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Last week I introduced a hot topic in the literary world through some questions about the up-and-coming genre Young Adult Fiction, often called YA fiction.  NPR recently posted their top 100 list, and needless to say, it caused a few debates about issues found in the following questions.  I asked readers to answer the questions or post their own thoughts on the topic as comments.  Additionally, I took these questions to some of my facebook friends, an assortment of English teachers and other literary scholars.

The questions were as follows:

1. What is the place and role of MODERN YA books?  Note: the word modern as used here means books written within the past 15 years or so.  This does not include books like To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, LOTR, etc.  It does include books like Harry Potter, Twilight, 13 Reasons Why, etc…

2. There has been some discussion on the fact that many of the top 100 books have a female author.  Does this make a difference?  Is there a reason behind it?  Should/how can this change?

3.  What are some pros and cons for YA books, especially modern YA books, in and out of the classroom?  (Ex. PRO: Encourages reading.  CON: Simplistic in style.)

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In going over the responses there were some general concessions about YA literature.  Mainly, that it generally contains a watered-down style of very little literary value.   While there are some exceptions to this rule, such as the Harry Potter series (which is genius when you look at some of the stylistic techniques used by Rowling, but that’s another post), most books in the YA category serve as little more than cheap escapist entertainment.

However, I did have one response stating that YA fiction shouldn’t exist at all, as its very presence essentially gives permission for authors to write poorly conceptualized and written novels.  Still, there were a couple of responses that basically listed YA literature as “gateway” literature which inspires interest in reading and is therefore a good thing.

So, let’s take a more in-depth look at YA literature and break it down a little.

Garfield is a classic.

First, as to its existence, I say “why not?’  In our modern world of globalization, societies are filled with people trying to find a place where they fit.  In the literary world, this is where genres come into play.  There is a genre for everyone, even the creepers.  No one questions the need for and existence of children’s books and of more adult-focused books.  Why?  Because parents recognize that children need books specifically targeted at their attention range, reading level, and social existence.  Therefore, no one criticizes the Berenstain Bears books for being simple or the Mercer Meyer books for focusing on specific issues related to kids, liking making friends.

Likewise, adults also wouldn’t want their younger, or even teen children, reading some of the books written for adults (ah hem, 50 Shades of Grey). Sexually explicit books, as well as novels with a high volume of profanity, should have no place in a teen’s mind.  Now, not all adult literature is like that, it is true.  But then again, adult literature, is by it’s very nature, geared towards adults – adult life, adult emotions, adult situations.  While a young adult, especially on the older range, may get some value from adult books, they are still generally left out in the cold.

For, if there were no YA genre, then young adults would be stuck with the stories of their childhood and pre-teen years.  And let’s face it.  Teens should not be stuck with the stories of their childhood for several reasons. Talk about simplicity.  Reading those stories will not help improve their reading level.  Two, the sheer boredom will remove all vestiges of interest in reading they have.  As they grow older and their situations change, so do their interests.

YA books cover a whole host of topics that relate directly to its targeted audience.  It provides a balance between the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Stories are fairly straightforward, sometimes exceedingly simple, yet.  However, the issues covered handle everything from divorce, bullying at a more mature level, identity issues, drug problems, sex, college stress, and more.  But, these issues are covered in a more age-appropriate manner.  As a result, it gets YA readers who usually read nothing more than menu at a coffee shop, a gateway into the possibility of books.

Now, to cover content.  The stories themselves as far as plot and content go, I can usually condone through the above reasoning of relateability .   However, as for the actual literary content (writing style, characterizations, etc) I have no excuse.  Yes, many of the YA books circling the public realms today makes me cringe.  And I am a huge advocate of YA books in general.  When I read a YA characterized book, I am not expecting Thomas Hardy or Dostoevsky.  I don’t expect that when I’m reading adult literature like John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Stieg Larsson.  I expect something more befitting the reading level of 8th-12th graders, preferably closer to 12th graders.  With this in mind, then there are quite a few good YA authors such as Sarah Dessen and Gayle Forman.  That being said there are seemingly more authors who use as genre as an excuse to publish quantity over quality, especially in the YA paranormal department.  Still, this problem IS NOT unique to the YA genre.

Which brings me to my next point.  When comparing the YA books of today with those of the past, there are going to be a lot of grumbles at the sad state of YA literature.  After all, who can compare Twilight with To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer for Owen Meany or 1984 with The Hunger Games?  In fact many readers wouldn’t classify To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer…, or 1984 as YA books.  Their intrinsic value is so far above teen fiction today and their themes transcend typical teen angst and teen society that they belong to adult literature.   Yet, they are classified as YA literature.  And, in comparison, everything produced today seems juvenile.  At least that’s what the critics say.  However, once again, this is not unique to YA books, so it should not be held against the genre.  Adult books have the same problem.  Larsson and Brown are good, but they do not hold up to Dostoevsky.  And what leg does Jodi Picoult have to stand upon when compared to Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte?   Literature, in most genres, is sliding from the standard classic sets.  If you punish one, you really should punish all.  We could get rid of genres all together and let all books blend and mesh into one indistinguishable mess.

