Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Word About YA Fiction

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


  1. Nice, K! YA is largely neglected as a genre but it's appeal is often a money maker! Tweens and Teens are a finicky and popularity is fleeting, so anything that can captivate for longer than a Hannah Montana episode is worth capitalization. The Lion, Witch, and The Wardrobe series by CS Lewis is another that comes to mind. And the Biblical undertones in his writing could easily be missed by younger readers but searching through the symbolism can stretch the literary mind of a more discerning adult. A favorite of mine in the sci-fi YA section is Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. That is another futuristic dystopian novel set around children in a boarding school playing military games. It's a few decades old (and amazingly hasn't been made into a movie) but I think it was a Best Seller when it came out. If my hubby would let me, I would totally name another son Ender ;-)

  2. Yes Britt! Those CS Lewis books are heavy with symbolism while starring children, right? I know that J.R.R. Tolkien was a contemporary of Lewis', and even a friend. Not sure how the Lord of the Rings books were originally classified, but they are certainly recommended to young adults now. Identifying themes is not one of my strengths, but even I can catch the few that are bold and underlined in those books: good vs. evil, etc. Maybe the notion of "new themes" is ridiculous in an old world, but that might be another common thread in YA fiction: the novels contain well-worn themes, but those that remain universally relevant.

  3. What about the multi-layered ever popular Animal Farm? Something for the kids, something VERY different for adults.
    I love love love the Ender's Game series and think it would be hilarious to name one's last masculine child that!
    And I respectfully submit for consideration Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, good stuff, good stuff.

  4. The "His Dark Materials" trilogy bring up an interesting counter-point to KAL's happy-ending criteria. Those endings--not so happy! But while the main character is a child, and the books are marketed to children, are these really children's books?

    The first book I remember reading with a decidedly un-happy ending is called The Runner by Cynthia Voigt, but that book is most definitely YA. (I was a YA at the time.)

    As to why these books appeal to sassy and sophisticated grown-ups like us. . .if the book is well-written and from the point of view of a child, tween, or teen, then the reader gets a chance to re-experience being young. And every adult was once a child.

  5. Shannon, I read quite a few books by Cynthia Voigt as a YA, too. My favorite was On Fortune's Wheel, which has a female heroine and is set in medieval times. The male lead in that book is Orion, another boy name I love but unfortunately doesn't work with my last name. The Homecoming (which I think was a prequal to The Runner) is another sad story with a family of siblings as the main characters.

    I remembered other great reads in Juniper and it's sequal Wise Child by Monica Furlong. Those have girls as main characters and are set in some unknown medieval realm and tells the story of the apprenticeship of women healers and mystics (and maybe a hint of midwifery). There is a third novel, Colman, that completes the series that has been written since I've read it.

    Is there a way to make a running book submission list, K? We could spend forever just in YA!

  6. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been reluctant to embrace the YA genre, fearing that many YA books lacked substance and meaning. Since my college lit years, my literary tendencies have veered toward the Oprah-ish sorts, with all their gritty realism. I like to be moved by a story, but sometimes I don’t want it to make me ache, ya know?

    My reluctance was silly after all, because, though I am new (as an adult) to YA lit, I’ve found that it's a thing of substance; but so far I like it for different reasons. It does seem, as K pointed out, that there is a tendency toward resolution in the genre, which I don’t require of my literature, but I like indeed.

    For me, the most endearing quality present in the YA lit I’ve read is the development and upholding of ideals by the characters and in the themes of the novels. Since the protagonists are by definition youth, they are in the midst of discovering their core values and world views. I don’t mean ideals and values in a moralistic sense, but rather the characters are concerned with things like political and social justice, or the kind of love for which one would die. They are super idealistic, and let’s face it, hopefully we all were (are!?).

  7. I think K was spot on using the word despair to describe what is not allowed in children's literature. That is often achieved with a happy ending or resolution as Emily nicely words it, but perhaps the requirement is not so much to leave you with a happy ending as a hopeful ending. Even if you want kids to know what the real world is like, who wants to tell a child there is no hope? Bridge to Terabithia, for example, is not the happiest of books, though I would say that it does not leave you with despair but a sense of goodness despite the sadness. I can think of YA books I have read that deal with rape, death, even murder. But along with the pain and violence of "reality", the main characters find a way to emerge with hope and not despair.

    (I haven't read Cynthia Voigt or the full "His Dark Materials" series so Shannon you will have to tell me if my despair/hope hypothesis holds true.)

    I think Emily's description of YA as idealistic is a good one. Maybe I haven't left the super idealistic phase myself, but I will even go farther and claim that I think it is lazy and even irresponsible to write a book for kids or adults that leaves you with despair. Life can be complex, harsh, violent, and cruel, and ignoring that in literature doesn't make it go away. But life can also be beautiful, meaningful, exciting, and joyful, and ignoring that in literature really might make it go away. I think the power of story is not just to tell us about what is, but to capture the imagination about what could be. Exposing the cruelty of what we encounter in life might be a service, but I suspect it is only so if we are also left with some insight into why it is not all that is or must be.

  8. Such insightful concepts, and you all have confirmed just how shallow my dip into YA fiction has been.

    Laura, I think you have described for me why I feel so cheated when I finish a book lacking hope or redemption. There are two such books I've read that come to mind immediately, both very popular, very critically acclaimed, which I fervently disliked. Why does one write such a story, I couldn't help but thinking? I suppose that sometimes an author leaves the redemption up to us: we are to see how horrible these people and their situation is, and we can congratulate ourselves that we are not them. But I think it is fair to hope for a little more, hope for a little hope in our fiction.