Brown & Caletti: NYT Book Review Misses the Point (Again)

BITTER END by Jennifer BrownThis weekend’s Sunday Book Review featured two of my favorite YA authors: Jennifer Brown and her new release, BITTER END, and Deb Caletti and her latest, STAY. Both novels deal with abusive relationships—a brutally tough subject to tackle in fiction, especially in fiction for teens.

Stories like Brown’s and Caletti’s are important, and I’m thrilled to see the books covered by the New York Times. But the article, Novels About Abusive Relationships by Lisa Belkin, goes off the rails right in opening line:

The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson.

Cringing yet?

STAY by Deb CalettiThis broad categorization of YA as Establisher of Morals and Teacher of Wayward Youth (there should totally be a cape and a catchphrase, right?) is as outmoded as my Sony Walkman (no offense to those of you still rockin’ cassettes, but…). As soon as I read that opening line, I knew Belkin would miss the point of Brown and Caletti’s books and any YA titles she chooses to review.


She just doesn’t get it.

Like I tell my students in our YA novel workshop, the purpose of young adult fiction is singular: to tell a story. Period. Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader. If it’s going to happen it all, it will happen organically as she’s experiencing the journey of the story along with the characters. Of course authors should care about their subject matter, and should always write with something important to say. Call that an underlying message if you’d like, but much as the “do as I say, not as I do” lectures from parents, the moment a novel is crafted with the specific intent to send messages or teach lessons, the audience tunes out.

Belkin assumes:

When today’s parents were themselves young adults, they were reading books about adolescents but written for grown-ups (“The Bell Jar,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Go Ask Alice”). The books their children are reading, though, don’t even pretend to appeal to grown-ups — which is, of course, part of their appeal.

This is just another example of a grown-up—one who doesn’t understand or like YA fiction—dismissing the entire category as trite, unimportant, non-literature (*cough* Julie Just and the Parent Problem, anyone? *cough*). Belkin misses the mark here, too. YA doesn’t have to pretend—lots of it does appeal to grown-ups. It’s one of the reasons the category turns a profit year after year despite all the gloom-and-doom news from the publishing industry: teens aren’t the only ones buying up (and devouring) those books.

Belkin wraps it up with these thoughts about BITTER END and STAY:

Moreover, the need to tell a good story gets in the way of the message… Any girl who needs guidance navigating a threatening relationship will probably not find it here. But this assumes teenagers are more interested in morals than in sex and drama…

The need to tell a good story trumps all else in fiction. And in music, art, dance, photography, poetry, and arguably any creative expression. We create to share stories and make real human connections to universal truths and experiences, not to teach finger-wagging lessons. Sex and drama? Yes, please. More, please. That’s part of real life. Ask a teen if she’s interested in reading morals and lessons or real life stuff, what do you think she’ll say?

(Hint: If you’re still pondering the answer, you might want to reacquaint yourself with teen culture by snagging a few YA books on tape for your Sony Walkman.)

When it comes to girls who need help navigating an abusive relationship—or sex, sexuality, parental divorce, grief and loss, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, mental illness, eating disorders, falling in love, friend betrayals, or any number of real life challenges teens face every day—I encourage Ms. Belkin to resist the urge to assume she knows where they’ll find guidance. Like any novel—YA, adult, or otherwise—STAY and BITTER END won’t be right for every reader. Some won’t like the characters, or they won’t connect to the story, or the writing styles won’t appeal to their individual palettes. But one of those stories might be the very thing someone reads before she finally understands she’s not alone. It might help her deal with her issues and get out of danger.

It might save her life.

That’s why it kills me when adults who don’t even try to understand YA so casually dismiss these stories, blaming their own inability to relate to, connect with, and appreciate the narrative not on personal reader taste or issues with the construction of the story, but on so-called “pitfalls of the genre.”

Pitfalls of the genre? More like pitfalls of adulthood, particularly when adults don’t remember what it’s like to be a teen. I’m all for debate and critical reviews, especially when those reviews are thoughtful and engaging. What I’m not for is unilaterally dismissing YA novels based on ridiculous and outdated expectations of what young adult literature is supposed to be or do. Every novel is unique, and each deserves to be read and reviewed for its individual storytelling merit, not for its ability to spin the “proper” cautionary tale.

73 thoughts on “Brown & Caletti: NYT Book Review Misses the Point (Again)

  1. Thank you for this. It seems like one of these pops up, somewhere, every few months, and gets so wearying. Just review the books! Agh!

