You may not believe in ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.
Religion is still everywhere. So, reflecting and influencing the culture in which we find them, children’s books are not secular either.
It’s interesting to interrogate the role of religion in children’s literature because children’s literature is an acculturating medium: It will introduce children to social life and history so is both educational and enjoyable.
Many of the following notes are from the Kid You Not Podcast Episode 6: Religion In Children’s Literature.
There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff met with controversy for being a ‘blasphemous’ book.
A young teenage boy is god and has created the earth, and is dealing with it very badly. It’s an attempt to explain all the suffering that happens on earth – teenagers can likewise experience the pits of despair and ecstasy at another moment.
This is a ‘concept book’. The premise defines everything about the book, from the language used (pseudo-biblical, a parody of biblical language), to the characterisation. A lot of questions are raised about teenage love and the lack of spiritualism in the teenage years.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF RELIGION IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Children’s literature has very strong ties to religion. Religion is kind of the reason why children’s books were written — to indoctrinate children.Children’s publishing was originally to publish pamphlets to develop children’s fear of god.
The very first examples of children’s literature were prayer books and stories that had religious elements. The Bible was for a very very long time the only thing that children ever read (or had read to them). The cradle of children’s literature in the West is of course based on the Christian faith.
A lot of what people call their favourite books, even today, are often very religious. Little Women is one example: All the characters try and follow the Pilgrim’s Progress, a text by John Bunion which children definitely don’t read anymore. The Secret Garden (all of the Frances Hodgson Burnett books, Anne of Green Gables, Polyanna, are all Christian.
Even children from non-religious backgrounds – who are big readers – today tend to be exposed to heavily Christian works.
Picture books with Christian themes still sell well, and so they are still published, particularly around Easter and Christmas. Parents buy them. Bible stories are really good stories on their own – the nativity story is a very pleasant story. Have they been stripped of the faith? Can they now be treated as a myth or legend? The nativity story probably fits that category for many modern families.
The Lutterworth Press is an old publishing company (of 200 years) whose mission is to publish Christian texts. They published Joan’s Crusade [which my mother had as a child, and it graced my own childhood bookshelves, and I remember one very bored Sunday I actually read it].
In mainstream publishing today, when religion is mentioned in children’s literature it is to talk about religious extremism, or else the human aspect of religion, what humans create. There are books about the Sikh community in Britain, for example, but they don’t explore faith but rather the way of life that accompanies the faith. It is currently unfashionable to express devotion to god in children’s literature.
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS ABOUT RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS RATHER THAN FAITH
For a good example of this, see (Un)arranged Marriage, set in Leicester or Killing Honour, both by Bali Rai.
Popular stories about religious traditions present extremism as something that isn’t part of the faith, as something separate and malicious and which has grown from bitterness. There are very religious characters in the story but never the main character – usually the main character’s parents.
Religion is now presented as a social problem – not necessarily in a negative way – but as something to be dealt with.
More fashionable are books sometimes attack religious beliefs. (For example There Is No Dog.)
CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS IN PARANORMAL YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
Angel by L.A. Weatherly is an example of a YA book about angels, which are Christian ideas.
Angels are all around us: beautiful, awe-inspiring, irresistible.
Ordinary mortals yearn to catch a glimpse of one of these stunning beings and thousands flock to The Church of Angels to feel their healing touch.
But what if their potent magnetism isn’t what it seems?
Willow knows she’s different from other girls. And not just because she loves tinkering around with cars.
Willow has a gift. She can look into people’s futures, know their dreams, their hopes and their regrets, just by touching them. But she has no idea where she gets this power from.
Until she meets Alex…
Alex is one of the few who know the truth about angels. He knows Willow’s secret and is on a mission to stop her.
The dark forces within Willow make her dangerous – and irresistible.
In spite of himself, Alex finds he is falling in love with his sworn enemy.
— promotional copy of Angel, book one
Yet the Angel series, and the Fallen series by Lauren Kate, is devoid of spirituality even though god exists as a character. He doesn’t exist in the way religious readers would understand. It can therefore sit strangely with religious readers.
Angel accuses angels of being the cause of mental illness, which is completely at odds with their significance in religion. The main plot point is that the angels create The Church Of Angels to help angels break free from humans, which is probably a metaphor for the evangelical churches in America: Meetings, huge churches, TV evangelists. The angels need these to feed on souls. The author cleverly takes all the characteristics of a cult and applies them to angels, and the Church of Angels may be the most ingenious thing about this series. Significantly, the author at no point attacks belief itself, only organised religion. Again, this speaks to the reluctance of YA authors to tackle the issues of faith and belief head-on.
