What Makes A Book 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 young adult novels.

They weren’t called that, though.

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

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

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

RESOURCES

  • A major report was done in 2000 on what and why and how teenagers in Australia (esp in Victoria). See the Inside A Dog website. (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 literature is usually adult literature — Shakespeare, Orwell, Aristotle. This was raising the question, why aren’t we looking at books targeted at teens when the audience are teenagers?

How Old Is A ‘Young Adult’?

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 this range, 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.

But 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).

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 main character is a requirement for a young adult story. This is almost so obvious it barely needs saying, though the reverse doesn’t hold. 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 young adult readers, or within their experience
  • The main character 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)
  • At the reading level of a typical young adult, including using a young adult’s vocabulary. This is problematic. Reading level and vocabulary are separate. There is an immense range of reading capacity around the numbers that we assign to age. An adult writer can easily sound ridiculously artificial by trying to write in a young adult 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 main characters 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. However, Sonja Hartnett has said in interviews that she doesn’t write for young adults. She writes stories; marketing departments sell class sets to high school English departments and she is therefore known as a young adult writer.

Looking For Alibrandi features a mid-late teen concerned about personal identity and relationships with her family, and looking for boys.

Twilight is about a mid-to-late teen concerned about personal identity in relationships with boys and the boys’ families.

Pride and Prejudice features main characters in their mid-to-late teens, and the same basic concerns as those in Twilight. It’s easy to forget how young Lydia is in Pride and Prejudice. If we remembered she was fifteen, and forced to marry (forever) we might feel a little more empathy for her as a victim.

Deadly, Unna? – same again.

Divine Wind, Hunger Games, Jinx… a pattern emerges.

Relationships and Identity

In young adult literature relationships and identity are closely related. These could be specifically about relationships with authority, and conflict with authority. In the character arc of a young adult character, there is often a turning point in which the coming-of-age youth starts to take control of their own identity. If the youth feels ready for control but society sets the point elsewhere the story contains conflict and built-in opposition. This conflict is most likely to occur with those authorities that are close by: parents and school.

Then there are the peers, 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? For much more on this, see Disturbing The Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites.

Young adulthood is the age at which people start thinking about politics, or at a more fundamental level, about what is right and wrong.

It all comes down to self-conflict, choosing who and what I am. And what I am not.

Many young adult 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 main characters choose but what other people choose for them. (Main characters who don’t control their own destinies is a feature of melodrama.) 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. Adults may or may not be a part of the story.

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 features a declared war. In some stories, it may simply be that the alternative society is just different. In Pride and Prejudice the different world is that of the very wealthy people (which the Bennetts are not).

(Maurice Saxby gives many examples of books, though he was writing about this in 1997 so his examples are not up-to-date.)

See: Orphans in Children’s Literature

Turmoil

The main characters in young adult stories make their own choices. The reader doesn’t have to identify with the situation of the main character, but does have to identify with the life stage, of being in the position of making choices.

A young adult novel offers possibilities rather than concrete answers and widens the vision of life.

The Why Is The Important Thing

Why do these characters choose? Less important: what they choose. The stronger the moral dilemma, the stronger the novel.

Profound Identification With The Reader

This is a requisite for young adult fiction. Adult readers don’t necessarily identify strongly with a main character, but the youth reader is really living the story, far more than other types of fiction.

What defines YA compared to Junior Fiction?

According to Beagley there is more capacity to make decisions in a young adult novel. Young adult characters desire more experience. They want to put things in context, to work on their analytical capacity. In short, more agency is afforded characters of young adult 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 young adult 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 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 young adults really are. Perhaps they remember rosy stories full of didacticism. In fact, every theme under the sun is open season in children’s literature: Incest, drugs, kidnapping etc.
  • What we’re witnessing at the moment in children’s literature and in children’s publishing more generally is ambivalence about who books are for. Publishers are aiming for a crossover market.
  • Like Prof Beagley, the presenters of this podcast trace this crossover marketing 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. This appeals to the nostalgia of adults. Adults reading this book on the train would not need to feel they’re reading a children’s book.
  • 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? Children’s stories are not real, it’s all cute and full of bunnies… the field of children’s literature is 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).
  • The adult-oriented Harry Potter book covers aside, 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 to whom these books actually appeal.
  • 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, people see themselves as a man, woman, or in other categories.
  • There remains 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’? (See Differences Between Writing For Children and Adults.)
  • 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 children’s literature, 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.

Nick Hornby On Why All Fiction Should Be Young Adult Fiction

Notes below are from a talk delivered by Nick Hornby at Newcastle University.

Nick Hornby refers to a list issued 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’s 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 an 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.

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 also spent years as an English teacher, and his first profession must have profoundly affected his second, as a writer.

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 main character has meant that it has become popular among a younger age group.

At a young adult 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 young adult fiction, which has been like being a young adult all over again. He was reading Vonnegut as a teenager himself, but now in his middle age he was reading young adult literature. 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 similar to Skellig is Feed, a science fiction 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 main characters. 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 young adult 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

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