Friday, August 10, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: A Definition...maybe...

So, after thinking about the NPR poll yesterday and thinking more and more about a] our societies' current obsession with YA fiction and b] how NPR's reply to their poll just muddied the water considerably I thought I'd put in writing what makes YA fiction what it is. And, yes, for the sake of teacher's everywhere, it really does need to be a little more scientific than what NPR has given us.

First, how NPR classifies YA Lit
  1. We don't care if it's adult literature, if a teen reads it than we can call it YA fiction, unless we didn't want to...see #5.
  2. Young Adult means ages 12 to 18.
  3. A book where the publisher says it's for ages '8 and up' or '10 and up' is automatically Children's lit, except, um, see #4.
  4. If a book has won a Newbery Award it's too, unless, our judges said it wasn't too young.
  5. Books we deem 'rites of passage' should be consider YA even if we deem them too young (The Last Unicorn) or not intended for young adults to begin with (The Lord of the Rings, Dune, The Catcher in the Rye. Did Salinger really mean for his book to be for adults? I'll have to Google that later.)
  6. If a book was meant for a teen audience and it has too many adult themes we didn't add it too the list (their examples: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Ender's Game...I guess they forgot all about how Tom Robinson was accused of rape, oh, not to mention the abuse aspect, in To Kill A Mockingbird and that The Hunger Games is set in a future society where 24 kids are forced to kill each other, in pretty gruesome fashion, until there is only one and the reason isn't survival, but domination in a post-apocalyptic/dystopic society)
Some NPR commenter highlights
(at the time of writing this blog post there are 54 comments)
  • There should be a list of Middle Grade books.
  • Where is Michael Cadnum, manga, Steampunk, Mark Twain, Scott O'Dell, Norma Klein, Cleavers, Jean Little, gender and ethnic diversity, All the Pretty Horses, Out of the Dust, Pride and Prejudice, Science Fiction like Heinlein, ERB, Moorcock, Baroness Orczy, Neil Gaiman, Alexander, McKillip?
  • Do kids really like Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Chocolate War, A Separate Peace, and other 'classics' anymore? Read my answer to what I feel teacher's should be doing about this here.
  • Why are some of the books so new?
  • NPR you're being a little contradictory: Yes to LotR as being a rite of passage, but no to Pride and Prejudice? Yes to Catcher in the Rye, but no to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Go Ask Alice isn't too mature? Yes to Twilight and The Hunger Games, but no to Ender's Game? If A Wrinkle in Time is too young so is Tuck Everlasting
  • Thanks for the variety of genre and age ranges within the YA spectrum and for accounting for all taste...(I think somebody even used the words 'precious gems'). Thanks for your efforts.
  • Remember this is a poll of readers.
  • The fundamental question was flawed: Was I supposed to be selecting books I read and loved as a young adult? Was I supposed to only be selecting YA books? What is YA? Was I supposed to select books that make you 'well-educated' or are deemed 'classics'? Did I have to actually have read them all or just the ones I voted for? How was I suppose to choose only 10? (I can tell you I picked 10 books that I definitely read that I know moved teenagers in some fashion)
  • How did Betsy-Tacy get in?
  • Judges shouldn't use personal feelings to determine readership.

A recap of a brief discussion in Young Adult Book-Content Advisory
  • Children's and YA should be separate
  • Why do bookstores, publishers and librarians get to say what is Children's, YA or Adult?
  • YA needs a rating system
  • YA should mean 17-25
  • An interview with Isaac Marion

My categories...based on Wikipedia, this article, my own brain and a post. These are followed by my 'two-cents', for what it's worth
(this can be found in the above discussion, as well)

There are actually three classifications

Age: 0-8

Picture books, early reader books, very simple language, use large print, and have many illustrations

The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales,
The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales,Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,Skippy Jon Jones Collection,Chicken Little

