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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Who is YA?

By now, everyone's heard of the Wall Street Journal article about YA literature with the byline "Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?" At first, I wasn't even going to respond to this article. I am neither a reader nor writer of YA literature. I've started reading more of it since we opened the store two years ago and since I made a friend who blogs about YA books (and forces the best of them into my TBR pile), but I'm not connected to this genre in the way that others are. Now I'm gonna talk about it anyway.

In my opinion, YA literature is for young adults. Isn't that what those two letters, Y.A., stand for? Meghan Cox Gurdon's article refers to a 13 year old girl. As a bookseller, I would not point the mother of a 13 year old kid to the Young Adult section. 13 to me means kid ... it doesn't mean Beverly Cleary kid but it doesn't mean House of Night teen either. It's somewhere in the middle, and where appropriate reading material for one 13 year old kid falls may not be appropriate for another 13 year old kid. In her article Gurdon writes, "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18." She admits that the genre is broad. So broad that maybe we shouldn't be calling it a genre anymore; YA literature has become literature in which the main characters are younger than 20. It's got as many genres within as Adult literature and is read by 13, 16, 18, 20, 30, and 60 year olds. That opens up a lot of doors.

Guess who's here to help you navigate that multitude of doors: booksellers! librarians! teachers! These are people who live to help young people find not only age appropriate titles but titles that are appropriate to the specific person in question. Personally, I focus on middle grade literature. Send me any kid, give me a few specifics as far as likes and dislikes and I can recommend a book they will love. Parents of reluctant readers have told me that I work some sort of magic. It's not magic - it's my job. I read a lot and I research even more so that I can recommend the right books to the right people. I love creating that perfect coupling; that's why I'm in this business. It's not a fancy algorithm, it's just me being a passionate reader and someone who likes to share my passion. I can guarantee that every good bookseller, librarian, and teacher feels the same way. All the ones I know do.

And let's talk about censorship for a moment. Gurdon claims that those she calls "gatekeepers" operate in contrast to the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to sell books and "smut" (her word) is what sells best to teens, so her gatekeepers (the same teachers and librarians I was just talking about) must operate to keep that smut out of the hands of precious, corruptible children. Gurdon even includes a colorful quote from an unnamed editor about the sacrifices publishers have to make to satisfy these gatekeepers. I'm sorry, but that's just not the way it works. Yes, eliminating some of the bad language from a book aimed at teens may get a wider acceptance in the school curriculum. But not every book is meant for the school curriculum. Publishers know that. That's why when I have a discussion with my publishing sales rep she says "this is a great title for you to bring into book fairs!" She's read the books; she knows what's best for the diversity of a school and a bookfair where there's less hands-on bookselling. That's not censorship. A class has anywhere between 20 to 30 students. A teacher may have 7 classes. That's over 200 possible students. Of those 200 students some will be comfortable with bad language (or dark subject matter) but many (and their parents) will not. I think it is just as bad to censor a book as it is to force a child or young adult to read something that they are not ready for.

I don't consider teachers or librarians (or booksellers!) to be gatekeepers. That sounds like a negative term. I prefer to think of us as individuals who open doors, not those who seek to keep them closed. My favorite teachers were the ones who taught me on my level. They recommended outside reading. They exposed me to books and authors I wouldn't have found and ideas that challenged me. I was ready for that, but not every kid is and good teachers know it. A friend recently told me that she borrowed a copy of "The Stand" from me in middle school and it terrified her. I loved Stephen King at that age; she didn't. We are different people with different ideas. There's nothing wrong with that. Stephen King shouldn't be published just because I liked him and he shouldn't be banned just because she didn't. King's novels are published because there is a market for them. The market wasn't created. No one forced me to buy that copy of The Stand - I wanted to read it. As long as teens want to read dark books there will be dark books because the market demands it.

I wish that the mom described in Gurdon's article had come to my store instead of the chain she went to. I would have talked to her about her kid. Learned about her interests and recommended a stack of appropriate books that I was enthusiastic about. She wouldn't have been overwhelmed by the amount of darkness in YA literature because once she told me she wasn't interested in dark books I wouldn't have recommended them and she wouldn't have even noticed them.

I had originally wanted to talk about this article and #YAsaves but sometimes my brain goes otherwheres. Maybe tomorrow I'll write about my ideas as to why the market demands such dark subject matter.

1 comment:

  1. Oh-Em-Gee! That woman has been the talk of the YA board at Absolute Write for the past month. Thank you tons for posting this Michelle!



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