Ideally, all YA authors would have a proficient grasp of literary techniques and styling.  They would write novels that efficiently transition to and more closely resemble adult literature than children’s literature.  Kudos to those that do.  But, just because that is not sweepingly the case does not call for the elimination of the genre.  It does not lessen the value of the books that justly and efficiently serve their purpose and place in YA literature.

To summarize, I’m including a response from one of my literary scholars that gives a fairly objective voice to the three questions (meaning she lists the good and the bad).

‎1.) To further rot our adolescents brains and to think that things like abusive relationships are okay. On the other hand, it does foster an active imagination and a desire to read, which getting adolescents to do nowadays can be challengi

ng.2.) I think there is a huge difference between a male writing a YA novel and a female. For example, Christopher Pike wrote some amazing vampire tales. They were gothic and intriguing and appealed to both guys and girls. And then you have Stephanie Myers who wrote Twilight. I can count on one hand the number of guys who read Twilight. Some women can accomplish the feat of writing to appease both genders, however most seem to prefer the woman’s point of view and write primarily to a larger female audience. A greater majority of male authors, on the other hand, can write to appeal to both genders.

3.) A pro of the YA novels in the classroom is that it does encourage reading. However, a big con is the absolute lack of morals and creativity that a lot of popular YA novels have. Most encourage and have things such as smoking, drinking, sex, and drug use throughout the novels.

ONCE AGAIN, feel free to comment and discuss.  

3 thoughts on “Young Adult Fiction

  1. First of all, let me say that this is a great post. While I disagree with Cassandra, she makes her point very well! However, this argument strikes me as being similar to the argument that I would rather my teens listen to Eminem and Gangsta Rap than not listen to music at all (though perhaps not as extreme). I, for one, wouldn’t. Eminem and Gangsta Rap both promote unhealthy behavior that I wouldn’t want my teens exposed to. I would rather than they not listen to any music. In the same way a lot of YA fiction (as Cassandra pointed out) promotes unhealthy behavior (Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ is a great example). I would rather my child not read at all, than read material that is going to warp their view of love, relationships, violence, addictive behavior, etc.

    There is a further problem that needs to be addressed. Fifty years ago ‘adolescence’ ended at 18 (or younger), and it was considered a time when a child learned to become an adult. Today ‘adolescence’ is generally considered to last into the late twenties. Research has shown that by 14 most individuals are capable of adult or near adult cognitive processing speeds (Kail R., Developmental Psychology 27), and time management strategies (CiCi, S.J. and Bronfenbrenner, U., Child Development 56). It also shows that at a similar age children are capable of adult level risk assessment and decision making (Beyth-Maron, R. and Fischhoff, B., ‘Health Risks and Developmental Transitions During Adolescence).

    A thousand years ago thirteen year-olds were expected to accompany their elders into battle, to fight, kill, and die for the clan/tribe/community/nation. They were expected to marry, bear children, work, and carry all of the responsibilities of an adult. A hundred and fifty years ago the same was expected of sixteen year-olds. Fifty years ago it was eighteen. Now it hovers between twenty-six and thirty. Children are capable of far more (intellectually, physically, and emotionally) than we give them credit for, and the inability of children to ‘cope with the modern world’ does not reflect their capabilities, but our lack of willingness to prepare them for life. The current bent in YA fiction serves to aid and abet this extension of childhood and adolescence by 1) removing challenging influences, 2) supporting the notion that adolescence is a time to engage in risky behavior, instead of the notion that adolescence is a time of preparation for adulthood, and 3) encouraging the notion that adolescence should be long lasting.

    We defend YA fiction by including in it novels that are, in truth, challenging and appropriate for adults, and that many people do not consider ‘YA’ in nature (‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, ‘1984’, ‘Animal Farm’, etc – all of which were originally written for adults). What I am against is not the idea that some material is not appropriate for young readers (that’s what ratings in movies are for), but the notion that any writing should be directed specifically at young readers and only young readers, and therefore does not need to be of the same quality, or contain the challenging themes of ‘adult’ fiction.

    Now I will agree that there is a certain amount of low quality material in every genre. Honestly, my general rule is that 80% of everything is crap, and there is a place for crap. Cassandra can tell you that I have a penchant for bad movies. However, she can also tell you that I can tell the difference between a good movie and a bad movie. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Prometheus’, and don’t feel that I wasted the $10 I spent to see it. However, it was in no way a good movie. This same attitude can be applied to the YA genre. My problem is not that much of the genre is a place for crap fiction to be written, this is true in any genre, but that it is encourages children to remain children, instead of training them to become adults. It is one more example of the way that our culture has ‘protected’ it’s children to the point that they become incapable of functioning in the world, and that is why it needs to go.

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