What Makes A Book For Young Adults?

Many of following notes come from Lecture 2 of David Beagley’s course at La Trobe University: Fiction For Young Adults.

Little Women, Anne of Green Gables –- 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. Puberty Blues, a contemporary novel set in Newcastle, is again about a group of girls finding boys. These were the first YA novels.

They weren’t called that, though.

Literary historians frequently cite one of three dates as turning points for YA literature:

1942 — Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly
1951 — The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
1967 — The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

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.)

 

Looking for place within family, and also looking for love

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 features 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.)

See: Orphans in Children’s Literature

Turmoil

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.

 

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 Junior Fiction?

According to Beagley, there is more capacity to decide, more desire to operate, more experience, putting things in context, analytical capacity. In short, more agency in YA literature. The main character’s desire is to make decisions without waiting for the parent or teachers to choose for them.

Roberta Seelinger Trites drills down further, and argues that the distinction between YA and junior fiction relates to power.

[The] intertextual question … “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature form children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read…much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home. Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power.

But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death.

— Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

 

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.

From the podcast available on iTunes U, from a talk delivered by Hornby at Newcastle University.

Nick Hornby refers to a list put out by an author who was asked which books all English children should have read before leaving high school. Hornby admits that he hasn’t read some of the books on this list, and wonders if he is missing anything. There isn’t time for everything. Hornby is a voracious reader, and hopes he has instilled a love of reading in his own children but wonders if ‘forced reading’ would only lead to a hatred of the classics.

Does literature teach us to be better people, and great literature to be the best? If this is the case the best read among us should be the most humane, but in fact some of the best read people of his acquaintance are as susceptible to petty jealousies, greed and other human vices as the next (less well-read) person.

Wendy Cope was one of two writers who refused to take part in the survey (it was asked of many well-known writers) and she said she’d draw no distinction between people who read and people who don’t read. (Hornby later admits that he was the other writer who refused to provide a list.) This is a very interesting position for a writer to take. Hornby likens knowing about literature to knowing about wine — useful, but hardly essential. Like wine, some books are better than others, though Hornby does not consider himself a relativist. That said, if you spent your time digesting cheap table wine it would do you just as much harm.

Nick Hornby On Why All Fiction Should Be Young Adult Fiction

Reading for pleasure is the most important indicator of the future success of a child. Nearly half of prisoners in America’s prisons are illiterate. We need to get our children and a worringly large chunk of the rest of the population reading.

The best description of reading is in The Child That Books Built. Hornby quotes from that.

He then quotes from The Intellectuals and the Masses.

There is no reason why children should not read classic books that typically turn up on reading lists, but because they’re difficult they’re put into a box and labeled so.

Hornby spent two years teaching English at a very good comprehensive high school in a university town. He has only recently begun to realise how influential that two years has been on his writing career. What he wanted for his students was a novel that was complex but simple to read. He found himself drawn to Of Mice and Men. Later he had the ambition to write books like that, along with Roddy Doyle — simple, funny, unquestionably literary in that the intent isn’t simply to amuse and entertain. Doyle spent years as an English teacher, and his first profession must have profoundly affected his second.

Hornby has written several books for young adults, such as Slam. About A Boy was intended for older readers but the success of the film and the age of the protagonist has meant that it has become popular among a younger age group.

At a YA conference Hornby met David Almond, who Hornby had not heard of until that point. He then read Skellig when he got home, and realised it is quite brilliant. He has since read a lot of YA fiction, which has been like being a YA all over again. He was reading Vonnegut as a YA himself, but now in his middle age he was reading YA. These books made him think hard about what we want and need from literature.

In Skellig, a boy takes a book to a friend and the friend says, ‘Yeah, looks good. But what’s the red sticker for?’ The red sticker was for ‘competent readers’. Meena complained that what if other readers wanted to read it. In this passage Skellig touches on the idea of designating certain books for certain readers. By making a reference to Blake he is also asking us to look at his book in a way we may not have thought of doing. Skellig is about life, death, the value of education, and a lot of other things besides. He includes some of the more mundane truths (Chinese takeaways, for example) without losing the intensity of his vision.

