What YA Lit is and isn’t

This past year I’ve met with a lot of book clubs, several of which were adult book clubs. Many were surprised that The Adoration of Jenna Fox was a teen book. They had never read a teen book before—at least not since their own teen years. They didn’t really know what YA fiction was. They are not alone. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about young adult literature. Who writes it? Why do they write it? Who should read it? Who shouldn’t? What are the author’s responsibilities? What should their responsibilities be? What is YA lit? What is it not? Is it “safe” literature? Being a YA writer, all these questions make me feel almost subversive at times.

Can you imagine having these same suspicions, er, I mean, questions about any other kind of literature? Adult books for instance.

Why do those writers write stories about adults?
Science fiction? Shouldn’t those adults grow up and read real fiction?
Hemingway is just watered-down fiction when adults should be moving on to complex stuff like Kafka and Tolstoy.
Do adults really need to read McCarthy when we have Dickens? It was good enough for our grandparents.

(Or fill in the author substitutions of your choice.)

I wonder if everyone’s very strong opinions about this one segment of literature comes from our attitudes about the teen years? We fear them. We want teens to “get over it” quickly, and heck, let’s not mess with books that just dwell more on the teen years! Move on! How many times have you heard someone practically offer condolences to someone upon hearing they have teenagers? I’ve never understood that. Maybe that’s why I like writing about the teen experience. I find it amazing. Let’s face it. When we are teens we ARE adults, albeit young ones. Hm. Young. Adults. I wonder how they came up with that? And we are making important and complex decisions. It’s a fascinating period in life. Why shouldn’t there be books that explore it?

So back to some of the misconceptions and questions:

Who writes it?

People like me. People who find the teen years fascinating and the nuances of teen literature a challenge. I am not writing it as “practice” so I can one day write an adult book (I am asked that a lot.) Young adult books are not a lesser, watered-down version of adult books. They are not any easier or harder to read than adult books and they are certainly not any easier to write. They are just different. Just as with adult books, some teen books are easy and breezy and meant to be that way, and others, like Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, or Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, are complex and mulit-layered. They can offer social commentary, as with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart, while being immensely entertaining at the same time. They can examine our flaws and failures and our hopes and dreams in quiet, elegant prose as in Thursday’s Child by Sonya Hartnett, or with fun, quippy prose as in Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins.

I think sometimes there is still this basal reader mentality when it comes to teen books, like it is a stepping stone to the “grown-up stuff.” Basal Reader Year 10. Hm, no. It is simply its own unique type of literature that explores the teen experience.

Recently I’ve heard some discussion about the “responsibility” of YA books and YA authors. Oh, I hate that word when it comes to books. I’ve heard complaints at both ends of the spectrum, far left and far right, wanting books to “guide” readers one way or the other.  Their way, I imagine. Or not include sex or language or whatever, and sometimes the whatever is pretty ridiculous, under the guise that we must “protect” young minds. I have to say, I have seen just as much harm come to children who are over-protected as those who are not paid any mind at all. I have seen parents who sequester their children away from the world in order to protect them, but hey, the world is there, and one day the kid will be out in it. Do they really want to spring it on them cold turkey? Often the results aren’t pretty. Or wouldn’t they rather have their child test the waters while they are still under their wings and can come to them with questions?

But all of this is neither here nor there. The bottom line is that YA books are not meant to raise children. They are everything any adult book is. They are entertainment. They are a place to see ourselves. They are a place to get lost for a few hours. They are a place to make us think and wonder and imagine. They are a place to evoke anger, disagreement, discussion, and maybe tears. Books have no other responsibility than not to make the reader hate reading.

Who should read it?

Anyone who wants to. There are some folks who think YA shouldn’t be a classification at all. That teens shouldn’t be steered to YA books. They are “ready” for adult books. Of course they are! Adult books aren’t necessarily rocket science, ya know? But teens are also ready for YA books, and darn, if they just might not want to read a book that has characters that on some level might be like them. Where the character is voicing their thoughts and their experience. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see ourselves in books. Sometimes we want, and even need, to see our peers or own lives between the pages.

In some ways, I am fine with getting rid of the classification. Lump YA in with all the other books. However, while we are at it, let’s get rid of all the classifications. No mystery. No science fiction. No series fiction. No historical fiction. No romance. No self-help. No non-fiction. No graphic novels. Etc, etc, etc. Make the bookstore and library one big happy room of books in alphabetical order. Maybe we all need to venture beyond our usual reads? It might take a wretched long time to find the book that you want though. Maybe Dewey had a good system after all.

My point is, there are all kinds of books for all kinds of reasons. One is not lesser or more than the other. Books introduce us to different kinds of worlds and thank goodness there are so many to explore.

Finally, I might try to take a stab at some sort of characteristic that sets teen books apart and say teen books are short. I would be wrong. Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

I might say they always have a teen narrator and sensibility. I would be wrong. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.

I might say they end on a hopeful note. I would be wrong.  Inexcusable by Chris Lynch.

I might say that somewhere in the book they explore the teen experience. And maybe there I would be right. But the teen experience is just as varied as the “adult experience” or “senior experience” or “childhood experience” so that doesn’t narrow it down a whole lot either.

One thing I am happy about is that the audience for YA Lit is growing. More adults are discovering it and more older teens are doing the same. I guess for a subversive lot, we’re doing okay.  So tell me, what was the last teen book you read?

Mary E. Pearson is the author of five novels for teens, most recently, The Miles Between just out in September, and newly out in paperback, The Adoration of Jenna Fox which has been optioned by 20th Century Fox for a major motion picture and translated into thirteen languages, both from Henry Holt Books.


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