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.)
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.
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
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.