Intelligent YA is Causing a Problem

I was discussing YA trends with a colleague earlier, as I often do, and we came across an issue that I haven’t thought much about before today. Witty and intelligent realistic YA fiction is becoming very, very popular. This is not necessarily an issue in and of itself as it is causing a secondary problem in the teen reader community. In high school, I was fascinated and enthralled with the footnotes in John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. Books like The Book Thief and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing have captured my attention and my intellectual side as an adult. These types of books with elements like hyper-intelligent teenagers, witty banter between characters, and high-level vocabulary are very present in today’s YA front lists. I love this trend. I love that teenagers (and adults) want to read about smart characters, aspire to be like these characters, and relate to these characters. However, I’m afraid that it may be leading to a downward trend in books for reluctant readers.

In my publishing classes, books for reluctant readers are discussed with importance because many of us believe that it is important for children to read, no matter what. Reluctant readers are paid a lot of attention to at an early age, with many early readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels aimed towards the group. But as children grow into adolescence, fewer and fewer books are being published for the benefit of those who still don’t like to read, or haven’t found it in their interests. The novels that are written for this group of teens are often predictable, easy to read, and trope-heavy. Adults may see this as a bad thing, especially the ones that love to read YA. Something that we must keep in mind, however, is that not all YA books have to be good crossover books. While I agree that sometimes books find a place with a different audience, and sometimes writers are compelled to write a story and it’s a sort of accidental teen book, there is still a place for books that are mainly for adolescents.

I make this argument not because I think that there should be more formulaic, dumbed down books in the market, but because I think that all types of readers need books that appeal to them. Books for reluctant readers are simply an easier gateway to the world of reading, and as long as kids are reading them, I think that they are important. Say a 14-year-old girl reads a lower level YA book featuring a female main character who has divorced parents and is angry and closed off from her friends. This reader might relate to the specific character, and might go looking for more books about kids with divorced parents, kids who are having trouble with their friends, or kids who are dealing with anger issues. That one book has opened up a world of possibilities for that reader, and is a valuable resource for whatever she might be dealing with in her own life. Reluctant readers may not pick up a book with advanced vocabulary and concepts right away, but if they start with books of their interest, it might lead them to eventually read those witty and intelligent novels.

Overall, I think that it’s great that kids are reading intelligent books. I think that it’s equally as great that adults are reading (and enjoying) them, too. But I think that it is still incredibly important to remember that YA books are for all teens, not just the ones who already enjoy reading. We can’t forget about the teens who are reluctant to pick up a book and need a starting point. After all, none of us started swimming in the deep end of the pool.


Making YA Novels Authentic

One of the biggest challenges for YA authors is writing authentically. It’s difficult to adopt the voice of a teenager as an adult writer. In the article The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Young-Adult Fiction Authors, some of the most popular YA authors tackle the issue of how to write relatable teen characters. The beginning of the article cites a 120% growth in the number of YA titles published between 2002 and 2012. While this is great news for teen readers, it makes for more conflicting views on how books for young adults should be written. As Nolan Feeny says, there are many authors who think there is no secret to writing for teens: “Good writing is good writing; believable characters and compelling plots are crucial regardless of who’s picking up the book.” I agree with this statement, but I think there’s also something to be said for being able to write teen characters. There are just some things that teenagers would never say, and it distances the reader if they can’t believe that the character is a real teenager.

There are many great points in the article about how to effectively write for teens in a way that’s authentic. One of the most poignant is finding the “emotional truth” of the teenage experience. It’s not important to create an experience or situation that the reader finds directly relatable, but they should find a connection in the emotions and feelings that the characters experience. John Green mentions that he gets emails from readers saying that they are just like Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars, except they do not have cancer, nor are they female, white, or sixteen years old (or any combination of those things). In reality, those readers aren’t just like Hazel, but they’ve found her emotionally truthful and relate to her in that respect. Those readers can say that they feel like Hazel because they felt the same way about a different situation. In a different way, teenage readers also want to see emotional truth in the intensity of their experiences. Falling in love for the first time, questioning mortality and meaning, and trials and tribulations of friendship are all parts of being a teenager. These can be emotionally intense experiences for teens that are crucial to self-discovery and growth. An author can be authentic to YA readers “by nailing that keenness of feeling and emotion and high-stakes nature of the interactions they have with people every day,” as Kristen Pettit puts it.

Also essential to writing for teenagers is finding the “kernel of hope” in the story. There’s usually an underlying optimism in YA that is seen through a character’s development. Although the article states that it’s okay for Young Adult novels to be dark, it’s important for them to have some sense of hope. I think that it’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that novels should be outwardly preachy to teenagers. David Levithan puts it nicely when he says, “It’s not about being preachy or pragmatic to say that most people find a way out of the maze of adolescence. It’s only being accurate.” Not every YA novel will end happily, but all of them show that being a teenager is something that everyone has to push through, one way or another. I think that is ultimately why novels for teens are so important. As adults, we know that being a teenager is difficult, but we also know that there’s life beyond adolescence. That’s why it is so valuable to have authors writing about teenage characters. Teen readers will always be able to find solace and support within the pages of a book.

