Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Bias Against YA "Literature"

There's a stigma against young adult, or teen, lit. It's "not literary," it's escapism, it's total mush designed to corrupt your child's soul and innocence, it paints an unrealistic portrait of adolescence... I'm sure we all have heard it all. Critics of teen novels group them with the likes of beach reading, chick lit, and generally other fiction genres that professional book critics and academic scholars turn up their noses at.

It's a shame, too, because there really is so much good YA lit out there. Sure, there are the trashy, drama-ridden teen series that generate so much media (and money) and paint the inaccurate portrait that teen novels are a waste of paper. But there's also so much more than that. Young adult literature is a genre where confused adolescents, struggling to come into their own identity away from their parents' or even their friends' expectations, can find solace and even kinship.

I mean, the teen years ain't easy, friend. I remember numerous nights where all I could do was pour my heart through shaky fingers into my journal and then cry myself to sleep at night, screaming into my pillow the words that I wished I could tell someone, someone who'd listen and understand what I was going through. But of course, there was no such person.

But through books, I found friends. I found similarities, the knowledge that I'm not alone, that these feelings I'm experiencing? This sense of loneliness, of isolation that I can never seem to shake? The hair-ripping awkwardness that consumes me around anybody I actually want to be friends with? It's all natural. I am not the only one with this problem, these feelings. And the feeling of relief that I encounter when I can see myself as the main character, or see myself being a character's friend, is profound and deep.

Nowadays I am lucky enough to not have to find my only source of companionship and empathy in black and white. However, I still read YA lit, and not just because I intend to work with adolescents when I graduate, and so never want to forget the emotions associated with being in the teen years. So why, then? 

I bring this up not because I want to write a "Why I Read YA Lit" essay (although that would be fun), but because I'm struggling to retain my faith in the genres that I love to read without succumbing to the general consensus around me that YA lit is trite and uninformed. I'm currently taking a librarianship internship/class this semester. I'm incredibly lucky, I know, I know. Pretty much the biggest thing I'm learning from it is that I'm not a good for academic librarianship, not at all, lol.

Anyway, each of the students in the class create a final project. My classmates are doing things such as archiving in the Friends Historical Collection (the Quaker documents library on my school's campus), giving a reading of T. S. Eliot and showing books related to him that can be found in our Rare Books Room, and so on and so forth. Me? I want to do my project on the type of books I love the most. You got it. I want to do a project on young adult literature.

I've had my fair share of doubts as to how well it's gonna work. For one thing, my school's library has NO teen books at all. For another, my school is full of high-fallutin', four-syllable-word-spewing, liberalemo potential social activists. These are the type of kids who think that literature is reading David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Safran Froer with a cigarette and/or beer in the other hand.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with Wallace's or Froer's works. The problem here is that very few of my classmates even consider teen books a legitimate form of literature. Needless to say, I'm kind of scared shitless to do my project. What if I'm met with a bunch of blank stares that are secretly hiding jeers and cries of "low-minded"?

I considered taking the easy way out: scouring the Rare Books Room for some pretty books to put on display, or whatever. But after two months of being part of the YA blogosphere, I've decided to stick with my initial decision of working with YA literature. Ultimately I want more people to realize that books written for teens does not equal "bad lit." It doesn't matter how lacking my school is in the volumes of information that I'd need for a project like this (which is probably going to relate to my thesis as well).

But I'm going to do it. I want to help promote quality YA literature and help it reach a larger audience. I want to expand the reading horizons of as many readers as possible. I want to reach a point where I no longer feel like a creep or misplaced being if I stand in front of the YA shelves at the local bookstore or library. Literature is all about influencing people and possibly helping them constantly revise their views of the world, right? Who says that that job isn't limited to the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, or Toni Morrison? Who says that YA authors and supporters can't have the same effect?

