The following notes come from Lecture 2 of David Beagley’s course at La Trobe University: Fiction For Young Adults.
Little Women, L.M. Montgomery – we now look at these books as historical but Little Women was written about current affairs, about finding a husband while a father was away at war. Pride and Prejudice was also about finding boys. These elements don’t seem to change all that much. Puberty Blues, a contemporary novel set in Newcastle, is again about a group of girls finding boys.
Reading for this week:
A major report was done in 2000 on what and why and how teenagers in Australia (esp in Victoria) read. Insider Dog website http://www.insideadog.com.au/
(The name of the website comes from a quote by Groucho Marx – Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.)
An award has also come out, publicly voted (The Inky Award)
Maurice Saxby’s Books In The Life Of A Child. A chapter toward the end is about YA reading. He is one of the first to define this area and express it clearly.
Nicholas Tucker looks more at the younger adolescent (11-14), that point of transition into teenagehood, defining elements typically found in the books themselves rather than focusing on the youth themselves: typical genres, formats.
Voskuhl (sp?), from Access Journal, the professional journal of the school library association of Australia. There are a lot of books about encouraging reluctant readers. One of the things about the selection of texts for school reading (especially later school years like VCE) is that the lit is usually adult lit – Shakespeare, Orwell, Aristotle. This was raising the question, why aren’t we looking at books targeted at teens when it’s a teen audience?
How Old Is A ‘Young Adult’?
Young people are all so different. When a profit can be made from a young person (e.g. a ticket on public transport or to a movie or to entry to social media such as Facebook) the definition of ‘youth’ changes depending on the seller’s profit.
What is the problem with children fighting wars? They do pretty effectively in Africa but we see that as wrong. We happily send 18 year olds off to war, but not 16 year olds (though they are allowed to join the military).
If we use the term ‘teenager’ we define it by number, between the ages of 13 and 19.
The ‘young adult’ is defined by the end of it, implying that they are almost adult.
This leads to the ‘deficit model’. See Nan Barr – adolescents are defined by what they are not as much as what they are.
See also: The rage of age ranges from Shannon Hale
From: The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Writing For Young Adults
In this book there is a list of what a YA book must have.
- A YA protagonist (so obvious it barely needs saying, though not all protagonists aged as a YA is necessarily for YA audience e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This book is a stand-out though, to this rule.)
- Subject matter to interest of YA, or within their experience
- The protagonist is in conflict with the key protagonist and their normal wider world. (Conflict is so important that it is required to be specified. Not falling in love, not anything else – conflict)
- Reading level of a young adult, including using a young adult’s vocabulary (This is problematic. You’ve got reading level and then you’ve got vocabulary. There is an immense range of reading capacity around the numbers that we assign to age. And an adult writer can easily sound ridiculously artificial by trying to write in a YA voice. By the time a book is published, teen-speak will have changed, and it is also highly regional.)
Examples Of YA Books With A Pattern Emerging
Midnight Zoo by Sonja Hartnett stars protagonists who are younger than the readership, but has complex philosophical musings about war and morality and the interplay of different groups, some of those groups being animals, others people, not all present in the story. So it’s quite a complex book in terms of subject matter.
Looking For Alibrandi has a mid-late teen concerned about personal identity and relationships with her family, and looking for boys.
Twilight – a mid-late teen concerned about personal identity in relationships with boys and the boy’s family.
Pride and Prejudice – mid-late teens, same concerns.
Deadly, Unna? – same again.
Divine Wind, Hunger Games, Jinx… a pattern emerges.
Relationships and Identity
Relationships and identity are closely related. These could be specifically the relationships of authority, and conflict with authority. Where is the change over point that gives the youth the ability to control their own identity? If the youth feels ready for control but society sets the point elsewhere we have automatic conflict and opposition. This is most likely to occur with those authorities that are close by: parents and school.
Then there are the peers – those of an equivalent status – and plots about conflict with them.
Some stories are about sex and sexual orientation (identity).
These stories encourage readers to ask questions. Which rules do I continue to obey? Do I continue with the religion I was brought up with?
This is the age people start thinking about politics, about what is right and wrong.
It all comes down to self-conflict, choosing who and what I am.
A lot of the stories are about social groups – are you in or are you out? Social status to do with wealth/ethnicity or in Twilight are you human or are you a vampire? Pride and Prejudice is about belonging to a higher status of family, in manners and in wealth. Here, it’s not so much about what the protagonists choose but what other people choose for them. Racial groups form the in-or-out decision in Deadly, Unna? In the Hunger Games, do you accept or do you reject the social and political environment that you’ve been born into?
Another commonality: Where are the parents?
If parents and caregivers are not actually causing the problems then they are largely ineffectual in trying to solve them. They may be there, or may not be.
There has to be a practical and alternative offered to social issues/lack of identity/war and all of those problems. The alternative may be either negative or positive. Dystopia: A world which is not the ideal, in fact it is something you try desperately to avoid e.g. Hunger Games, The Divine Wind (WW2), Deadly, Unna? (intense racial prejudice and divide), Midnight Zoo is a declared war. It may simply be that the alternative society is just different. In Pride and Prejudice it’s the very wealthy people the Bennetts aspire to be but can’t.
(Maurice Saxby gives a lot of examples of books, though he was writing about this in 1997 so his examples are not particularly up-to-date.)
