Sunday, August 16, 2009

What is ya lit?

Phil and were having a great discussion in The Hole in the Wall pub last night. It's supposedly the pub re-created in Robert Louis Stevenson's TRESASURE ISLAND, and there is indeed a hole in the wall to look out for the press gangs coming to recruit sailors. Also it's a lovely (albeit poncy) pub with nice food right next to the river.

Figured you'd want to know. But anyway, since the setting seemed apropo, we were discussing what makes a young adult book. Someone online had mentioned TREASURE ISLAND as a children's book before the genre was invented. But I think that comes down to Stevenson's intentions. Did he write the book for children? Or did he just write an adventure story about a young boy that has happened to appeal to children since?

In reading Jane Smiley's CHARLES DICKENS, I learned that the first English novel with a child protagonist was probably OLIVER TWIST. So even the idea of writing books with children in them is fairly new, only springing up in the mid 1800s. Of course, you can probably think of plenty of examples to follow, including many of Dickens' other novels, and other great children's classics like ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, PETER PAN, and THE HOBBIT. I remember learning as an English major that the first stories for children (as opposed to with children in them) were usually instrucional, or fairy tales meant to scare children into morality.

So are these the definitions of young adult literature? Books with children in them or books written for children? I can think of plenty of novels with child protagonists which are not young adult fiction (unfortunately, I think they tend to be hard to market). Also, many fantasy ya novels, such as Elizabeth Bunce's A CURSE DARK AS GOLD, star people older than 18 (her main character, by my estimation, is in her late teens, early twenties; she marries and starts a family). Indeed, common publishing wisdom dictates that children's books are for kids "reading up", meaning that a ten year old likes to read about 12-13 year olds, for example, and fantasise about growing older.

What about the idea that ya books are for ya teens? An argument against this definition is that numerous adults (myself included) read young adult fiction. I like to say I'm doing it for research (and I am), but the truth of the matter is that I also love young adult fiction. Maggie Stiefvater (author of the NYT bestselling SHIVER--go Maggie!) has a great post on this on her blog. As she writes:

"At 27, I still read mostly YA -- is that wrong of me? I identify more with the character issues in a lot of YA -- the growing up, the jumping off cliffs, the newness -- than I do a lot of adult fiction, which deals with fatigue, mid-life crisis, marriage issues. Am I the only twenty something who feels this way? Nope. There's also thirty somethings, forty something, fifty somethings who prefer the genre . . . age is irrelevant when coming to reading. There's no "this is right for this age." "this is wrong for this age."

"There's this: "This book is right for me." "This book isn't my thing."

"That's the only truth there is in reading."

Phil and I agree, and finally came to the conclusion that, just like any other genre in the bookstores, young adult is a category determined by publishers and booksellers.

So before young adult literature existed (or before publishers or booksellers or librarians determined in did) what did you read when you were a kid? * I'd love to hear about it!

By the way, want more thoughts on YA? The Book Smugglers' blog has been celebrating Young Adult Appreciation Month and yesterday had a round-up of other blogs on ya.

*Kudos to the writers on Verla Kay's blueboards who started this interesting discussion.


  1. Great post, Anne.

    I was discussing this with Thea this week as well, and I think you hit the nail in the head: it is a determination by martekeers, definetely.

    : D

  2. Awww, thanks!
    Love your blog, by the way, so glad to have discovered it.


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