Many other recent dystopian YA novels do not mention religion at all. The Hunger Games, Delirium etc. are visions of a religion free future.
RELIGION AND CHARACTER ARCS IN YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
In pretty much every story, a character goes through a character arc, from less mature to more mature. These stories are known as Bildungsromane, though click through to find out a more accurate term to apply to most YA novels., in which the main character doesn’t become fully adult.
An author’s choice of plot, setting and conflict is pretty much infinite. But the exact nature of the character arc is more predictable than it seems when we look beneath these surface differences:
Adolescent novels that deal with religion as an institution demonstrate how discursive institutions are and how inseparable religion is from adolescents’ affiliation with their parents’ identity politics. Adolescents in such novels eventually experience language determining not only their religions beliefs, but also creating competing dialogues that influence their own religious views. Moreover, such novels depict how religion influences identity politics, especially those of race, class and gender. […] All of the protagonists [in examples given by Seelinger Trites] experience some form of the (over)regulation >> unacceptable rebellion .>> repression >> acceptable rebellion >> transcendence model that typifies the domination repression model of institutional discourse common in adolescent literature.
— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
PHILIP PULLMAN AND ‘RELIGIOUS ATHEISM’
Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials is all about stories and about how they shape your existence, and how they are your passage to life after death. Pullman hated The Chronicles of Narnia and wrote his own series – Paradise Lost for children, in a way that would say to readers that they are allowed to question religious authority. A huge proportion of the American religious community hate this series. They have been denounced by the pope. These books are able to shape a child’s ideas about religion: They are critical of organised religion but very spiritual. Pullman takes away the Christian God but replaces it with the idea that there is a higher power and everything is connected.
It’s quite a fashionable statement now to say you see the world as spiritual and connected but outside clerical order. Naturally, this is reflected in children’s literature too.
Phillip Pullman describes himself as a ‘religious atheist’. His grandfather was a priest. Most books still do commit to a Christian sense of morality. [I disagree with this. I’m with Richard Dawkins on this point, that modern morality is not of the Bible but rather an evolution of culture, shared by atheists and theists alike. Morality according to the Bible is a tough world indeed. Christians do not own morality, though Lauren and Clementine do specify ‘ideas promoted by Christianity’, which is a better way of phrasing this, I feel.]
Hear a 2010 interview with Philip Pullman on Radio New Zealand, with my favourite interviewer, Kim Hill. The interview is called ‘Jesus and Christ’.
Salman Rushdie’s book for children is also an example of an author with a religious agenda.
WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?
In Harry Potter, it is not questioned that the right thing for Harry to do is to top himself. This has a Jesus ring to it. [The reason I take issue with this being a Christian thing to do is because it’s very much a part of traditional Japanese culture – the harakiri culture which is in place even today – and Japanese culture is not based on Christianity at all. The Japanese, like the British, drive their cars on the left side of the road, but saying that therefore the Japanese drive like the Brits would be erroneous – this shared culture is simply coincidence. However, perhaps it’s the case that J.K. Rowling herself is influenced by Christianity and that it has influenced her work, which is to say a slightly different thing.]
Related: See the short video from Emory University — Harry Potter: A Christ Figure
There are a lot of book in which characters are resurrected. Providence is an important part of children’s literature, as discussed in the podcast on Death in Children’s Literature. Artichoke Hearts doesn’t seem to have much to do with religion but the protagonist frequently calls on not sure who, not sure what, to help her family.
On the topic of Wicked by Gregory Maguire:
Too often in fantasy religion is either distant, or too close, with gods interacting directly with characters, and characters in turn becoming far too aware of just how this fantasy universe operates, at least divinely. Here, characters cling to faith—in at least two cases, far too fiercely for their own good—without proof, allowing faith or the lack thereof to guide their actions. It allows for both atheism and fanaticism, with convincing depictions of both, odd though this seems for Oz. (Baum’s Oz had one brief reference to a church, and one Thompson book suggests that Ozites may be at least familiar with religious figures, but otherwise, Oz had been entirely secular, if filled with people with supernatural, or faked supernatural, powers and immortality.)
KIND OF RELATED
The Five Best Depictions Of God In Movies from Film School Rejects
Next is a collection of stories about life after death, interview with editor at Books For Keeps
Richard Dawkins, well-known atheist academic [my milkshake duck], wrote The Magic Of Reality to counteract all of the religious, mythical, superstitious and anti-science ideas which permeate children’s stories. Interview also at Books for Keeps.