    • I know, and every time I’m like, “I’m not gonna defend YA against people who don’t get it anyway!” But then I’m compelled to because I don’t want anyone to miss out on reading the story for themselves. Plus, it’s just, well, gross! 🙂

  2. I’d like to know where she got the idea YA books are all about a message. What’s the message of Twilight? Watch out for boys who sparkle? I mean, honestly. Kids just want to read a good book and authors want to write them. That is all. If you learn something while doing that. It’s an added bonus.

    • Hell, what’s the message of The Bell Jar? It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no more or less message-orientated than any Michael Dobbs or Khaled Hosseini I’ve read.

  3. I’d like to know where she got the idea YA books are all about a message.

    Perhaps from her own school years? In my school, whenever we read a popular YA title instead of a “classic”, the framing was always so stuffy and focused on “this is the Important Message of this book” that I can see that becoming a brainworm to people who haven’t kept up with YA since.

    That said, maybe the NYT should assign reviewers who are actually familiar with the field in which they’re reviewing, rather than just recycling their preconceptions from junior high school.

      • This is basically the gist of my issue with most of our review publications. The reviewers are almost never the right people for the books they are reading, either because they are bitter and jaded, or just totally mismatched for the genre/intent. I want people who *love* books to read and write about them. Not people who come in with an edge.

        • Yep. One reason I’m so glad Cecil Castelluci joined the LA Review of Books. She’s bringing a fresh perspective and a love of YA to the review table.

    • I’m so glad that my parents and even a few of my teachers encouraged me to read what I wanted, for whatever reasons I wanted – if my primary exposure to reading was just the books teachers thought would be good for me (both the classics and the books that they thought would teach us all lessons), I would have come to hate reading. The only reason I came out of high school liking any classics at all was because I had a teacher who, for one particular assignment, gave us a long list of classics and told us we could read anything from the list we wanted, as long as we read a minimum of three books from the list.

      • Such a great point. So many teens (and adults, actually) who love to read became book lovers not by force, but by choice. I’m only just now starting to really read and appreciate the classics.

  4. -frowns- That’s annoying. Kind of incredibly so.
    I don’t read books for a message. I’m 17, and I read because I want to read the story. If I get a message, then great — but if I sense that the book is JUST for a message, I put it down.
    Daisy Whitney’s The Mockingbirds tells a story AND gets the point across. Someone really close to me was sexually assaulted. She wouldn’t have read a ‘message book’ but I got her to read Mockingbirds for the story…and it helped her.
    Ugh. I’m…really kind of disgusted by that article…

  5. Amen and bravo! I so agree with you that learning a life lesson can potentially be an outcome of YA lit, but is not the *purpose*. I think when YA lit overtly tries to be didactic, teens see right through it, and it just doesn’t appeal to them.

  6. Well said, Sarah. I read that and was so frustrated, I didn’t even know where to begin to respond. Has the author of the article NOT seen all the recent trend stories about adults reading YA? YA teaching a message? Forget Walkmans, she’s referring to the 1900s. Gah. Rock on!

  7. As an adult who reads (and writes) a LOT of YA, I find this an obnoxious attitude to take. If someone takes a message away from a book, all good, but the book doesn’t begin and end with a lesson, moral or otherwise. It’s all about telling an engaging story and populating it with complex, interesting characters. Novels aren’t there to help people understand their lives, or guide them through it; they’re for entertainment. If someone figures out they’re not alone with their problems after reading a work of fiction, that’s great. But that’s not why it’s written.

  8. “But one of those stories might be the very thing someone reads before she finally understands she’s not alone. It might help her deal with her issues and get out of danger.” So so true. When I was a teenager adults made me feel like I was supposed to write and act a certain way. When I became an adult, the other adults kept making me feel like I needed to act and write a certain way. Nothing really changes, eh? Writing YA helps adult authors feel less alone too. Nice work Sarah O!

    • “When I was a teenager adults made me feel like I was supposed to write and act a certain way. When I became an adult, the other adults kept making me feel like I needed to act and write a certain way.”

      Well said, Q, and so sad but true. Glad you didn’t listen to them when you wrote SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR, still one of my top reads of 2010! We just discussed you in class last week, actually (on voice). So, keep ignoring those grown-ups. *blows raspberries*

      • Hey, thanks so much for using my work in your class. You rock! Hope our paths cross again soon!

  9. Wow Sarah, I agree with you 100%. Thanks for the post.
    – Sara Megibow

  10. “The need to tell a good story gets in the way”…riiiiight. This person obviously knows nothing about the publishing world, let alone YA. Why is she even writing for the NYT?

    Thanks for this great essay.

