Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why YA Should Be GB, or The Caliban/Ariel Question

     For more than a year now I have immersed myself solely in reading YA books. And I took a few detours to read Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin and Stephen King. And I have been thinking about the distinction between "YA" and "adult" books.
     I'm in education. I don't like labels. Education loves them. The state labels a kid with a tag like "Far Below Basic" if a kid didn't do well in a particular standardized test subject. Or "Below Basic." Or "Proficient." Or "Advanced." I hear the labels "gifted",  "at-risk", "college prep" now as buzzing sounds.
     I've been teaching a long time, and I understand that categories have their uses. But danger lurks. If I know a kid struggles in an area, I can help her. Identifying areas of need is a concept I get, and I would argue that "identifying" and making kids visible is not the same as branding them with a label.
    When I was a young adult I read everything. I am profoundly grateful that Lois Duncan writes, and Zilpha Keatly Snyder writes, and Sid Fleischman--I am grieved that he died before I could thank him. I also read Stephen King and Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkein. I read Barbara Cartland novels and laughed at her use of ellipses at supremely intimate moments. And I am so grateful to Judy Blume for clarifying what happened during Barbara's elliptical moments.
     I read a lot of books where the target audience was adults.
     But if we called them Adult Books--well, that conjures up another industry. We don't call books written for an adult audience AB.
     I have to say that I find this arrogant and condescending. Do I have this right? When adults write books for adults we say "books" or "fiction." We identify books by genre. I get it.
     And these books by adults for adult audiences get read by adolescents in school as great literature. My experience is that, much as the kids complain, they understand, even like, these books. 1984. Brave New World. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I get it.
    What I don't get is this: The  "YA" books I'm reading now are good books because they tell good stories and are crafted by true wordsmiths who write about the human journey. The human journey includes adolescence. Adults had to be adolescents first.
      Unless they are pod people, which is how many of them act.
     A publisher has to have great confidence to publish a YA book. My thinking is that the writing and storytelling in  many YA books is significantly better than the writing in  "adult" books. And I think that the label "YA" is limiting.
      Because the world would be a better place and parents would be better parents and teachers would be better teachers if we recognized our adolescence as part of the human journey. Adults have banished, excised, exiled their teen years, or elevated those years to "the best years." It's a Caliban/Ariel issue when it should be a human being issue.
     Many adults see teens as "Other." This label means it's okay to  trivialize, denigrate, and ignore. Control. Teens are young adults. Not "dumb adults" or "less than adults."
     So why are books for young adults treated as "dumb books" or "less than books"?
     My local Barnes and Noble recently moved the "Books for Teens" to  the middle of the "Adult Books" section. You don't have to be a publishing or marketing genius to figure this one out. A lot of adults are reading books written for teens.
     I know what this tells me. They want to read good books. New label: GB.
     I confess to being part of the whole label problem. My Twitter handle is currently "KristenYAwriter" because my name is long. It was "Apocalypse Junki" but I changed it--that's another story.
     I'm not part of the publishing industry. I don't have an agent or a published book. I'm not a power player.
     But I have this blog.
     I'm not going to be KristenGBwriter because I am not published. I might merit the label GB writer if my books  ever sit on the same shelves as Sarah Zarr, Michael Grant, Libba Bray, Andrew Smith, Neil Gaiman and other luminaries.
     So I am now KristenWriter because I know a good book when I read one.
     No matter what section it inhabits in the library, bookstore, bestseller list, or Publisher's Weekly.


  1. Keep up the blogging. You have what it takes to make this thing great: passion, knowledge, consistency, writing talent, aversion to labels.

    P.S. Some teens are less than. I like to call them non-readers.

  2. Good books and bad books. That's all there are.

  3. Non, I am humbled by your generous and kind comments. Thank you.
    Matthew, thank you for your comment. We concur.