under 30 in the audience (a fairly large turnout as it happened). Two hands went up.

    Frankly, if we don’t get more young readers we will, sooner or later, run out of older readers. We need more writers of science fiction and fantasy (this problem is more on the SF than the F side) writing books that appeal to younger readers.

    How to accomplish that? I don’t know.

  9. I think the point has been neatly pointed out in the original article: we need variety. We need different book moods for different people.
    Showing that the world can be a dark cruel place? Bingo, I’m all for that, sign everyone up. Hoist the anchors. Let’s go.
    Showing that the world can be a nice place? *crickets*
    This is the challenge that YA faces. Either there are too many dark books, or the other books are not being given enough promotion.
    For the former situation, the solution is evident. For the latter, we need to rethink our strategy.

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