YA Books Boring, Uncomplicated, Preachy? The New Yorker Thinks So!

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]What’s up with all the YA haters lately?

First it was Entertainment Weekly’s 2007 review of Jenny Downham’s BEFORE I DIE, spoiling a starred review with, “…unfortunately, Downham’s publisher has handicapped BEFORE I DIE by labeling it a young-adult novel, thus ghettoizing this gem to the back of most bookstores…” Entertainment Weekly swooped in for another poke at YA with Stephen King’s review of Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES, wrapping up with, “…although ‘young adult novel’ is a dumbbell term I put right up there with ‘jumbo shrimp’ and ‘airline food’ in the oxymoron sweepstakes…” Then Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic in What Girls Want, letting us all know “I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me…” before going on to praise Stephenie Meyer’s Y.A. vampire series, TWILIGHT, for “illuminat[ing] the complexities of female adolescent desire.”

Now The New Yorker steps up to the YA-bashing plate in Book Bench Reads: “Headlong,” Part I, twisting a relatively positive review of HEADLONG by Kathe Koja into another jab at the misunderstood genre of young adult literature.

A few choice quotes from the article:

“I tend to think of young-adult fiction as sort of facile—a straightforward style, uncomplicated themes and morals…”

If you’re a young girl and your best friend — also a girl your age — is sexually molesting you and mentally tormenting you for years before her not-so-accidental death, is that straightforward and uncomplicated? Jo Knowles’ LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL doesn’t make it look that way. What about setting a young neighbor kid on fire and watching him burn alive? Any uncomplicated morals there? Not in Gail Giles’ RIGHT BEHIND YOU. Both of these books are on the YA shelves today.

“When I was a teen-ager, I assumed that the label was synonymous with preachy and boring, a companion to sex-ed classes.”

If you haven’t read a young adult novel since you were a teen, perhaps a walk through the YA section at your local book store or library would do you some good — especially if you’re working on an article about current teen reads. YA books today are anything but boring. THE HUNGER GAMES practically gave me nightmares with it’s not-so-hard-to-believe plot about a dystopian future where kids are forced to compete annually in a fight to the death on live television. Speaking of nightmares and dystopian futures, if you’re looking to get your zombie apocalypse on, check out Carrie Ryan’s upcoming THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH. A snoozer? I think not.

“All the boys in my life read as teens, which begs the question: why do I surround myself with such wimps?”

Really? Boys who read are wimps? I guess that makes John Green a wimp. And Jay Asher, Kaleb Nation, Cory Doctorow, to name a few. They’re in good company with fellow 2009 and 2010 debut authors Kurtis Scaletta, Chris Rylander, Jon Skovron, and Josh Berk. And my little brother — the one who loves YA books? And my husband, who devoured everything by R.A. Salvatore as a kid and still does? Wimp? Right. Frankly, New Yorker, I think we all need to surround ourselves with more of these so-called wimps. I want wimps on every corner, in ever school and library and corporate office and television station. I want to be immersed in a feast of wimps. Thankfully we just put one in the White House — a big ol’ presidential wimp who loves to read and wants his kids (and all of our kids) to share the same passion for words.

“Surely we demand of ‘adult’ writers (or perhaps what I really mean is ‘great’ writers) higher moral and philosophical stakes?”

Are you saying that only adult writers are great writers? I think that’s what you’re saying, and I don’t like that one bit. I think you’re also saying that we should have different expectations for adult literature than we do for young adult works in terms of complexity and depth of issues, and frankly, that’s a cop-out. Yes, there are crappy, shallow, one-dimensional, stereotypical YA books just as there are crappy, shallow, one-dimensional, stereotypical adult books. A genre label is not a judgment on quality or authenticity. It’s just a way to shelve a book in the store or library so that readers can more easily find the books we like.

“I think the Y.A. genre is typically defined by very straightforward moral messages, ones that are deemed ‘suitable’ for children, even if the subject matter deals with more grown-up topics (like sex or drinking).”

I’d venture to say that mortgages and prostates are grown-up topics. But sex and drinking? Teens and even younger kids are faced with these topics — including other tough issues like suicide, rape, self-mutilation, runaways, drugs, bullying, poverty, depression — every day. Calling any of these “grown-up” topics is the same head-in-the-sand mentality that prevents some parents from ever truly knowing or understanding their kids and the issues they and their closest friends are confronting every time they walk out the front door. YA literature tackles tough topics, often with ambiguous or open-ended messages that reflect the gray shades of reality rather than conforming to any “straightforward, suitable” morality.

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler”]Readers, what do you think about young adult literature today? Do you find it preachy, boring, uncomplicated or un-challenging? If not, what are some of your favorite teen reads from today or yesterday? Comment here and head on over to the New Yorker to tell them what you think!

8 thoughts on “YA Books Boring, Uncomplicated, Preachy? The New Yorker Thinks So!

  1. Pingback: Defending “Young Adult” books « True Science Fiction

  2. Thanks. YA authors don’t have the “poetic license” get any facts wrong either. Teachers, librarians and teens make sure we are called to account for anything we put on that page. Fewer YA books are published, so the ratio of good to less that good–much better.

    THe main thing is YA authors deeply want to write for that age. We feel and see all that emotion and change within so short an age span. Most don’t let go of innocence gracefully, it is ripped from us in one way or another. And that’s really what most of it boils down to. We just hide that in a really good story. No judgement, no preaching.

    Thanks again,

    Gail Giles

  3. I am more of a children’s writer than young adult, although I have been told that it crosses over into this category. It is definately a challenge to write for younger readers considering schools have to be careful about what books they accept. Great post.

    Tony Peters
    Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

  4. What a great post, Sarah! This whole brouhaha reminds me of my days in college on the synchronized swim team. I’d occasionally hear a comment about how synchro wasn’t a “real” sport. Um, it was the most athletic thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I was in the best shape of my life while doing it.

    The idea that YA lit doesn’t have enough substance for readers to sink their teeth into is absurd. YA haters need to pick themselves up a copy of E. Lockhart’s THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS. It’s synchro for the mind.

    I think people like to criticize things that they know very little about. It’s hard to see something for what it really is from atop that high horse.

  5. Pingback: Saving the World, One YA Book at a Time « sarah ockler :: author of TWENTY BOY SUMMER

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