Another work like Skellig is Feed, a sci fi novel clearly inspired by anxieties about the Internet. The only thing that distinguishes this work of art from other work of art is the age of its teenage protagonists. In Feed the characters have some kind of device implanted in their brains. They pick up anything thrown at them. As a consequence, everybody has a problem with language. They’re losing whatever eloquence they once had.

More recently Anderson has written two more remarkable novels for young adults in a series called Octavian Nothing, popular among US high school students. Set in Boston in the American Revolution, long and ambitious, this novel may well be the Joyce or the Henry James for the book’s young fans.

Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat is a bleak and funny and experimental book for young adults, almost the opposite of Skellig, as if Bob Dylan had turned his hand to chick-lit. Bleak, funny, experimental. Everyday contemporary problems are turned into something surreal.

The world has changed in the last generation. There used to be nothing much to do — Hornby wanted to watch TV but there was nothing much on. Now there are plenty of over diversions competing for attention, and reading time is less. Traditionally, reading has been done in places where there’s no alternative BUT to read: sun-loungers, dentist’s waiting rooms, airports, but those days are now gone. From now on, there will always be an alternative. While we may lament this, there’s nothing we can do about it. We may have to accept that we are dealing with a new kind of human — someone who is unwilling to deal with complexity.

Children do still read: Harry Potter, Twilight (just as adults are reading Dan Brown in their millions). One thing all of these books have in common is that they are routinely rubbished by columnists in newspapers. There’s an idea that bad prose is automatically rewarded by huge sales. But Hornby is certain that these people are not interested in ‘bad writing’ per se and we should assume that these authors are doing something right rather than something wrong. These novels still have the potential to speak to us.

There’s a key to the success of the YA writers mentioned this evening: The authors know that they have to fight for teenagers’ attention. There’s a fine balance between writing what you want to write and writing what the readers really want to read, and all writers can learn from YA writers.

A couple of years ago Hornby had two separate conversations with friends who happened to be reading the same book, a big historical book. Both friends were busy people who confessed they were only reading a paragraph or two per night. Hornby pointed out that it would take two years to finish it at that rate. Many literate, university educated people seem to feel a grim sense of duty towards reading, feeling that it’s something we ought to do rather than what we want to do. Until we genuinely have fun reading it will be hard to persuade our children to read. Hornby urges the audience to put a book down that they are not enjoying, which is why he is reluctant to join a book club. He doesn’t want to feel that reading is a duty. As a writer, people are often apologising to him, ‘Sorry, but I haven’t read your book yet. Sorry, but I haven’t got time to read.’ Hornby feels that as long as you can read, there’s no need to be sorry.

Hornby explains The Alex Award:

The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. The winning titles are selected from the previous year’s publishing. The Alex Awards were first given annually beginning in 1998 and became an official ALA award in 2002.

YALSA

A list of the winners on Goodreads. This is an invaluable resource for teachers, but it’s actually an invaluable resource for all of us. The Alex Award pretty much guarantees that a book won’t be boring. Dickens would have won an Alex Award if it had existed during his lifetime. Hornby doesn’t want writers to speak only to each other, or only to the few people who read the review pages. An American reviewer had recently described one of Hornby’s books as being ‘shamefully readable’, though you don’t hear restaurant reviewers describing food as ‘shamefully edible’. The idea that books should be work to read is entrenched in review culture.

Hornby reads because he loves to hang out with people who read, and he wouldn’t have anything to say without reading. He has a profound fear of boredom. Reading helps with his writing. Novels get closer to the way people think and feel than films and TV ever can. He wishes he’d said that he wants every school child to find ten books that they love before they leave school. Only then would they be set up as lifelong readers.

 

Related:

Is it possible to elicit a love of reading in children?

Required reading is hurting America

A LibraryThing list of books for adults in which the protagonist happens to be a teenager

What Is A Child?