YA books often examine the point of turmoil in a person’s life, and the changeover so often happens to young adults, which is why we have YA fiction. Life at this point has the potential to go somewhere. The story might point to a particular direction, and what sort of choices might be made. The protagonists in YA make their own choices. The reader doesn’t have to identify with the situation of the protagonist, but does have to identify with the life stage, of making choices.
A YA novel offers possibilities rather than concrete answers and widens the vision of life.
Sophie’s Choice from Woody Allen is a good example of this kind of story.
The Why Is The Important Thing
Why do these characters choose? Not necessarily what they choose, but why.
Profound Identification With The Reader
This is a requisite for this category of fiction. Adult readers don’t necessarily identify strongly with a protagonist, but the youth reader is really living the story, far more than other types of fiction. Even in children’s literature, the parents are more present.
What defines YA compared to Kidlit?
There is more capacity to decide, more desire to operate, more experience, putting things in context, analytical capacity. The desire is to make the decisions without waiting for the parent or teachers to choose.
Surely That’s Not A Children’s Book!
The following notes are from Episode One of Kid You Not Podcast, which is entitled: Surely That’s Not A Children’s Book!
The podcast opens with excerpt from two different books: One is published for adults, the other for young adults, yet the excerpt for young adults is more disturbing in content. There is no discernible difference between the styles.
The following points are subsequently made:
- Adults like to think of children as innocent beings even if those children are plunged into a world of violence and danger.
- It’s almost impossible to say one book is a children’s book and the other is for adults.
- Many adults are not aware of how graphic many books for children and YA are. Perhaps they remember rosy stories full of moral values. In fact, every theme under the sun is open season: Incest, drugs, kidnapping etc.
- What we’re witnessing at the moment in kidlit and children’s publishing in general is ambivalence about who books are for. Publishers are aiming for a crossover market.
- Like Prof Beagley, the presenters of this podcast trace this phenomenon back to the publication of Harry Potter.
- Harry Potter has become a modern classic. This ‘modern classic’ feel is reflected in the latest covers, which have a creamy look as if to emulate old paper. The drawing style is a modernisation of the sort of drawings you’d see in old fairytale editions.
- Why so many crossover novels, apart from the obvious economic ones? Publishers realise that these stories are just good stories. It’s only when social convention steps in that adults might feel as though they shouldn’t be reading a book that’s been published for children.
- What does it say about adults that they have such an ambiguous relationship with children’s literature? It’s not real, it’s all cute and full of bunnies… it’s generally disregarded. That said, children’s literature is one of the most profitable parts of publishing today. J.K. Rowling can be partly thanked for that. After Rowling became very rich, the money itself gave children’s literature more respect.
- Perhaps adults suffer from an interesting complex — adulescence — they see themselves on a path of discovery even though they might be 30 or 40 or 50. (Was ‘adulescence‘ coined by French advertising companies?) People are growing up later and later. The workplace is not the same, people’s lives are longer, a job isn’t for life, there’s no pressure to decide what you want to do forever at age 21. Really we are living an extended adolescence right up into our mid thirties these days.
- Now adults are freer to see themselves as being on a path rather than having arrived in adulthood. Yet it’s still not acceptable to be reading these books, which is strange, given the climate just described. ‘Transformative experiences’ apply not just to young adults (teenagers).
- With the rise of eReaders, readers are free to read whatever they want without worrying about who is looking at the age category of the chosen book. The secret reading world of the Kindle.
- There’s a difference between the intention of the author, the intention of the publisher and the readers who these books actually appeal to.
- In literary criticism the Intentional Fallacy describes the problem of trying to judge the merit of a work according to the perceived intention of its author. The challenge for critics is to consider the author as ‘dead’ when regarding the work. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to judge a book without considering who the book is for: No one would buy it, retailers don’t know who they’re supposed to be selling it to. There’s a huge demand in our culture for everything to be carefully categorised, especially when it comes to age-groups in children’s books.
- In the same way, you have to see yourself as a man or a woman, or in other categories.
- There’s a tension between the publisher’s decision to categorise — we end up with ridiculous age categorisations such as 8-10, 10-12 and so on — and between writers who often just write stories. People read what appeals to them. This creates complicated adults who feel the need to hide that they are reading children’s books.
- Adults have an interesting tendency to push away everything that is childish. But if ‘children’s books’ are really for children, surely they wouldn’t speak to adults. So are they really ‘children’s books’?
- Children don’t do the same with adults’ books. Children never say of a book for adults: This appeals to me — therefore it must be a children’s book. Yet adults systematically claim ‘children’s books’ as their own, by saying that if a book speaks to them, then it’s not actually a children’s book at all.
- There is a lot of literary criticism arguing that there’s no such thing as children’s literature.
- There are few books for adults that focus on transformative experiences and growing-up, so if an adult skips kidlit, that adult is missing out on a huge chunk of what literature has to offer.
- Children’s books often follow a mythical structure — essentially things that the adult mind needs, and always will need. The publishing industry might be seen as helping adults to shake free of expectations, judging books on their literary merit.
- Will Self wrote an interesting article about Harry Potter and how childhood lasts much longer.
- This podcast aims to persuade listeners that children’s literature contains things that adult literature does not. Also, children’s literature contains things that adults might not expect would be found in children’s literature: They are not all innocent, saccharine, Beatrix Potter-esque.
- Fortunately, publishers are already aware of how awesome many children’s books are.