YA: Age and Reason

Defining YA (Young Adult) fiction is not an easy task. So it’s interesting when writers, editors, librarians, teachers, parents, and readers try to fit it into a neat little category. There’s such a wide range of topics, writing styles, character arcs, and even readers themselves. In 2012, The Wire started a weekly series in which they discussed YA literature for adults. After some middle grade titles were included in the first installment of the series, readers commented on the post pointing out the misuse of the term “Young Adult.” As a result, Jen Doll explores the question What Does ‘Young Adult’ Mean? in her article of the same title. The truest part of the article is a quote from former YALSA president, Michael Cart: “The term ‘young adult literature’ is inherently amorphous, and for its constituent terms ‘young adult’ and ‘literature’ are dynamic, changing as culture and society – which provide their context – change.” There literally cannot be one solid, unchanging definition for YA literature. I’ve thought about how hard it is to think of a definition that encompasses all of YA fiction, but I think that it’s even harder to define YA literature because of its ever-changing nature.

The article addresses a number of issues in defining YA literature. From one librarian’s perspective, it’s important to have an age range simply for categorical reasons. Although I agree with the technical reasons for having to categorize YA as books for ages 12-18, I think there’s something to be said for books that are YA, yet can be marketed towards a much broader audience. Maybe for purposes of the library there should be an age range, but when marketing a YA book, sometimes it does well to try to target adults as well as teens. We see this in a book like The Book Thief. It’s considered an adult book in Australia, where it was originally published. Yet, in the United States, it’s categorized as Young Adult. Realistically, The Book Thief is a book for everyone from teens to older adults. So, as far as marketing, I think that it was a mistake that the publisher chose to categorize it as YA, when categorizing it as adult would make adult and teen readers pick it up. Of course, this touches on a much deeper issue in YA publishing. Why don’t adults take YA novels seriously? Maybe if they did, we wouldn’t have to worry about the reach of a book with a younger protagonist if it was categorized as YA.

Some of the people cited in the article talk about the trend that more and more adults are reading YA. I think this is true, but there’s still a stigma that exists that needs to be challenged. Many adults either look down upon reading YA books, or only value them for their nostalgia. Although Cart says YA literature of today “welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking,” Doll closes her article with a bit saying, “There’s no stopping its [YA books’] nostalgic thrall for adults.” There’s an issue with saying that adults only read YA for the nostalgia of it. There are many YA books that teach important lessons and force one to discover new things about his or herself. Lessons and learning about oneself aren’t things that happen once in the teenage years and then never again. These are things that we, as people, go back to over and over. I can learn something new about myself from a twelve-year-old narrator, and I’m not ashamed of that. There are many reasons to read YA literature, and none of them should be frowned upon or limited to a specific age group.

It’s Okay to Be a Bad Friend

Alright, maybe it’s not okay all the time. But it’s okay to be a bad friend sometimes.

About a year ago I experienced some really shitty feelings. My friends in college were getting a lot of recognition for their accomplishments and I wasn’t. They were winning awards left and right, and I felt left in the dust. I climbed inside my own head and stayed there for a while. It was nice, but I was so lonely. I wanted to be proud of my friends. They’re amazing, wonderful, loving, intelligent people who work so, so hard. Just like me. But the problem was I wanted to be in the spotlight. I wanted the recognition too. Where was my award? I felt as though I had regressed to a time of pats on the back and gold stars.  I angrily cried to my mom on the phone because I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong.

My friends noticed. When they won awards, I said congrats and walked away. They noticed that I was staying inside of my own head. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t want to acknowledge them because they had enough acknowledgment from other people.

I shouldn’t have been such a bad friend, but it was okay for me to be sort of a bad friend.

It’s completely valid and okay to be upset when you don’t get an award or an acknowledgment of something that you’ve worked really hard for. If your friend gets the award that you feel you deserved in some respects, try your best to put on a brave face and honestly tell them that you are proud. (And you should be proud, or are you really friends?). It’s damn hard to do that. But your friends want to be loved and acknowledged just as much as you do.

So be a bad friend when you’re talking to your mom. Yell about not getting that pat on the back or gold star. Cry if you need to. Spend a day by yourself doing something for you. Tell your friends that you need a minute. Gather your thoughts. Find your center and find your happy. Write a list of all the great things that you have accomplished and hang it on your wall. Then you can go back to being a good friend.