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of merely a descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these are the marks of childhood and adolescence […] The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth … surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?

– C.S. Lewis, 1966

One of the oddest things we do to children is to confront them with someone else who is also eight, or ten, or seven, and insist that they be friends … What concerns me is the misconception that people are fossilised at any particular point in a lifetime. We are none of us ‘the young’ or ‘the middle-aged’ or ‘the old’. We are all of those things. To allow children to think otherwise is to encourage a disability — a disability both of awareness and communication.

– Penelope Lively

 

These notes draw heavily from Fiction For Young Adults – the fourth in a series of units offered at Bendigo’s La Trobe University, delivered by Professor David Beagley, available on iTunes U.

Introduction

YA is now defined as a market, in fact it’s a market that defines most other fashion, including clothing.

The crossover novel is a concept that first became clear with Harry Potter, when Bloomsbury (the publishers) realised they should start publishing this children’s story with adult covers. The adult versions are dark and sombre. This was so successful that the final two books sold more copies with adult covers than with those designed for children.

‘Notions of the “child”, “childhood” and “children’s literature” are contingent, not essentialist; embodying the social construction of a particular historical context; they are useful fictions intended to redress reality as much as to reflect ideology of Romantic literature and criticism. These ideas have been applied to eighteenth-century children’s authors such as Maria Edgworth. The child constructed by Romantic ideology recurs as Wordsworth’s ‘child of nature’ in such figures as Kipling’s Mowgli and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Dickon in The Secret Garden and, as one critic points out, ‘many children’s books that feature children obviously wiser than the adults they must deal with — like F. Anstey’s Vice Versa or E. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet — would have been unthinkable without the Romantic revaluation of childhood’.

– from History and Culture in Understanding Children’s Literature edited by Peter Hunt

 

What exactly is a child?

The labels themselves have the result of setting boundaries: child, adolescent, teenager, young adult.

Historically, during the Renaissance (1400s onwards), society’s thinking changed hugely, starting with religion, into ideas of government. Art changed, music changed. All of these things happened over a couple of centuries. The change in attitude towards the child is typified by this painted icon of Madonna and Child (1228), and conveys the idea that the child is simply a smaller version of the adult.

madonna and child

The baby Jesus is being held by his mother, in terms of the proportion of the arms/legs/head is an adult figure. [Might this simply be a bad painter, or reflecting the idea that the baby Jesus was never a normal baby? However, I get the idea.]

The following passage from Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction, by Maria Nikolajeva, is an interesting glimpse into how just 100-200 years ago, children were seen as pure and untouchable. The idea that any adult could be sexually attracted to a child and cause them harm never crossed anyone’s mind in such a culture:

Lewis Carroll and the child

A different but related idea

I think the way we’ve constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It’s bad for children, too, but it’s also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.

– The Moving Castle

 

What is a naughty child?

When you see a child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket and the carer smacks the child – should you use violence on a child? Is the child being naughty or is the child simply doing what the adult doesn’t want? Does the child have the capacity to make the moral judgement between good and evil? Before the Renaissance, it was assumed. Humans were thought to be inherently evil, because we were descended from the evil Adam and Eve. Therefore every child ever since is sinful and accepts responsibility just like everybody else. John Locke and others presented the idea that the child became not the adult but the baby Jesus, essentially innocent and pure, corrupted by the world. This is a huge change in thinking.

 

Should children be treated differently?

A couple of the gospels from the Christian Bible: Mark 10:14, repeated at Luke 18:16. A group of children were trying to get to Jesus. They were being held back, but said that the children are special and let them come to me. The bible says unless we humble ourselves like little children we’ll never get into heaven. This was recognition that children could not and should not be treated as adults, but it took the rest of the Western world another 1500 years or so to wake up to this idea, but wake up they did, in the Renaissance.

