Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why You're Wrong About YA

There have been several high-profile editorials and blogs posted lately that are slamming YA fiction. I'm not going to link to them because I think each of those writers A) gets more than enough traffic, B) has received more than a sufficient number of ego-strokes, and C) aren't really worthy of your time anyway.

Oh, I'm sorry, was that mean?

That's what they're saying about YA, at any rate: it isn't worthy of your time. They're saying that YA books are bad, YA authors are substandard and you just shouldn't bother with any of it.

They're wrong.

First of all, YA isn't a genre. It's a category. Within the YA category, every genre conceivable exists, just as it does in Adult fiction. YA includes science fiction, fantasy, dystopia, romance, paranormal, contemporary, horror, crime, drama, western (though these, admittedly are not particularly popular right now... which, by the way, why not? who doesn't love cowboys?), action, adventure, mystery and anything else you could possibly think of.

The YA category as we know it today has been around for centuries. Literally, hundreds of years. The first time a book was written with a teen-aged person in mind, the YA category was born. (That was in 1802, by the way.) Young adults are whole, valid, and important people. Why should they be ignored? Why should that portion of the human experience be skimmed over or treated as inferior?

It shouldn't. It's as simple as that.

There are a lot of arguments about what makes a book a YA book, and I think all of them are simultaneously valid and invalid.

"It's YA if the main character is a teenager!"
Valid: We tend to see ourselves as the protagonist, and somebody who is in the same phase of life as us is easiest to relate to.
Invalid: Not all teens are in the same place in life, and not all teens see themselves reflected in fictionalized teenagers. Plus, there are many who argue content and theme is more important in categorizing a novel.

"It's YA if the protagonist is trying to figure out how they fit into the world or what they want out of life!"
Valid: This is what most teens are going through and speaks to their personal issues. Questions of "Who am I?" or "What do I stand for?" or "Where am I going?" all speak to the young adult experience.
Invalid: These themes are not unique to teenagers. Especially in our culture's protracted version of childhood (do you know any recent grad school graduates who are living at home with their parents?), these questions reflect a human experience, not just a teen experience.

"It can't be YA if it's dirty/violent/political/otherwise edgy."
Valid: Teens are still, in a very real sense, children. Do they need to read all the filth that this world has to offer? No. Is some of that filth irredeemable? Yes. Some of it is just garbage: filth for filth's sake.
Invalid: Teens live in the real world, and learning how to navigate the real world and all its difficulties is imperative. Some of what gets labeled as "filth" is not only redeemable, but it offers excellent opportunities for discussion and introspection. I mean, really, would you kill twenty-three of your peers if it meant your family and community would no longer be on the brink of starvation and would have access to medicines they need? Would you turn around and sacrifice that relative safety in pursuit of national freedom?

The category is broad and blurry around the edges. The line between "YA Fiction" and "Fiction" is indistinct and subjective. But the bottom line is this: Anytime a book is aimed at or is about a person who has started down the path to adulthood but not yet completed that path, it is a YA book, at least in some respects. This means that a great deal of highly-acclaimed literary fiction is actually also YA fiction.

Catcher in the Rye
Lord of the Flies
The Chronicles of Narnia
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret.
Call it Sleep
The Death of the Heart
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

All YA books, and each one is listed as one of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century by outlets from the Modern American Library to TIME Magazine.

Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, The Giver, His Dark Materials, The Book Thief, A Wrinkle in Time, Bridge to Terabithia, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Charlotte's Web, The Outsiders, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Tuck Everlasting, and Ender's Game are all YA novels or series that have won major critical acclaim and literary awards. I don't think one book on that list could be disputed as quality work, and most people would label each of them as classics (or classics in the making, in the case of the newest titles).

In the early days of marketing and labeling YA (looooooong after the first true YA novels were actually written), publishers and critics declared five novels to be the "fab five" of YA fiction. These five novels were published in 1970s and gave clout to the YA category, helping critics and the public to take YA seriously. What are those five novels, you ask?

The Friends
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The Bell Jar
Bless the Beasts and Children

Hardly what any respectable critic today would refer to as fluff, yet they were all written with a teenaged audience in mind. They were- and are- YA novels.

Even something like Pride and Prejudice would likely be marketed as a YA novel today; 20 year old Lizzie Bennet and her teenaged sisters flounce from one party to the next, hunting for boys. Actually, something like Pride and Prejudice wouldn't be published at all today. It's full of "adult" themes: pursuit of marriage, statutory rape and observations on society. It's a "YA" character: 20 years old with no real life experiences, trying to figure out what she wants in life and how she fits in the world. It's a marketing nightmare.