What Is Paranormal Romance?
Paranormal romance is a literary subgenre of the romance novel. A type of speculative fiction, paranormal romance focuses on romance and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from the genres of:
- Traditional fantasy
- Science fiction
Paranormal romance may range from traditional category romances with a paranormal setting to stories where the main emphasis is on a science fiction or fantasy-based plot with a romantic subplot. Common hallmarks are romantic relationships between humans and vampires, shapeshifters, or fantastical beings (the Fae, Elves, etc.). Paranormal romances can also include characters with psychic abilities, like telekinesis or telepathy.
Paranormal romance is the new gothic romance, enjoyed by Jane Austen even as she parodied the genre in Northanger Abbey. (A letter written by Jane Austen shows that Austen continued to read gothic romance for years after making fun of it in her own writing. Surely she derived much pleasure from the genre.)
But why? And why do so many teenage girls and women enjoy the genre today? Paranormal romance is a strange contradiction. The genre is at once supremely sexist but is also a response to existing in a sexist society, providing escapism and wish fulfilment.
Say what you will about sparkly vampires, they worked.
[A]las, making kids’ stories “dark” seems de rigeur these days. While the original fairy tales are violent and contain the supernatural, they weren’t meant to be categorized as “Gothic”; it’s only in recent years that they have been Twilight-ed and pitched to brooding teens. But it’s not just fairy tales that have been “darkened.” Consider the difference between Disney’s original “Alice in Wonderland” and Tim Burton’s creepy version. Or Spike Jonze’s film “Where the Wild Things Are” which took Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book and turned it not into a children’s film but “a film about childhood” by replaying Jonze’s own feelings about growing up as a child of divorce and resulted in a movie full of misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, and injured recriminations.
A lot of people hate on the Twilight Saga, and also on the women and girls who are hooked on it. While I have huge issues with this series myself, I have an uncomfortable feeling that a bit of femme phobia is wrapped up in criticism of its fandom. If you have no intention of seeing the film adaptations (I’ve seen the first), you can find examples of both the femme phobia and the actual problems with the story in the spoof movie trailers from ‘Honest Trailers’.
For more on the gendered community of romance, listen to an interview from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books with Drs Joanna Gregson and Jen Lois, who are professors of sociology.
The following notes are from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode Five: Why Do People Read Paranormal Romance? and the presenters are ultimately respectful of readers of this genre.
The following books come up, and I’m sure you could have predicted at least a few of them!
- The Ravenwood Mysteries by Mia James, in which the first is By Midnight
- The Fallen Trilogy by Lauren Kate
- The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer
One of the hosts of this podcast (Clementine) does not like paranormal romance [nor do I] whereas the other reads them with a ferocity that ‘is very strange considering’ Lauren is aware they’re not the best quality. Lauren is a fan of Twilight and has read them numerous times. (She does say that New Moon is the boring one of the trilogy and explains why further down.)
First, they read an excerpt from the paranormal YA romance novel By Midnight by Mia James, in which the romantic vibe comes through in a way typical for this genre.
It would be easy to criticise dark romance book but this podcast is about why people read them.
NECESSARY ELEMENTS OF PARANORMAL ROMANCE
The unvaried plot is comforting to the reader. Readers expect certain specific things: a love story with a twist, appeals to girls, more scary than a normal love story, and supernatural elements which provide excitement and danger. A recurring theme is that no matter how much danger the girl is in, you know a heroine will ultimately be protected by the immortal or supernatural boy she has ‘chosen’ to be with. Readers want romance. If the book is going through a non-romantic sequence, sometimes the readers will skip it. The main character is not fully fleshed out enough to provide any interest in her own right. The Love is a character in its own right. It’s not about the female character per se.
Typical in descriptions and reviews of paranormal romances:
- a slow burning relationship that blossoms when you least expect it
- the gift of eternal life
- thrown together in a violent and unfamiliar world
- a mysterious young man
- an immediate and powerful connection
- warriors and other feuding factions
- forbidden love
- a regular girl just trying to survive high school
- their love is so pure
- he has been secretly in love with her forever and she is only just realising
- has a secret that may tear them apart
- the mystery of their past
- the greatest danger might not be the warriors coming to destroy them but the forbidden romance that’s grown between them
LOVE ACROSS THE SPECIES
Central to all of these paranormal romance books is ‘forbidden love’. This is also how romance in non-supernatural romantic tales starts — a traditional plot. People have always read romance with forbidden love in it. But times have changed. Parents no longer get to decide who their daughters marry. There are fewer obstacles when people get together, unless the story is set in a more restrictive setting such as a country which has war, or with different political configurations. A paranormal romance gets round this issue by having a human girl fall in love with a man from a supernatural species, which is forbidden for reasons explained in any given story of this genre.