Schooling became a structured, organised social activity, not just something parents passed onto their children. Before the Renaissance, if your father was a weaver, you were a weaver. Schooling became a social construct between the 1700 and 1800s. It was originally provided by the church, in Britain and then copied in Australia. Eventually schooling was compulsory – in 1872 both in Britain and in Victoria here in Australia. That separated children as a social group. They were not just part of a family, but part of the group of ‘school children’.

Before this were labour laws prohibiting children from being employed, originally when they were 12, then 14. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, most people left school after about the age of 14 (what we would call Year 8) and go to work. Only a few would go on to specific qualifications to become professionals. Anne of Green Gables finished school at about year eight. Next year she’s back as the teacher, teaching the class. After a couple of years of doing that she goes off to university to become a teacher.

There were laws about when a person could marry, engage in sexual activity, when they could inherit and so on. These laws gradually started coming in to protect the child and childhood. The middle class came about after leisure came about. People had money to buy books, for example.

Teenagers, or the concept of ‘teenagehood’ came about much later, in the 1950s.

[Rock around the Clock]

Huge social upheavals happened. Disposable income, compulsory schooling – all of those elements were leading to this point, and probably should have happened earlier, but the World Wars and Great Depression inserted turmoil. Gender roles were also important. Women were required in the workforce and therefore unable to look after the children as they were able to before.

All of a sudden there was a jump between the child to the 18 year old adult, fixed by warfare, because you were unable to fight before the age of 18. This gave birth to ‘the teenager’. Rock and Roll occurred because there was a group who couldn’t yet fight or do other adult things.

When do you pay full fare to the movies or on the plane? (When you fit into a seat rather than on someone’s knee.)

When can you leave school?

When can you work?

It’s blurred there, because there is an upper limit on hours for teenagers. When can you smoke, marry? Between 10 and 16 children can engage in sexual activity, as long as the two partners are both consenting and within two years of age. If you’re over 16 there are still some limits, if you’re over 18 open slather, with anyone. Anywhere between about 3 and 25 for certain inheritance laws. Is a 19 year old the same as a 13 year old? They’re both ‘teenagers’. The word ‘adolescent’ implies that there is growth but it is not yet there.

Further Reading

Bahr, Nan & Pendergast, Donna (2007) The millennial adolescent. Australian Council for Education Research, Camberwell, Victoria.

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 19: Traditional Literature

David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

 

What is ‘traditional’?

  • A ‘tradition’ must follow a pattern that’s been set down and repeated over time. It can be traced through history.
  • Traditional ‘templates’ keep being used across generations and these templates are partly what make stories traditional.
  • The pattern must be ‘fixed’ in some way, which do not change over time. But there also must be elements which have changed. So tradition is a mixture of very old patterns and new variations. Without variations it’s not a tradition but a ‘repetition’.
  • Much of traditional literature derives from the oral tradition.
  • The printing press worked to fix a single version of a story, when in fact they tend to evolve. (In so many cases we think of the Disney version.) Modern marketing and publishing leads the audience to think of one particular version of a story.

Folksongs

  • Happy Birthday To You
  • He’s A Jolly Good Fellow
  • In Australia a lot of them derive from military songs. For example Melbourne’s Grand Old Flag is taken from an American song. Collingwood Forever was a marching song from the Boer War.
  • So many of these are a cultural marker, used to help define a particular group because they derive from a shared history. The Brothers Grimm collected a huge number of stories particularly from the Germanic countries (there was no country called ‘Germany’ back then. There were lots of separate Germanic states and each state was a separate country.) The Grimm brothers were trying to bring these groups together with a shared culture. Eventually they came together as Germany. [Was it the folktales, then? Ha ha]

 

Folktales

  • A folktale is the ‘generic’ tale that is used for all the tales/puns/jokes etc that can be lumped together, garnered from the oral tradition.
  • Folklore includes superstitions/remedies/old wives’ tales.
  • There are various categories of these.
  • Lots of beast stories.
  • Fools and Innocents: Jack and the Beanstalk, [Simple Simon], Brer Rabbit, Anansi (a spider in African lore)
  • Pourquoi Stories: how and why things happen. [pourquoi means ‘why’ in French]
  • Domestic Stories: The Elves and the Shoemaker
  • Human Traits: King Midas, Icarus, [The Emperor’s New Clothes]
  • Moral Warnings

Fairytales

  • Fairytales are a subset of folktales.
  • Fairytales include fantasy. Think of ‘faery’ as a place or a state, which was its original use. A fairytale is set in this parallel fantasy world.