Besides, I know you've all got my back. When my project is done, I'm celebrating it with y'all. :)


  1. Yay! Good for you! And I agree with everything you said. But it's true that lots of YA books aren't works of 'literature.' The thing that most people don't understand is that this is NOT A BAD THING! While I'm all for the classics, (ok, not all of them, but some of them are ok) lots of them can be fairly draining and kind of irrelevant (please don't attack me you classics-defenders! I said lots, not all. I've read plenty I enjoyed)
    I think these people who bash YA lit haven't read any of the good ones, and are simply ill-informed. And are just looking for an excuse to grumble =)

  2. Remember this... there are some books that dig right into your heart and soul and stay with you forever. There are books that you can't forget no matter how long you live. Those books that change you, even if it's in tiny ways, books that become a part of you. When you're a teenager, those books aren't the big scary ones, they aren't the ones you read to look smart or sophisticated, they're not the ones you read for English, not usually, they're the ones that you read to escape and to just enjoy. If you remember that... you'll do great.

  3. Very well said!

    I am so glad you wrote such an excellent post. As a teacher, I very rarely use "classics". I mean for the most part those novels faced scrutiny when they were released and now they are upheld as amazing works. So instead, I like for my students to choose their own classics.

    I like to choose relevant books that my students can relate to. So far, no one has complained about the quality of the works or challenged the choices. Maybe I'm just lucky and the parents of my students understand that YA isn't bad, it's quality writing that deserves a chance and can change the way their children view reading!

  4. I think this is a great idea! I'm in library school right now and luckily I'm specializing in YA/children's lit. But that doesn't mean everyone in my classes reads YA or children's. Even working in a library, I get resistance on YA books and if they're "good literature" The more you can talk up YA lit and be an advocate for it, the better. Good luck!:)

  5. You go! Anyone who thinks YA lit is trite & "low brow" needs to read Paper Towns ASAP!
    Can't wait to hear about your final project!

  6. This is really cool! Good luck with this!! And...grab your award on our site!!


  7. What I have to say is, look at who's providing the criticism. Nuff said. YA books are not written for those people and the people that write YA literature (well, most of it anyway) couldn't give give two tightly coiled piles of shit about that they think of their work.

    These are the people that pour over literary masturbation as if the spooge is made of gold. They're so much more interested in plumbing the depths of their own navels that they can't see that the majority of the people on the planet (forget the country) can't get through the so-called "good" lit-ra-ture because it's far out of their reach.

    Let those pretentious asshats have their Wallaces and Joyces and whatnots. You'll take the good stuff that people actually *want* to read. That actually *sells*.

    I write YA and I'm definitely prone to bouts of "When are you going to start writing for big kids?" in which I return with inverting the guy's Adam's apple. People like that have their heads wedged so firmly up their own asses that they could perform their own endoscopies. They're so detached from what the average person likes they're not even in the same stratophere.

    Let them have their lit-ra-ture. The rest of us will take the stuff that actually sells (and it's a statistical fact that lit-ra-ture doesn't sell, it just wins awards) and people really want to read, not just because of some professorial obligation to do it.

  8. We got your back Steph, good luck with this!

  9. I agree. There are so many genres that get overlooked by the book snobs of the world. It's a shame that they have no idea what great books they're missing out on.

  10. Who are those people. 1)I'm Quaker (great school). 2)I majored in English 3)I read literary to YA. There is nothing wrong with preferring well written literature. Some of your critics would likely enjoy YA if you provided them with well-written YA fiction. What you're up against is ill-formed readers. Is that a crime? Folks who think little of YA simply don't know it. Rather than taking the defensive stance, think of it the way you would approach students who automatically turn up their noses say at Shakespeare. Otherwise, how are you any different than the critics?