And make no mistake about it: The YA label is a marketing tactic, nothing more, nothing less. Many YA books appeal to a broad audience, including well-educated adults, and many teens enjoy reading books that are not labeled as YA. Frankly, that's how it should be. I read what I want to read, regardless of what some publisher's marketing team has decided is appropriate for me to read.

Let me repeat: I READ WHAT I WANT TO READ. Sometimes that's YA, sometimes it's not. It isn't up to a pretentious columnist on the internet to tell me what my tastes are, or that they are somehow something to be ashamed of because they are not the same as his.

Yes, some YA sucks. This seems to be the thrust of the anti-YA campaign, and there's a teensy-tiny grain of truth to it. Because YA has absolutely exploded over the last decade or so, the floodgates have been opened, and some substandard work has been released. But guess what? Some adult fiction sucks. Some children's books suck. But in every category, there is brilliance. There are plenty of YA authors out there creating wonderful stories, full of deep characters, rich settings and thought-provoking themes. There are lots of funny, articulate, educated and talented people writing YA fiction. YA doesn't shy away from the grittiest human experiences, nor does it ignore the most beautiful aspects of our lives.

Let's encourage everybody to read, period. Let's encourage authors to write quality work, period. Let's encourage both authors and readers to stretch their limits, find new characters, new places and new situations. Let's challenge beliefs, give readers something to think about.

And above all, let's enjoy ourselves. Because let's face it: Reading is a leisure activity, and it's meant to be enjoyable.

TL;DR Version: First of all, isn't it a little ironic that you couldn't even read a 1300 word blog post, but you're complaining about other people reading "stupid" YA books? Second, YA is a broad category, with a lot of well-written books, touching on every theme and genre available. Last, it's not your job to tell me what I like.

Do you love YA fiction? Tell me in the comments why. Or, if you'd rather, tell me some of your favorite YA books or authors. I'm always looking for a good recommendation :)


  1. Power to the people! Have you heard Amanda Palmer's song about Judy Blume? When she performed it live, I teared up and, erm, may have shouted "YA FOREVER!" and thrown my fist in the air.

  2. So well said! I have posted something similar about New Adult as well LOL If people don't like it, they don't have to read it. Why do they care so bad if it helps OTHER people find that they are looking for? Often I find these mindsets come from people who don't write in a certain genre or category but are jealous that that genre or category is hot at the moment.

  3. Great post! Couldn't have said it better myself. I am also horrified that I had completely forgotten about Island of the Blue Dolphins. That book gave me a "safe" place to daydream about when things were bad at home. Ender, A Wrinkle in Time, Tuck - so many of these are great novels.

    From now on I'm not labeling books by categories like YA, Biography, etc. My categories are awful, bad, decent, great and amazing.

  4. YA authors must be doing something right, the fans are flocking to their books and movies.

  5. Saw your post on Twitter, and was compelled to click on it. I'm an author, and though I write adult stories, I love to read YA books just as much as I love the adult themed ones. I have teenage children, and I can tell you from my own personal experience, that they feel everything, and feel it strongly. YA stories give them voice, it gives them the opportunity to discuss, argue and open themselves up to new ideas and ways of thinking that can and often do, expand their worlds as well as their minds.

    So, brava... I'm thrilled my teens have such choice in this world. Society no longer adheres to the outdated concept that youth should be 'seen and not heard', in fact, it's very much the contrary...and anyone who disrespects or condescends a category with such diversity, one that gives every young adult the opportunity to dream, is perhaps also, outdated. Either that or they're scared of the category and the audience to which it speaks...

    Marianne Morea

  6. Awesome post. Some of the most moving books I've ever read are YA.
    The Sky is Everywhere
    Twenty Boy Summer
    Lock and Key
    North of Beautiful
    Looking for Alaska...

    TOO many to count

  7. I love Young Adult Fiction. Some of my favorites include Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, The False Princess by Elise O'Neal and Matched by Allie Condie.

  8. Here, here! Excellent post!

  9. As I said on twitter, this is the best blog post I've read so far this year. So many excellent points, and while I don't read much YA, there are many excellent and thought provoking titles out there.