Myths and Legends

  • A myth is a story that explains the world. Many derive from early religions because they were the best explanation people could come up with at the time, with the evidence they had. These are not for entertainment, originally made up to explain how the world came about.
  • A legend is usually about a single person (sometimes groups), but focuses on the lives of individual people. These people might not be real. Robin Hood, Joan of Arc, Ulysses are all characters who make certain groups proud to be a part of that group. In Australia we have The Man From Snowy River and similar, which perpetuates a particular image of Australia. Legends can be misused. (See: The Nazis.) [See again, Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan.]
  • Myths and legends all derive from reality and all function to explain the world to a particular culture.
  • Related: See my post What Is Mythic Structure?

 

Nursery Rhymes

  • These are often a child’s first experience of literature. [But is that still the case? Do modern children still have old nursery rhymes read to them?]
  • There are now nursery rhymes which have been ‘authored’. (We know who wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.)
  • Nursery rhymes are a huge mess of the created, adapted, the melodied. These exist for the purpose of play.

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 14: Social Issues In Realistic Fiction

In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

I Am The Cheese cover

David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture available on iTunes U

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Readings

  • Only Connect by Sheila A. Egoff. In the second edition is a very good article about the ‘Problem Novel’, which was starting to become prevalent in YA fiction. [I’ve also heard ‘Issues Novel’ a lot.] Rather than an adventure in which the MC goes away on an adventure, the problem exists at home.
  • Robin Sheahan-Bright talks about this [exact work not given in the audio]
  • Maureen Nimon (retired 2004, University Of South Australia) looks at the idea of censorship — what are the boundaries that adult mediators (especially librarians) set for children? Where do they draw the line? (John McKenzie disagrees with Nimon’s position quite strongly.)
  • Robin Klein’s Came Back To Show You I Could Fly is about a young boy who moves into a new house. Something has disruped his family and he meets the next door neighbour who is a bit of a rebel/streetkid. She is teenaged, heavily tattooed, pregnant, heavily into drugs. The 12 year old boy learns to deal with what he has discovered.
  • Dear Miffy by John Marsden caused a huge furor and a lot of people changed their attitude towards Marsden. Marsden is very good at portraying female characters. All the voices in his other works are spoken by a teenage female — very direct, very good. And then this one is a diary by a boy. People were surprised at the drugs/sex content, but also the language, which people saw as ‘un-Marsden-like’.
  • Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard and its sequel Girl Underground — issues around boat people and detention centers. Two Afghan boys are desperate to play for Australia in WC soccer. But they’re in a detention camp. As with all Gleitzman’s stories, there is a wonderful surface of humour, but underneath is a tough story.

The Child Within The Adult

  • John Marsden’s made the following point at a conference: As adults, we’re very happy to accept the notion of the ‘child within the adult’ and people are allowed to be as young as you feel. Once past the age of 18 you spend the rest of your life revisiting that part of your life. But what we’re not comfortable with is people who haven’t reached adulthood yet.
  • Now we have an age-group called ‘tweens’. (For Hallowe’en costumes that means up to five feet in height. Ten to twelve year old girls. [See ‘Sexy Hallowe’en Costumes — there has been a lot more about this over the past few years as costumes get sexualised for ever-younger girls, in particular.]
  • Obviously, the realistic must begin with the ‘real’.
  • Childhood and adolescence is a time of change. Childhood and adolescence are made up of continual change, physically, emotionally, intellectually. Adults look for stasis: a regular income, a house, a steady relationship etc. The adolescent’s life is continual change. So why write about the everyday? Because everything will be different next year. Adolescence is turbulent, so therefore the fiction ought to be turbulent.
  • What a lot of writers do is take the extreme end of that turbulence: the bad. The Bad initiates the change: sex, drugs, abuse, war, AIDS, violence — all those sorts of things.
  • The Resilience Centre has resources such as Rosy and Jack, which deals with bad touching.

