Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why, or Why not YA?

There's been discussion online in authors' forums and writers' listservs, about the sentiment expressed on some blogs and in newspapers, that teen/YA lit is somehow less than, or not actually "real" literature. I haven't engaged in the convo because, (1) it is so obviously a pile of dung, and (2) I feel as if engaging would lend it validity, and I refuse to do that.

When I talk to people who don't know what YA means (I always thought it was people in their early 20s), I remind folks that the whole category of teen/YA fiction is quite new. When I was reading Tuck, Everlasting and Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Chrysalids (all of which would be considered YA or MG today because of the age of their protagonists), there was no sign in the library or bookstore pointing me to the YA section. These books were sorted by genre, usually. Sometimes they were in the children's section and sometimes they were in the adult section. I read them because the subject matter interested me and the book was irresistible.

Of course, I was one of those avid readers who consumed mammoth adult tomes when I was fifteen. One of my favourite books of all time was called Saigon, about the war in Vietnam. It was full of violence and gore and blood. It was told from the perspective of a wealthy white man twice my age (at the time). But I COULD. NOT. PUT. IT. DOWN. And it has stayed with me all these years. I loved it because it showed so clearly and explicitly, the wrongness of war; how completely nonsensical and meaningless it is, through the eyes of someone who had experienced it firsthand. It was a spiritual journey that spanned one person's entire life, taking him far and away, outside of who he was, and bringing him back inside, to the center, where everything started.

On the other hand, I've taught Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, a story of longing -- for travel, for movement, and for freedom from economic/social constraints -- to undergraduate freshmen at colleges and universities, and many of them said that they had read the book in high school. This is not a book that is typically shelved in the teen/YA section (indeed, if you go to Amazon, my book is listed as "Reading Level: YA" while Mango Street has no such listing), and most people don't associate Ms. Cisneros as a teen fiction author.

And let us not forget (as if it were even possible) the immense popularity of Harry Potter, Gossip Girl, and Twilight with teens and adults alike.

So there's definitely plenty of grey area because, like social/political/economic divisions (such as race and class), the whole YA/MG division is a construct. It is constructed. It's not based in any kind of real division because in reality, there *are* none. I completely get why booksellers and marketing folk want to have this division--it makes their lives easier. It makes finding books easier. It makes promotion and audience targeting easier. Maybe. I don't know. I just know that I found out about books through word of mouth (usually a librarian's), and I read whatever grabbed me by the throat and dragged me into the pages.

Most teens have been exposed to some form of violence or another, whether they've experienced it themselves or not. Teens get that this world is a mess in ways that adults have allowed themselves to either accept, give in to, or become desensitized to. Teens know about sex and sexuality. They are smart. They look for what makes sense; it's a natural inclination. Just because there's now a section in bookstores called "YA," doesn't mean teens (and pre-teens) won't grab a book off another shelf that doesn't say "YA." Doesn't mean their friends won't smuggle them books with juicy scenes highlighted all throughout. And just because a book is filed under YA, doesn't mean there *won't* be any juicy scenes in it (think: Forever by Judy Blume).

In the end, all these divisions? They're arbitrary, really. Read what you like and what makes sense to you. A book is an expression. It is art. It is a gift.

1 comment:

Doret said...

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti - This book got some serious praise when it came out last year. It was a top ten 08 fiction pick for NYT. Read it this year and loved it. Yes its shelved in literature but its YA at best but truly MG.

This year Francisco X Stork lovely novel Marcelo in the Real World could have gone either way. Its a shame that so many people will miss this novel because they think YA is less than.

Literature is everywhere. People should not worry about a books placements but its quality.

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