    My suggestion would be to present a project that demonstrates why YA literature is relevant. Showcase works that are modeled or complement classics, highlight works tagged 'issue books', feature works that provide characters that that are absent or underrepresented in classic literature (people of color, LGBT, multiracial families, different nationalities/ethnic groups). Argue how a lead character closer to the age of the reader resonates with the reader and therefore the reader is more vested in the text. And to the chargrin of some, I do suggest you not put an emphasis on pop culture themed works. That is not to say there isn't value with these works. My point is the only works they identify with YA are contemporary, pop culture titles. Educate your audience about the broader appeal of YA. There's a ton of YA that is complex, dark or geared towards an audience older than the traditional audience. For example, In The Time of The Butterflies is classified YA, but this novel has adult leads and deals with politics, war and murder. The classic To Kill A Mockingbird is YA. Critically acclaimed novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's first novel, Purple Hibiscus is YA. The Book Thief is YA. Out of Bounds by Beverly Naidoo is YA.

    YA is not what is was even 20 years ago. Englighten them. Your audience doesn't know the breadth of YA so help them discover it. When you go into the bookstore, YA does look limited. Show them how much there is to be enjoyed.

    Okay, so you asked for support not my opinion. Well, I'm adult who reads a lot of YA and so I get the funny looks more than you do. I do prefer quality, writing. I won't read lazy writing geared towards any audience. And I read YA.

    Your project will set you apart because you had the balls to take on an expected, underdog genre.

    Good luck.

  11. Today's YA is so much more sophisticated and challenging than the YA of years past. It's an exciting time to read YA with titles that run the gamut from dark dystopias that are as good or better than their adult counterparts to experimental, high concept novels that break new boundries to issues novels that address the situations of teens today in an open, non-judgemental way (so many issues novels of the past were just SO preachy and treacly). Even many of the so called pop culture titles have surprising depth to them.

    I agree with Susan that many people who dismiss YA just don't know how amazing YA is. So show them!

    But you know what? Some people are still going to turn their noses up at it. I have lit snob friends who reject all genre fiction out of hand.

  12. Didn't you remind me about relativism? Don't resort to asserting one is superior to the other. Argue instead the merit of the genre in its own right. Aim to persuade your audience to broaden their perspective.

    Don't argue that YA is something that it isn't. There is the lite, bumble gum stuff and you don't have to equate that to classics. If you want to make a case for it compare apples to apples. Argue the merit of popular fiction.

    There are folks who earn their PHD's in popular culture. Pop culture is an reflection of who a society is. It speaks to our values, beliefs and behaviors. By this is sidetracking in my opinion.

    At Shelfari there is a discussion about how to use YA to help teach the classics. Look for that discussion.

    One of the most important books I read as a teen was Roots. Please don't fall into the trap of saying teens don't care or value the classics. Weak and errenous argument. You'll find many writers, including YA writers who will tell you their childhoods were steeped in the classics.

  13. Susan, thanks for the comments. I hope I didn't give the impression that I was defending YA, or attacking people who don't understand or appreciate YA, or bashing the classics. It's the same way for me and books like "Catcher in the Rye," I guess. There are those who like it and those who cannot connect with it.

    You're right: the biggest thing we have to do here is promote awareness of the existence of YA, and make good YA authors' names be known as well as the "classics". I unfortunately can't be as ambitious as you say I should be in your first comment, but I'm going to save all of those points for when I become an English teacher myself, and can hopefully use YA in teaching. :)

    And thanks for the comments, everyone! It's great to get so much feedback and support, and I'm going to take all your concerns and suggestions into consideration.

  14. Kudos you to Steph for sticking to your guns. I'm really excited about your project. I hope that you will keep us all updated on its progress!

  15. omg I'm dyslexic this morning lol!

  16. Great writing and strong characters will always win the day, regardless of the genre, in my opinion.
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of HOPE..
    Ch. 1 is online!

  17. Steph, I was speaking to the arguments and audience at-large. You personally don't strike me as someone who would bash the classics or attack critics. My experience is that English majors learn to challenge the message not the messenger and you seem to do that.

    I don't know how involved your project is suppose to be or how long you have. I would like to know more about it and I can direct you to some resources including professionals if you're interested. Would love to talk off-blog about it.


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