 

A Brief History of Issues Novels

  • When did these stories start? Treasure Island, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Little House On The Prairie... In most of these stories, if they’re not just like the Anne stories — explanations of everyday life — they are stories where the hero with a relatively stable home life goes away to an adventure. This is usually a big change. Something happens from outside. As in The Little Princess, the big event affects the everyday life at home. The child protagonist becomes the hero who deals with this issue, overcomes the situation and changes it. The adventure is outside the expected norm.
  • In the late 20th century (the 1960s and 70s) this sort of story changed. Colin Thiele, Storm Boy, Blue Fin, Paul Zindel’s My Darling My Hamburger, Judy Blume’s books which depict teenagers actually having sex, Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs about incest (1995), David Metzenthen’s Tiff and the Trout is not quite as extreme, being about divorce and the break up of a family. Instead of the normal being stable and nice, the normal is the problem. Nothing has come from outside. So instead of being the ‘hero’, the MC is now the victim. This is a big change in how a story is told.
  • The Dickens stories featuring children were about protagonists who started off with stability, were cast out, and then come back to stability. In Oliver Twist’s case, the normal is before he’s born, his mother’s situation — he eventually finds his way back to that.
  • When nasty is the normal state, ‘escape’ is much, much more difficult. Sometimes, survival is the best an MC can hope for.

 

Issues Around Issues Novels

  • Didacticism: preachy, teaching. The reader is expected to absorb a clear message. To what extent should kidlit be instructive rather than just entertaining? It’s an interesting exercise to google search for lists of banned books. This is a big issue in America. A lot of it comes from the nature of the school system in America. Here in Australia, the NSW school system is pretty much the biggest school system in the world because most countries run their systems on a local basis. When education is run by local people, those local people are very responsive to pressure groups. So if someone gets a bee in his bonnet about a particular book, it’s more likely to be opposed. Local people can kick up a fuss.
  • And Tango Makes Three is an interesting example of a banned book. At a zoo in the United States two penguins paired off. They were both male, so the keepers put an egg there because they were getting really stressed without one. They hatched the egg and brought up the baby and the baby was called Tango. (This is a true story.) But people of course raised objections to it, for ‘promoting homosexuality as normal’.
  • Are children even old enough to connect the behaviours of two male penguins with the behaviour of two male humans? Children are defined by a ‘deficit model’: They are defined by what they are not. They are not old enough. They do not have experience, they do not have the vocabulary. They are not ready to make moral decisions. They therefore need a mediating adult.
  • Is children’s literature the place for warts-and-all reality? Can’t they live in that rosy-glow we associate with childhood, running around, climbing trees? Should literature reflect what is already there, or should it lead children into the new and unknown?
  • If we accept the necessity that there is a need for some mediation — as most people would — perhaps simply because they don’t have the language to deal with particular things, or (in the Piaget model of childhood development) that they don’t have the capacity to think further than the concrete until about the age of 12 — if we accept this sort of model the books need to be mediated.
  • There are two ways of mediating. The first, protection. The reader is shielded, by limiting access to this particular great mess of the adult world. The alternative, vaccination. By giving the child small doses of awfulness we can prepare them for when they encounter horrible things in real life.

