The Hunger Games is currently number two on the New York Times Best Sellers List. Catching Fire is number one. Or maybe that should be worded with one wee difference: Catching Fire and The Hunger Games are leading on a New York Times Best Sellers List. Because if you want to find out how Suzanne Collins' bit of dystopian fiction is doing on the charts you have to look under Children's Books. Moreover you have to look at the second listing under Children's Books, as Chapter Books falls below Picture Books on the NY Times web page. (It gets more complicated if you care to dissect it, with two additional categories: Paperback, mostly to benefit young adult [YA] titles, or so my research suggests. And also Series which ignores individual works and tracks the sales of a series as a whole: current leader The Twilight Saga.)
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that these particular children's chapter books are in good, and at the very least popular, company. The previously mentioned Twilight phenomenon (I think I can safely use the term "phenomenon" when t-shirts etched with "Camp Cullen" and "Bet you can't read my mind" are being sold at Nordstrom) is a notable YA book that lands on the "Children's" list. The prototypical series, however, concerns the exploits of one H. Potter. In 2000, with J.K. Rowling titles holding the top three spots and the fourth Harry Potter book about to be released, the NY Times Book Review added a shiny new category: "Children's Books." This allowed them to clear some room on the original list and pass out way more "best-seller" stickers. Apparently this was a controversial decision at the time, with some arguing that a best-seller list should track exactly that. There was concern the new list implied Rowling's books were exclusively for children, which in addition to being arguably insulting was also untrue (30% of the first three titles were sold to and for readers over the age of 35). Others countered that the new list provided an opportunity for publicity for books and authors that might otherwise go overlooked, and that it should not be seen as demeaning to categorize a book as written for children, especially as that label in no way implies it won't also appeal to adults. Well, ten years later the expanded list is here to stay, and this adult book club is beginning with a trilogy from that list. Young adult titles fall under Children's, and children's books are the new black.
But why? Why are young adult titles so appealing, or more exactly why are they so appealing to me? This is the question I found myself pondering when I came upon The Hunger Games, which was not the first YA title I really, really enjoyed. A nagging part of me couldn't help but wonder: Am I not a good reader? Do I need my literature simple in a complicated world?
Maybe the answer should be obvious. Enjoying one genre does not mean you enjoy the others any less. And children are not all that simple, so writing something that appeals to them plus their parents should hardly be considered a lesser achievement. However kids are not, as a societal rule, respected as individuals with discerning minds of their own, and adolescence is tolerated at best and despised at worst. Therefore, I think it relevant to address why a separate category for children could be seen as demeaning but probably shouldn't be, and what it is about YA that both distinguishes and recommends it.
The NY Times solves the labeling question by simply allowing publishers to tell them if a book is for children or adults. But are there common elements that shove a book embraced by young and not-so-young adults alike onto a YA list? I can think of a few: 1.) Adult themes are tread upon with care. And by adult themes I mean sex as well as the other one: more sex. With teenagers fighting to the death on live TV in our current read, it is difficult to argue that violence is also curbed, even violence against children. (I wonder if the exception would be sexual violence.) 2.) The protagonists in the story are children. If your main character is under the age of 18 does that make your book for people of like maturity? Maybe ... If this young person is not subject to terrifically awful circumstances (i.e. those involving both sex and violence). It is this, the lack of terrible, horrible horrendousness that I put forth as the crucial and appealing trait of the YA genre: 3.) The characters can find joy; the ending can be tidy. Children's books can be well written, adored and also respected without the edgy despair that need be present in so much other critically acclaimed entertainment. They can, and maybe even are expected to, have a happy, happy ending.
What do you think? Can you name examples or exceptions? Are there common threads I'm missing or undue simplifications I'm making? Please share your thoughts.
by K.A. Lewis