[See my notes on a documentary I watched about romantic cinema. Rom-coms have this same problem because there has to be something in the plot which keeps two lovers apart, otherwise there is no story.]
While not all paranormal romances have love triangles, many do. The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare features a love triangle between Tessa, a downworlder with a rare ability and two best friends. Will and Jem are Shadowhunters and parabatai and both of them will do anything to be with Tessa. It’s up to her to choose who she wants to be with.
io9 ranks The 10 Types Of Teen Heroes According To Wish Fulfillment and puts ‘The Hinge In the Paranormal Love Triangle’ at number three, and manages to sum up sex in YA paranormal romance:
Upsides: Approximately two supernatural hotties want you. There is smoldering. You’ll probably end up becoming supernatural yourself, one way or the other. You get to feel popular and important, even if ordinary people don’t understand you (bonus!). You’re like a misfit outcast whom everybody wants to marry.
Downsides: You don’t necessarily get much agency besides choosing between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. You’re stuck in a world where everybody thinks you’re weak because you’re human. There’s probably no sex, or at least not enough sex.
AN ANCIENT TRADITION
Although there has been a recent swing towards supernatural love stories, this is actually an ancient tradition. Greek mythology is full of such stories. Zeus impregnates different types of human females. Readers are aware of this. From looking at fansites, readers of paranormal romance are actually quite demanding regarding what they read. They’re not going to read indiscriminately anything – there has to be a twist for it to be interesting. There must be some kind of alchemy between romance and mythology, and the twist might be in setting it in a modern setting such as a school etc. This completely offsets the mythological and romantic element.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show in the 1990s which was part of this trend, which came from the work of Anne Rice, which itself comes from a very long tradition. [See The Evolution Of The Vampire In Fiction, again, notes from a lecture by David Beagley.]
THE SPECIFIC NEEDS OF A READER
A reader review of By Midnight on Amazon shows that the reader appreciates this particular story for avoiding a ‘gooey’ female character, embedding the plot in a kind of reality. [Reality can obviously be placed on a very broad continuum.]
There are so many of these paranormal romance novels now that readers have generally honed their specific wants and needs. It’s a rapidly evolving genre as a consequence. They’re a bit like the teenage Mills and Boons, but updated for today’s teens. The love is also supposed to be very angsty and significant. They replicate the intensity of first love and teenage infatuation, making them more than hormone driven. There’s usually a worldwide significant event which has the ability to change the lives of everyone. [This fits the definition of ‘high fantasy’ as explained by David Beagley in his lecture Harry Potter and High Fantasy.]
WHY DOES THIS GENRE SPEAK SO WELL TO A TEENAGE, FEMALE READERSHIP?
A lot of other teenage books don’t validate these feelings. Paranormal romance takes a ‘hormonal fact’ and gives it an almost spiritual dimension, as if confirming to the insecure teen that their feelings are so real and tremendously important that they have to live them fully. This concords with the completely narcissistic view on life that adults often conclude teenagers have, [and one could argue that these books encourage it].
The physical symptoms of the protagonists blushing/heart palpitating/breathing patterns and so on is not really described in any other genre. The love is therefore interpreted as all-consuming: the love is not just in your head; it’s in your whole body. This lends the love more significance. Teenage girls can really relate to this.
These feelings that feel uncontrollable to the teenage reader are validated: These feelings you have are from some supernatural event which is indeed outside your control. Or, you inherited them and it’s not your fault. This is comforting, and allows the teenager to access a feeling very powerfully. Love is presented as something that happens to you rather than a choice. It’s as if the love is predetermined.
Like the young heroine in a book, a reader is preconditioned to fall in love with a supernatural man. A lot of the stories make an attempt to explain the love interest’s appeal. Often it’s his handsomeness, which is a very uncomfortable fact given the lack of choice the female protagonist feels she has.