    Here in NZ we have a large number of YA specialist authors who have written some of the greatest novels I have read, adult works included. Maurice Gee is one of our most well known authors and, despite having written excellent adult fiction such as 'Going West' and 'In My Fathers Den', he is best known for his childrens and YA works. I would highly recommend reading 'Salt', 'Under the Mountain' and 'The Halfmen of O' if you can get your hands on them.

    We're lucky to have mainly literary authors for the category here in NZ, so I am often a little disheartened by the popularity of authors like Richelle Mead, Stephanie Meyer and Becca Fitzpatrick as these type of books are not what I remember reading as a kid. Although I did read an awful lot of Sweet Valley and Babysitters Club which I suppose are the eighties and nineties equivalents!

    If you ever get the chance, have a read of some of the works by the following authors:

    David Hill (More kids stuff, but thematically rather excellent)
    Kate de Goldi
    Fleur Beale (particularly 'I Am Not Esther')
    Sherryl Jordan
    Jack Lasenby
    Tessa Duder

  10. Hear hear! Awesome post Gina!

  11. 1. Thank you so much, both for the compliments and for the recommendations! I will be adding them to my TBR list :)

    2. I also grew up on BSC and SVH and I have to say, those are waaaaaaaaaay worse than the current paranormal romance trend. At least the current trend doesn't assume that teens are only capable of reading 110 pages at a time, with the first 20 dedicated to describing the skin color and hair color of every character in the story. Though, I definitely admit the prevailing trends right now are pretty "light" on the literature scale.

  12. I absolutely love the Matched series by Allie Condie. It's the same genre and has the same themes as so many other stories out right now, but it's written in such a different way. The staccato lines feel like poetry, and it's almost hypnotic.

  13. I also cannot count the amazing YA books I've read. Yet, somehow, I have not read any of these you've suggested. I guess my TBR list is going to grow a whole lot today :)

  14. You bring up something that was echoed by a YA author I am friends with: Teens feel so much, and they go through so much in such a short period of time, why WOULDN'T you want to write about it? It's such a powerful set of emotions, and the experience is universal, yet every teen feels alone in their struggles.

    And I think you're completely right: these folks are afraid of the power young adults wield and the difference they can make if they are given a voice.

  15. While I don't always agree that commercial success is a sign of talent/thought provoking work (See: ABBA), I get what you're saying. These authors are tapping into something real and universal, and it's resonating with readers.

  16. I love the emergence of New Adult, especially considering the death of Chick Lit. Chick Lit was mostly whiny and immature, but the NA category is tapping into the same age range and set of experiences, but giving it more depth and reaching outside of the upper-middle-class-white-girl circles. There's so much more to write about, and I love that this category has evolved and is differentiating itself from the mainstream fiction category.

  17. Judy Bloom has gotten kind of a bad rap lately, and it makes me sad. I love, love, loved Judy Blume as a teen. I remember thinking, "Omigosh, I'm NOT weird! Other people go through this, too!" She literally gave me my voice and validated me.

  18. I think YA gets a bad wrap because of some of the hideously fluffy fan fic-esque nonsense that's been published recently. That, and the fact that teenager girls now get all "OMG TEAM RANDOM BOY CHARACTER!!! SQUEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!" over everything. I don't remember getting that way over the characters in YA books when I was a teenager...

    As for my favourites, besides the bleeding obvious (Harry Potter and The Hunger Games), there's John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began series - holy cow, THESE BOOKS - and Kelley Armstrong's Darkest Powers series. Oh, and Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy.

  19. You totally hit the nail on the head. Fantastic post! This is my favorite part: "But guess what? Some adult fiction sucks. Some children's books suck. But in every category, there is brilliance." <---Very well said!

  20. Here's my problem with that, though: Why doesn't Adult Fiction (or, just Fiction, as we often call it) get a bad rap because of the hideously fluffy crap being churned out by the likes of Danielle Steel, Lauren Weisberger, Jodi Piccoult, James Patterson, Dan Brown, etc. I know this is all subjective, and some people *LOVE* these authors, but they're fluff the same way any YA author is, it's just fluffy-adult-themed-stuff, not fluffy-teen-themed-stuff.

    And I fully agree that teenagers can be annoying, and the TEAM WHOEVER 4-EVA! crap gets really, really, really, really, really old. But here's my response to that: Teenagers can be annoying no matter what. And, frankly, adults are in on this, too. (Which is a whole other post for a whole other time, because, really, JAILBAIT.)

    And I don't remember being crazy-in-love with any characters as a teen either. But, then again, YA had not yet become the marketing behemoth it is today. Maybe teen girls wouldn't go quite so crazy over fictionalized male characters if there weren't posters of their fictitious faces sold in every WalMart.