Middle Grade 
Age: 9-12

1. Middle grade novels tend to be shorter. (Though not always—the huge and intimidating Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is middle grade, while Angela Johnson’s brief-as-a-vivid-dream The First Part Last is quite clearly teen.)
2. Middle grade novels tend to have main characters who are the age of—or slightly older than—the target reader. (Though this, too, isn’t hard and fast: The girls in The Witch Family are younger than the reader who can fully appreciate the story, and even characters such as Mr. Putter or Frog and Toad are for all intents middle-aged.)
3. Middle grade novels tend to be more outwardly focused: Their plot of events, of things happening to the character, is more important over the course of the book than what happens within the character. (Though that matters very much to the climax of the book, when the outward events trigger an inner change.)
4. Middle grade novels tend to have a simpler vocabulary and a simpler sentence structure.
Middle grade novels tend to have a single inciting element—the thing that sets the comfortable, given world a-kilter.

The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset,Charlotte's Web,
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the whole series)

Young Adult/Teen
Age: 13-up

1. Teen novels tend to have a wider vocabulary and a more complex sentence structure.
2. Teen novels tend to give as much weight to the interior mechanics of character dilemma and change as to the outward mechanics of plot and event. That is, how a character feels about what is happening is as important as what is happening.
3. Teen novels tend to be less a simple-upsetting-of-a-status-quo (the world as it the reader knows it) and more the realization that the world is more complex than we suspected as children. (Its mysteries are legion.)
4. Teen novels tend to be longer and more demanding of the reader.

Twenty Boy Summer,Divergent (whole series),Twilight (whole series)

I find it interesting that these descriptions don't really, directly encompass the amount of sex, cussing, violence et cetera in each book. However, I really didn't think much about it until I read The Hunger Games series. As an adult reader I could tell that I wasn't the target audience, I could also tell that most high schoolers (while they like the books) would find it any easy read, below their reading levels and easy to figure out. I truly had a problem with the amount of violence in those books. I'm not arguing with the tag of middle grade...mostly I'm arguing with myself about whether I would let my kid read those books or not. I've come to the conclusion that I would let her read anything that she was prepared (maturity etc.) to read. 

This is why classifying books in any other way, but the broad strokes above would be so tricky, as subjective attitudes, personal mores and our own morality come into play when wanting to classify books. I am positive that using our personal ideals is fine on a personal level at home, but on a broader level if we, as parents/adults/teachers, use these classifications to determine readership we are doing a subtle form of censorship, as what one person believes on a personal level is totally different than what another person believes.

It is no longer the day where a parent can just grab a book on a shelf, like the cover and let their kid read it. If we want to help our kids make appropriate (according to us) discussion we have to read the book too and not leave the determination in the hands of bookstores, libraries or teachers (as I promise I've been burned a time or two by 'letting' my students read a book that seemed just fine for a 15/16 year old to read). 

And, finally, it would seem to me that book stores and libraries and teachers that do not use these three distinctions are behind in the times and doing everyone a disservice, especially themselves.

A plea to adults everywhere
Read YA Fiction all you want, but leave its plots, themes and expectations in the hands of its appropriate readers; the youth it was intended to propel into reading in the first place. Do I think the Twilight Saga blows chunks? My adult brain says, "Yes" while simultaneously harboring an inappropriate crush on a certain undead vampire. Really, it's perfect YA lit and if we're lucky Twilight readers will find Sookie Stackhouse and then Anne Rice and, finally, the ultimate in vampire literature Dracula (yes, I feel vamp lit has a hierarchy. Heck! I believe all genres have hierarchies). We have to give those reader's time to grow and mature. Let's not impose our adult brains on what teens read either. There are some adult books that truly speak to the growth and maturity of youth, and it's OK that teens read them, but let's not call those books YA just because they do. And, in that same respect, we can read teen lit all we want, but let's not commandeer it as our own, OK?!


  1. Hmm, interesting. And yes I read the whole thing...well I skipped over a few parts in the middle...neither here nor there. However, I tend to hate it when adults knock the actions of teenage heroines as emotional and stupid, hello, they're 16 not 32. They're supposed to act on emotions instead of logic....just how you did when you were 16; or did you forget.
    That is all :-)

  2. i have to agree. sometimes we have to read YA fiction with our adolescent, i could wax on about how there are no good female role-models for girls (and, i have), but also know that the teenager in me would have loved, loved, loved Tris...gah!



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