Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why YA? (Or: kick a snob in the shins**)

Why YA? That is the question. Not, why do I write for young people, but why does anyone? Let me put it another way: any book that is good and complex should, regardless of the age of the protagonist, be considered “adult.” Anything *good enough* for grown-ups to enjoy should be shelved where they can find it without shaming themselves by going to the “ghetto” that is the YA section.

What’s with this attitude? I must say, though I know it’s out there, I’m not exposed to it much. I mean, I don’t talk to people much. Faeries, yes. Goblins, yes. Actual people -- strangers, more to the point -- not so much. But I just happened upon this Locus review by Gary K. Wolfe of the new Margo Lanagan novel Tender Morsels (which I can’t wait to read, and oh, don’t read his review, because it is spoily as all get-out -- since when should a book review be a synopsis?), and though he’s not damning of YA, there’s something stinky-offensive in his tone--

"So even though YA remains one of those dumb categories named for its alleged audience rather than its characteristics (like men's adventure or chick lit). . ."

--and it got me thinking about this brand of prejudice. So, why YA?

Gary K. Wolfe seems to be suggesting that Tender Morsels is good, so why not just call it a really-for-true grown-up book for readers who matter? You hear this sort of thing about The Book Thief too, and other titles that happen to be brilliant books with young protagonists. Why, indeed, are these books just for children and teens? (Greedy little monsters!)

Well, of course, they’re not. They’re for readers of good books. But it offends the snobs that they’re published by “juvenile” publishers, packaged with youth-friendly covers, and shelved -- the horror -- in a special section for -- gasp!! -- the young.

Snobs, I don’t get you, and here’s what I have to say:


Because readers are not born. They are created by good books. Young people are a valid audience whose interests should be considered, in the writing of books that will turn them into Readers. Let’s not plunk kids into an adult section to forage through the body of world literature. How about we give them books -- good ones -- about characters they can relate to, and then make it easy for them to find them?

Oh, wait. That is what we do.

So, that’s why YA. And the suggestion that the rare *good* YA books should get to be elsewhere, like they’re, I don’t know, Soviet-era circus performers given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour the US and maybe defect, it’s offensive. Good YA books are not rare. While I would not say all the books in the YA section are good, neither are all the books in the adult section.

How about you grown-ups stroll yourselves on over to that YA ghetto and have a look. I bet no one will smirk at you or question your IQ, and if they do you can tell them you’re shopping for your niece. Because her television is broken.

You will discover a world of books: fun books, serious books, books with kissing, books with death, books with basketball, and mermaids, and rockstars, and zoologists, and monkeys, and weird fruit, and magic. Just go look.

I challenge you, if you have never done this (though I’m guessing most readers here do not fall prey to this prejudice): go to the YA section of your local library or bookstore and check out or buy three books. Don’t just grab them. Select carefully, and give them a real chance.

You might find that they are wonderful.

And if they are wonderful, does that mean they shouldn’t be here, where kids can easily find them without having to sift through the Clive Cusslers and Rosamunde Pilchers? No. I think they’re right where they ought to be.

Should The Book Thief have been published as a *grown-up book*? Well, that would mean that fewer young people would read it. Does the fact that it’s published as *juvenile* mean that fewer adults will read it? Probably so, but what’s more important? Would you rather have the kids have to search harder for important books they will love, or the grown-ups?


So, enough of this “ghetto” mentality. Young people aren’t cretins, and books written for them aren’t stupid. There is no shame in reading them, and there is certainly no shame in writing them.

I think one of the most important things we can do as writers is create lifelong readers, and that is something writers of *grown-up books* don’t do. We do that, my colleagues and I (though I have only just begun), and in that way, we are really important, not just to the young readers, but to the *grown-up writers* who rely on us to pass readers up the ladder to them. I mean, it’s because twenty years ago a girl read A Wrinkle in Time that she is now reading. . . uh, Eifelheim. You know?