    And, seriously, thank you for the recommendations :) I am never, ever going to get through my entire TBR list :)

  21. You're welcome.

    Wait. That sounds incredibly arrogant.

    I mean, thank you for the compliment. :)

  22. Great post! I've just finished my first book and it's YA--hoping to find an enthusiastic agent or publisher.

    Shannon Hale is one of my favvorite YA authors, oh, and Janette Rallison. A good story is a good story. Period.

  23. I think one of the comments in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society applies here. Reading good literature ruins you for reading poor literature. So read a lot and train your mind.

  24. I'm actually just about to write about the YA backlash myself! But you said it so well. thank you for this post.

  25. Thought you'd like to see your post was featured on Top Post Thursday. Yay!

  26. Love it. I write YA fantasy and I like you know that there is many, many awesome books in YA books. Thanks for the post.
    Anna del C. Dye
    for clean tales of Elfs & Romance

  27. Thanks for this 1300 word blogpost that pretty much reflects everything I have been trying to say in school and my creative writing classes. I'm 24 and I LOVE YA fiction and whenever I write, I prefer to write YA fiction as well. I think YA can be prestegious, not all of it, but some. I've read good stuff, REALLY good stuff, bad stuff, and REALLY REALLY bad stuff. Of course, I loved Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. And, if anyone liked those as well, they should really check out the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld.

    YA was always something I could relate to, teens going to school, dealing with peers, deciding what to do with their lived. Plus, if there is some paranormal whatsits or supernatural whosits mixed in, I am set.

    I'm so tired of hearing that it's crap! I'm an English major. I read A LOT! and I have read TONS of Medieval European Literature, Early American Literature, Contemporary British Literature, Environmental Literature, World Literature, much my head could literally explode, and let me tell you, I can say with more ardent and empirical evidence that there are some utterly MISERABLE texts out there. I was completely surprised when a text ended without someone dying (awfully), being murdered, raped, killing themselves, killing someone else, a plague, and massacre (gruesome details included). I needed therapy after school (lol). I almost wrote my thesis paper on this. "Why is Literature so depressing?" But, again, that is a whole different topic. What I am saying is I've read the "high-brow." I find YA to be more enjoyable, and just as clever.

  28. I love YA to death!!! What better mode of transport for deep conflict and redeeming themes of life, love and tragedy. I have a particular fancy to broody teenage girls who feel the weight of the world upon their imperfect shoulders. Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis and Suzanne Collins are masters of YA, just to name a few. Let's not forget the Master of Masters in YA- Shakespeare! This was a great blog article; thanks for telling it like it is.

  29. I call them Harlequin for teens :D

  30. YA is awesome! I got introduced to modern YA fiction through John Green / vlogbrothers. I highly recommend his books.

  31. I write about preteens and teens because I was a young person myself when I began writing, and it would've made no sense for me to write about adults. Even after my original characters have aged into grandparenthood and great-grandparenthood, I still see them in my mind as they were when they were coming of age in the 1940s. I think some people are more reacting against what a trend YA has become, with a lot of people who only seem to be choosing that as their category because it's popular, not because they genuinely wanted to write about young characters. I myself wish there were more variety in the popular YA. I've finally started to find current YA historicals with more literary language and a slower pace (and best of all in third-person), and am relieved I'm not the only one who writes it. I want to be remembered as a writer for all time, like Shakespeare, not someone who sells like hotcakes for a few years and then heads to the bargain bin.

    Perhaps because I began writing years before YA became such a hot trend, and because I've always read older books instead of current ones (I've never read Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, or any of the currently trendy books), I think of my books more as books about characters who happen to be preteens and teens, instead of books I've written specifically as YA, or for a young audience. My YA historicals also tend towards Bildungsroman, so the characters start out young and then end up adults. They're not only 11, 13, 15, whatever for just one book. I like to follow them over their entire lives instead of only over a few months or years.

  32. When I read it's most likely going to be either YA or adult non-fiction. I have a few adult fiction favorites, but most of it I don't consider worth my time. Too formulaic. One of my favorite examples of YA fiction that I suggest to people who don't think it can deal with serious topics is "House of the Scorpion." Excellent book.