The most important thing that I learned about being a bad friend is that you need to work on yourself before you can commit to other people. Work out your jealousy, your wrath and your sadness away from the people who might be hurt by it. You’ll probably find that your best friends are best friends for a reason.

Why I Decided to Get Back on the Metaphorical Horse

(Again and again and again)

I like to try new things and take risks. I like to better myself. When I was a freshman in college, I felt like my life was about trying new things. So I started to run. It was an okay experience, and I had the support of my friends, but a few weeks later I got a cold and I stopped running. Over the summer I joined a gym and started running again a few times a week. Yet again, once school started up, I stopped running completely. I was alternating between feeling great and getting discouraged. After falling off of the horse consistently every few weeks for the past 3.5 years, I’ve decided to run the Broad Street Run. My (athletic) college friend convinced me to join her in the 10 mile Philly race after making her own decision to train for a half-marathon.

Up until a few weeks ago, I had never run more than 4 miles at a time (and that 4 mile run was only one time). You’re probably asking yourself, “What makes this girl think she can run 10 miles when she has never committed to running before?” Well, I don’t think I can. Or, I didn’t. I can’t commit. I can’t run that far. I had so many good reasons to not take the plunge and sign up for this race. But forking over $40 to run for almost 2 hours straight isn’t a form of torture. It’s a promise to myself to do something I never thought I would do.

I’m a notorious dreamer, but I struggle with actually accomplishing my dreams. I’ll start something, abandon it, and never look back. I haven’t been loyal to my Broad Street Run training program, but I’m determined to have a different outcome this time. If I don’t run for a week, I just push myself harder the next week. I can run 6 miles now without even being exhausted. I didn’t even know that was possible. Little by little, I’m getting closer to my goal. In 6 weeks, I will be running 10 miles and owning it. Take that, horse.

I bet you’re struggling with your own horse. Maybe it’s a relationship. Maybe you want to get a promotion or do more community service. Whatever it is, I encourage you to take the reins and show that horse who’s boss. Write out a plan. Dream a little. And if you don’t stay on track, don’t you dare let that slow you down.

Do Children’s Books Have too Many Boys?: A Response

[Although the article that I reference in this post is from 2013, I think that the issues in it are still very relevant.]

In the article What Does it Mean that Most Children’s Books Are Still About White Boys?, Soraya Chemaly brings light to unequal presence of gender in children’s books. The intriguing statistics mentioned in the article point to a startling lack of female protagonists. It’s commonly discussed that boys are lacking books to read, or at least books that appeal to them. This article flips that perspective and shows that the problem might be boys’ lack of acceptance of female characters. Not that they necessarily inherently dislike reading about females, but society teaches them that they should. Chemaly says, “Children’s ability to cross-gender empathize is a one-way street—girls have to do it and boys learn not to.” She references an instance when her daughter had to explain what sexism was to a male classmate in third grade. Her daughter’s classmate didn’t want to read a book because the cover featured a woman. She responded, “You should read girl books, too. Not reading them just because they’re about girls is sexist.” Chemaly’s daughter’s response rings clear and true. If this is how boys are learning how to judge books, there’s a deep problem with what they are being taught.

This is especially important to think about when marketing children’s books. Is it the marketing team’s job to make a book appeal to both boys and girls? Or is this a societal issue that needs to be fixed on a fundamental level? This should be everyone’s burden to take on. It’s not as simple as publishing more books about girls, although that would be helpful. As a society, there needs to be a point where parents teach children that they can read about either gender and find it enjoyable (specifically for boys reading about girls). On the marketing side, it’s challenging because the audience is often required to be limited. It’s hard to say that a book featuring a princess in a sparkly dress should be marketed towards boys because boys are not included in the all-important target audience. Fiscally, it is a waste of time to market a book to those who will probably not read it. Therefore, this issue would be better handled by parents, educators, and librarians. If it becomes a more acceptable societal norm that both boys and girls somewhat equally enjoy stories about princesses in sparkly dresses, it would be easier to say that boys are a part of the target audience for those books.

The issue of gender presence in books gets even trickier with feminist texts for children and teens. Obviously, with a society filled with books about white male characters, there’s a need for strong females in children’s literature. But how do you teach boys about feminism when society is so firmly grounded in a masculine, patriarchal society? It’s important to think about, as a parent or teacher especially, because a fundamental knowledge of feminism early on could lead to greater cross-gender understanding in the future. By giving boys a book to read with a strong female protagonist, it’s teaching them that women are just as capable as men are. Maybe a straightforward book that defines feminism would even be beneficial to young boys (and girls). More feminist texts should be published in addition to teaching boys why it’s important to learn about. The first step to gaining gender equality is to start with the younger generations. Children’s books aren’t just entertaining texts, but learning tools for morals and values for the future.