Why do people respond so well to these troublesome ideologies? Is it a response to living in a society which is full of sexualised images of women? Because ironically, paranormal romance is incredibly chaste. There’s no sex until after marriage. This storyline is escapist if a teenage girl feels her body is constantly being judged. Girls perhaps like these stories for the same reason teenage girls prefer non-threatening, boy-like, almost asexual partners a la the members of Hansen. [I have heard this referred to as ‘the erotics of abstinence’.]
THE NATURE OF THE FEMALE PROTAGONIST
The female protagonists are created in such a way that as many readers as possible are meant to identify with her. A lot of her attributes play on the insecurities of teenage girls. A very common trait is the heroine is never popular. She’s never someone surrounded by close, real friends. [Genuine female friendships in YA are rare, as explained by Kate DeGoldi in her review of Code Name Verity – a rare example of female friendship well done.] She’s always a bit of an outcast, that she doesn’t fit in. [She feels she isn’t beautiful enough – there has to be something wrong with her. This isn’t limited to this genre, but is common across all YA genres. Here are my views on that.]
Coincidentally, the male love interest in paranormal romance is the only character who has ever really understood her.
A ‘Mary Sue character’ is a term given to female characters who are basically devoid of character traits. [The term is used in various different ways, as explained at TV Tropes.] She is generally weak, clumsy, insecure. Empty shells allow the reader to comfortably fit inside.
Divergent by Veronica Roth is not a dark paranormal YA romance but is rather a dystopian one in the vein of The Hunger Games, but like Twilight, the protagonist is a blank character upon which a young reader can easily superimpose herself:
Despite the constant assurance that Tris is courageous, clever and kind, her own first-person narration displays a blank personality. No matter; all the “good” characters adore her and the “bad” are spiteful and jealous.
REASONS NOT TO DISMISS THE READERSHIP
Many fans of paranormal romance are highly articulate. They explain very well on forums why they like one book over another. Posts can get quite close to literary analysis. For this reason it would be a mistake to dismiss readers of paranormal romance as unsophisticated. They are enchanted by these books but can be critical of them. The books obviously offer something upon which to base critique. Breaking Dawn came under heavy criticism from Twilight’s most hardcore fans, who subsequently wrote an open letter to Stephanie Meyer via her blog. Fans had problem with the ideology behind the ending. This proved that an author can’t just wrap up a story in babies and weddings and vampires.
Readers will say they like these books for the ‘danger’. But these books are dangerous in another way, if the reader fails to read them critically and discerningly. You can be asked to absorb viewpoints that can be damaging to your development as a teenager. It’s worrisome that these books are sometimes held up as a romantic ideal. They’re best when viewed as a complete fantasy. But in 2008 and 2009 when Twilight was at its most popular, girls were apparently dumping their boyfriends because they weren’t enough like Jacob or Edward. The story sets up an ‘ideal’ that real teenage boys are never going to live up to. The stories can also set up an expectation for how girls are to be treated by boys, which is not just unrealistic but damaging. It is presented as good to be overprotected and have a boy who controls you.
An article in The Guardian about Bollywood Film and depictions of sex shows how much viewers want romance and erotica in fiction, and Indian film makers go to great lengths to get around censorship, to the point where visual metaphors are now arguably more sexual than brazen Hollywood depictions:
There is the popular misconception that Bollywood films do not show scenes of a sexual nature: they do. However, when comparing the screen time or manner in which kissing (or more “bedroomly” activity) is portrayed in Bollywood versus Hollywood, Bollywood is a blushing ballerina, whereas Hollywood is as brazen as a pole-dancing stripper.
See the paper: Hopelessly Devoted: What Twilight reveals about love and obsession by Candence Malhiet Robillard.
The Dark Lover series by J.R. Ward (notice the less gendered initials in place of the full, feminine name of Jessica) is currently beating Twilight as most popular paranormal romance on Goodreads as of 2017.
L.J. Smith, S.M. Parker and G.S. Predergast are other examples of paranormal romance authors using initials as author names.
Cassandra Clare may not agree with her paranormal urban fantasy series being designed ‘romance’, showing there is a disconnect between what marketers/publishers/readers think a book might be, and what genre the author perceives their work to be:
For a long time with these books – and they’re very classic urban fantasy – they’re stories about teens growing up and being surrounded by supernatural threats and demons and there’s a lot of mythology and whatnot. But for years and years they were treated as romance novels. And it drove me nuts!
Cassandra Clare also alludes to the phenomenon whereby if a woman writes a romantic subplot, her book is ‘romance’, whereas when men write romantic subplots their work is designated something else, be it thriller or whatever.
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.)
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.
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.