Not that that’s why we do it -- not to roll out some red carpet toward those grown-up books -- but because of the joy of reading itself, and writing, of course, which I happen to think is at its greatest most unashamed mind-opening glory in youth fiction.

So there.

And, Gary K. Wolfe, what's so awful about The Lord of the Flies and Ender's Game, etcetera being regarded as YA? I've read them and they just are, whatever their authors' intentions might have been at the time of writing. They are lucky to get this huge, voracious audience; they should embrace it, not "mutter." Where would Lord of the Flies be without its young readers? Fall on your knees, William Golding (even if you are dead) and thank your stars for the young.


**When I say "kick a snob in the shins," I am not referring to Gary K. Wolfe. He really doesn't say anything all that bad. It's just. . . that tone.


Deirdre said...

I agree, absolutely. Some of the best days of my teen years were spent at the library going back and forth between the adult section and the kids room. Unfortunately, some of the librarians (back in the 70's) thought I was too young for adult books and others thought I was too old for the kids books.

Any book that calls a kid to reading is worthy of being read.

Anonymous said...

Hm...okay...I think I get the piont your trying to make. Maybe.

I suppose I do agree, though being a young person myself I've never really bothered to contemplate what the adults choose to read. Now reading this, I can think about it.

There really is no large difference between adult books and YA books. Both can be extraordinary. Take Carolina Moon (adult book) and Twilight (YA). Both are excellent and any reader would enjoy both of them.

I solute you Laini! :-D You go read those YA books with pride!
Especially Eclipse, so you can agree with me that Jacob Black smells. :-p

xegbp said...

I always visit the YA section in every bookstore and library I go to. I am not sure that I would be the reader I am today if it had not been for the YA section. You are right on the mark. We need the YA section.

S R Wood said...

Laini -- I think I agree. It's a shame that books have to be categorized at all. Imagine a huge bookstore where people wouldnt' have to "cross over" from "their" books to another.

I envision heaven as a great yawning expanse of books in all directions. Oh, with rolling ladders. And armchairs.

Anyway, yes: I'd rather have adults put on their Big Boy Brave shoes and venture into the YA section for good books, than have kids have to do the same in the adult section. Why not make things easy for the people that we're building into lifetime readers?

There is a spark of vitality that more kids have than adults. Not all kids have it, of course, and not all adults lack it. But it's that spark that I think makes them receptive to good, powerful, risk-taking stories. I write for a young audience but that doesn't mean I write simplistically or melodramatically or superficially.

It's a shame that YA has this reputation of being childISH or not-quite-up-to-par with "actual" adult literature.

There are good books out there to be found by kids and adults alike; any grownup who skips the YA section out of principle might not get much from some of the brilliant literature shelved there anyway.

And that's a shame but the solution is not to move all the YA books to the adult section.

Our task is to open the world to young readers, before they turn into adult non-readers....

Debbie Barr said...

Well, I'm still 19, but I don't plan on ever -not- reading YA. And you know what? I recommend YA to everyone-- adults and teens alike. My older sisters are all in their late 20s, early 30s, and yet they, too, enjoy YA still. Just last night I was talking to my oldest sister, about the Twilight books and Shannon Hale.

There is no shame!

Also, how else are you going to recommend books for your kids/nieces/nephews/neighborhood hooligans if you don't read them for yourself?

cindy said...

bravo! well said, laini! i didn't realize i was YA when i wrote spirit bound, but i'm very proud to be part of the genre! as a fantasy writer, we already have *that* label to deal with--but i don't care. i love fantasy and i love YA!

tone almhjell said...

Boy, am I with you on this one. Especially the part about the soviet circus artists. The audacity!

And why do some grown ups suppose that literature for children or young adults can't contain bouncy, chewy, mysterious words or musical, beautiful language?

They seem to be under the impression that the only adjective known to kids today is 'cool', and that kids could not follow an intricate plot. Haven't they read Harry Potter? (Or maybe it was so abundantly clear to them at all times who the culprit was that they deemed easy enough for kids. I, on the other hand, was always guessing.)