 

Various Attitudes Towards Issues Books

  • The protectionist view (from The Lion, The Witch and the Drug Addict from Egoff’s book): Children are helpless. They need someone else to do things for them. But they live in an adult world, which sees them not only as helpless but also as a good market (‘pester-power’) — just look at what is at the cash register in the supermarket, at child’s eye-level. Susan Smith says it is more important than ever to give them models for them to learn from. On the other hand, if children are spending so much of their life surrounded by exhausted parents working long hours, Smith wonders if it’s really necessary to give them all this for their bedtime reading as well? Can’t we just give them warmth and security at bedtime? Is this the normal we want children to accept and therefore perpetuate?
  • The vaccination idea works on the basis that the reader needs to do as much work as the author. The reader comes up with potential solutions to the problems presented by the story.
  • Realistic fiction will always be contentious because real life is contentious.
  • Nimon’s view is that we should trust the reader.
  • The real ‘you’ is kept private. We never really know what’s going on in the ‘inner life’ of another person. The ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ lives of characters are an important dichotomy. In Terabithia, the outer realities (Leslie’s death) cause the inner realities (the emotions, the responses: denial, anger, self-pity, blame, depression, and the gradual realisation and acceptance, and the choice to let someone else into Terabithia).
  • Each reader is different. As readers read, though, we follow a similar trajectory of emotions. We may look at Jessie’s turmoil and apply it to similar situations/emotions in our real life. Although reading is a vicarious experience, the feelings we have while reading are real nonetheless. By feeling these emotions and learning them, is the child therefore better equipped to deal with them when they become real in our outer realities of real life?
  • Nimon looks at how we find the balance between the inner and the outer reality. Where do we intervene? The mediator does and must, therefore when and how? There are two points at which we could intervene.
  • First, by looking at the maturity of the reader. We label: child, tween, YA, adult. When does a child become an adult? When they are able to make their own moral judgements and take responsibility for their decisions. The rules around sexual activity reflects our ideas of teenage-ness. But if we’re going to vaccinate them, they need the stories before they reach the situation IRL.
  • Second, we can mediate by defining the literature itself, by looking at it in terms of its quality. Is it good literature? Nimon talks a lot about this. Does the story simplify the topic? Does it preach and judge right/wrong rather than letting the reader do the work? Does it smack the reader in the face with a message? Does it suggest that extreme problems are simply normal?
  • After all, stories are still just stories. The genre label of realism is actually talking about the author’s approach. It’s not an instruction manual they’re writing. Fiction writers are not journalists. The stories are not documentaries.
  • Morris Gleitzman, Elizabeth Honey, Christobel Mattingley are good authors who deal with reality without making the stories too nasty.

 

This lecture reminded me of teaching English in a low socio-economic girls’ high school in New Zealand. The New Zealand curriculum allows teachers to choose their own novels, movies, short-stories and poems to teach to the kids in front of them, which is a wonderful freedom not afforded in countries with government approved reading lists. At the school where I was a young teacher, one of the films chosen for study, for 16 year old girls, was Once Were Warriors, based on the book by Alan Duff. This story is one of the few to star a New Zealand Maori girl, and until Whale Rider came out, it may have been the only one. Bear in mind that at this school, a larger-than-you-may-think proportion of the students had been abused in some way, often by a family member, as these things go. However, the (entirely white, middle-class English department) took ‘The Literature As Vaccination’ view — that by studying this story, the students would be better prepared for it in real life. However, when the Year 10 Dean found out about it, she was shocked. She took the Protectionist View. This was no doubt due to the fact that in her role as Dean, she had a better idea of what these girls were dealing with at home, and she predicted the film would be triggering  rather than any kind of comfort. She felt that school should offer protection from ruptured and dangerous home lives.

The film (and book) continued to be studied, because final decisions come down to the head of English. But that film, along with some of the short stories of Witi Ihimaera, deal with issues very close to home for those students and to be frank, I’m glad I don’t have to teach those any longer. In any classroom, a single story can be a ‘vaccination’ for some students while being ‘traumatic’ for others, and we never know exactly who is who. It is also very difficult as a teacher to mediate classroom discussions around such delicate issues as rape and suicide, and I noticed that certain students fell silent, while others (most always white and middle class) were the most vocal, and often ill-informed.

All of this shows how very important it is to train and retain the best of the best to work as teachers in our schools.


 

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Dimensions of YA Literature, a paper by Hallman and Schieble argues for the coverage of relevant and sometimes difficult social issues in young adult literature.