  33. I do know a lot of people who read a lot (constant, finishing a book every other day or so) and still enjoy "fluff" stuff when they read. I've read many classics, and I still enjoy a good action-adventure piece with little-to-no redeeming prose. Entertainment is for fun, and I don't think these guys should be so judgmental about how others go about finding entertainment :)

  34. Exactly. In fact, CS Lewis famously said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.”

  35. I agree. Adult fiction is prey to all the same pitfalls and formulas as YA fiction. Nobody is writing columns denouncing the world of fiction in general just because Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham keep churning out "fluff" that's "all the same."

  36. And this is exactly the kind of stuff that these naysayers are ignoring! There's so much variety within the YA label, and there's so much room for personal tastes and interpretations of the category, it's impossible to say that "all" YA is a certain way or fits a certain description.

    Thank you for the comment!

  37. I must confess, I have not yet read John Green. He's on my TBR list, for sure. I just haven't gotten there. I will. I promise!

  38. You're right: teens feel so much in such a short amount of time, and they feel it so strongly, and often they're feeling these things for the first time. It's an excellent way to capture a wide range of emotions in a story.

    And YES!!! People so often forget that Shakespeare's characters were often teens, as well. Romeo & Juliet were 15 and 13, for crying out loud!

  39. I have absolutely nothing to add to this. You've said everything perfectly, so I will just say, THANK YOU!

  40. I love that YA fantasy is really seeing a strong resurgence! High fantasy with a younger spin is fun :)

  41. I'd be interested in seeing your post :)

  42. I call that an accurate assessment.

  43. I love The Moon, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things...also Speak, and Perfect...I agree with your valid/invalid points!

  44. I have three teenagers, and they are constantly bringing me new books to read, some I like, some I don't. I do love YA novels, sometimes I feel it is a guilty pleasure (as in Twilight) and others I find to be incredible works of art (Harry Potter). Sometimes I think we put entirely too much thought into art - if you like it, then it's good. Period. Great post!

  45. Shelton Keys DunningApril 22, 2012 at 12:20 AM

    By the time I hit the second grade, my teachers didn't know how to challenge me in reading comprehension. I was reading at a college level then and my favorite books were the All Creatures Great and Small series by James Harriott. It wasn't even "light" reading for adults and I was 7 years old. I also read Nancy Drew books like they were going out of style. My tastes now haven't changed that much. I'll still read anything I can get my hands on that speaks to me.

    I still cry like a baby when I read The Giving Tree and laugh out loud when I read Huckleberry Finn.

    Movies don't seem to be marketed the way publishers market books. No one seems shocked or outraged that all walks of life will intentionally buy tickets to see movies like "Tangled", not just families with young children. Music also crosses age groups without meeting the same resistance. Or maybe I'm not paying attention to those mediums because I'm pursuing a writing career now instead of a singing or acting career.

    As a reader, I'll browse every shelf in the book stores. Publishers and their marketing tools are lost on me. I could care less who's on the New York Times Bestseller list, or what a critic has to say about an author's work. I only care that the author treats me with respect and doesn't "dumb" his product down because he believes I won't understand what he's trying to say unless he does. I want a story I can get lost in. I want' something that'll keep me saying, "one more chapter" until 2 or 3 in the morning.

    Excellent post!

  46. How I have yearned for a soapbox and sandwich boards to articulate this very message -- complete with arrows and accompanied by flailing arms directing the contingent browsing in "General Fiction," in ignorance towards the rich and largely untapped bank of books so many miss out on. Why are those stacks so often deserted in my library? Why? Excellent post!

  47. Ladygoogoogaga2011April 22, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    Yes!! Everybody should read!!!!! Period.

  48. What is a blog, really, if not a soapbox?

    And you're right. So many people have their noses so high up in the air about their reading material, they are missing out on some great stuff that is categorized differently than they expect.

  49. You make an excellent point. Why is it acceptable for an adult to watch a Pixar movie, but not to read The Hunger Games? I don't get it.

    To be entirely fair, one of the columnists whom my ire is directed toward claimed that adults watching Pixar movies, or going to Disneyland without children in tow were "embarrassing" themselves, so... there's really no hope for him!

  50. "if you like it, then it's good"


  51. Thank you, and I will add those to my TBR list! :)

  52. Wow. Great post! I actually read way more Adult than YA, funny enough--even though I'm a YA author. I can see both sides... I can see why there's this Anti-YA campaign, but I also think you're spot on. There is a lot of crap out there--but like you said, there's crap in every category. It's only because YA has boomed over the last several years. I need to read more YA, so now I'm going to read through these comments and see if there are any recommendations ;)