I loathe it when people assume that kids must be 'written down to', and when they assume that I'm not trying my very best with my stories since they are 'only for kids'.

'What, you're not done yet? I thought it was just a kids' book.'

Anonymous said...

I'll add my cheer:


J.M. said...

wow. i can't say much besides a sparkle-infused wow. the circus side show was a nice touch but then again heirarchy will always seep into that which as been deemed other simply by it's specificity. i LOVE YA and i agree with EVERYTHING you just said. Thank you, Laini. I'm so glad you are in the world and you give me a lot of hope. This post also encourages me to continue my writing, work and advocacy for the integrity of young people.

I'm really considering the children's lit MFA at Vermont College. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that one day up here...

See- my excitement and awe of you had me switch cases mid-post. You rock.

TheHQforHQ said...

This is a great argument. It's interesting his comment about YA not being named for its characters but its audience, which is pretty close to not really true. In many, many cases, look at the Twilight series A1 example, (also statements by Madeline L'Engle and many, many others) books are marketed as YA not because they were written for youth but because of their characters' ages.
Anyway, I didn't look to all the comments on Wolfe's site, but I hope you gave this response to him.

Seriously, I think in many cases, YA is much better than "adult" books. The literary quality, the plots, the overall innovativeness. It's all there in abundance. I'm an adult and I rummage the young readers' shelves because it's easier to find good writing.

Q said...

Love The Book Thief. And I would have sobbed inconsolably while reading it had I not been in a public place. THAT makes it a good book.

Love Ender's Game, too. I think I did cry reading that for the first time.

LiteratureLover said...

It's funny, just a few days ago a friend asked me to give her some recommendations on what books to read. When I made the list, I realized all of them were either children's books or YA. But it's the genre I love to read so...

She agreed with me and lapped them up.

Blackbringer was first on the list. I'm a latecomer, but a huge fan. Any chance you're giving away a 3rd draft copy of Silksinger? :)

Anonymous said...


I have to laugh because one of my brothers-in-law asked me to recommend a fantasy series a couple of months ago. I recommended one by Garth Nix. He calls me from Barnes and Noble to tell me they don't carry it. I couldn't believe it. After I got off the phone, I realized he was probably searching the adult section. I called him back and laughed at his reaction when I told him he needed to go over to YA or maybe even the children's section. But he ended up liking the series.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Hi Laini,
Your argument here totally reminded me of that great Madeleine L'Engle quote:

"You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

I love that! Also, I think YA readers demand books that MOVE and don't linger for pages and pages over the description of a proustian madeline.... And heck, those books that MOVE are the books I want to read (and write) anyway!

Hope to see you at the SCBWI conference this weekend!


Stephanie Perkins said...

(How much do I love the above Madeline L'Engle quote, Lee? Wow, thank you!)

GO LAINI!!!!!!

Wolfe's elitist attitude makes me fuuume. I love that you addressed my favorite argument -- so guys like him just SKIP Charlotte's Web and go straight for Ulysses? I don't understand how some adults forget why they love reading in the first place. Was it really Leopold Bloom who lit their mind on fire, or could it have *possibly* been a spider saving the life of a pig? How is Wilbur less important, less literary?

(And, of course, I'd argue he's MORE important, but that's for another day.)

I guess I'm most surprised by the article being in Locus. Hmph. (I also freaked out for a moment, thinking the article was written by GENE Wolfe, not Gary K. Whoever Wolfe, which would have been sooo wrong! Phew.)

Oh, and I hadn't heard of Tender Morsels, but it sounds GREAT!! I'm thankful I can read something and enjoy it without having to worry about LOOKING BAD in front of my colleagues or some crap like that. It must be exhausting to be filled with so much shame.

"Oh NO! I can't let anyone know how much I enjoyed this novel written for *shudder* . . . TEENAGERS!! Something must be WRONG with me! NO. Something must be WRONG WITH THE INDUSTRY!!!"


Heather said...

I pretty much gravitate to the YA section and have for quite some time. Most of my favourite reads have come from there!