    • in his wonderful memoir, “On Writing,” states unequivocally that the Story trumps everything else. When and if a “theme” occurs, King says that it is found. He describes the theme as something that happens after a first draft is written. When the author spots it, it is the authors job to “carefully tease the threads out of the fabric of the story.”
      Teen lit was pretty sad in my day. There were a few out there, like “The Outsiders” and “I am the Cheese.” But for the most part the teen lit was paperback romance where the girl protaganist Learns Something About Herself. Which is why I was reading Stephen King and V.C. Andrews in 7th grade. P.S. “Go Ask Alice” is nothing if not a moralistic shocker written to frighten teens. Its also really, really bad writing.

  11. Bravo! Love the thoughts, and agree with everything you said. The review sounds like parents should leave the teaching of morals to YA literature. Hopefully, teens will gain lessons and insights from the books they read, but they’re not created to raise children – only to entertain them.

    • LOL exactly — if books were created to raise children, I’d be some kind of psycho killer after all the King and Koontz I read as a teen!

  12. Thanks for this response! SO frustrating to see articles like that. : ( And LOL at @June and the warning from TWILIGHT. I will definitely stay away from boys who sparkle.

  13. Well said.
    I’m an adult and love to read entertaining YA books, I don’t need the book to transport a serious massage. I enjoy a good story and it’s the same with the adult books I read.

  14. What a great post Sarah.

    Everything you said I agree 100% on. I have read a couple of “blatant message books disguised as YA” and have to say they absolutely did the opposite of what, I’m sure, they were intended to do. (Granted I am not a teen, but if I had that knee jerk reaction, someone younger would most definitely feel preached to.)

    People read to escape. That’s what it comes down too, no matter the genre or the age of the reader.

    No one wants moral lessons shoved down their throat and to suggest that its YA writers’ responsibility “to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson” is completely absurd.

  15. So glad you expressed indignation for this antiquated attitude towards YA Lit. I think of stories as opening up new worlds for the reader, and creating a safe place for a reader to explore his or her deepest feelings. And entertainment, of course. Story always rules!

    • “I think of stories as opening up new worlds for the reader, and creating a safe place for a reader to explore his or her deepest feelings.”

      Absolutely! If the reader is going to take away a lesson, it will be because he had that story-created safe space to explore his own feelings and morals, and come to those conclusions for himself.

  16. BAM! THIS!

    Also, I’d like to think I’m more of an ‘expert’ on teen dating violence than Belkin, as my job is to talk to teens about dating violence. And I can say from a community educator point of view, I think these books Stay and Bitter End do a better job of teaching teens about DV than I do. Because the students relate to the main characters. Because not everything is black and white in the books (although everything isn’t black and white in my lessons either). Because these books are more than an after school special. So yes, as an ‘expert’ (although not really at all) or rather as someone with experience in the field, I think Belkin has completely missed the mark on all fronts.

  17. Awesome post, Sarah. It is SO aggravating when people criticize something they clearly don’t understand! I appreciate that you took the time to respond to this.

  18. Thank you for this smart response to a very annoying/frustrating review. I couldn’t manage to read the entire thing, mostly because I couldn’t respect the review after reading the first few paragraphs. And I’m so frustrated that I still can’t manage a coherent/intelligent response. Thank you for being coherent and intelligent! 🙂

  19. Great response Sarah. You articulated the objections quite well. Maybe the NYT will be calling you to review some YA books. 🙂

  20. Does Belkin believe that all teen novels are supposed to have the “after school special” message shoved down your throat?

    No wonder they obviously never read YA as a child.

    I know when I was a teen, there was little actual YA fiction to sink my teeth into – around age 12 I finally gave up and started reading Koontz, King, and other authors because I was bored out of my skull reading the genre supposedly targeted to me.

    As an adult, I read far more YA fiction – as publishers finally seem to realize the truth that you shared: it’s just about telling a story.

    Luckily I have never taken a book reviewer’s opinion (or movie for that matter) to heart.

    Great post.

    • Funny, I also spent most of my teen reading years with King, Koontz, Mary Higgins Clark, and VC Andrews. I didn’t really start reading YA until I was an adult, and now that’s what I spend most of my time reading (and writing).

  21. Sarah – Jen sent this over to me this morning, and I just wanted to thank you. Now that someone has said everything I’ve wanted to, I can maybe get out of my depression-pajamas (flannel, thin from a bunch of washings, garish Eiffel Towers on them). My husband will be grateful. I knew we were in for a bashing as soon as the words “Anne of Green Gables” and “moral” jumped out at me. Still, it was frustrating and disheartening. YA deserves better. Thanks again.

    • YA deserves better and so do you. I always try to keep this in mind — something Jay Asher said about adults who bash his book: “That’s cool. I didn’t write it for you.” I know so many teens who *adore* your stories, and will keep on reading and looking forward to them.

      (You should also know that as I write this, I’m sitting here in my faded flannel snowflake pajamas. Last week I had the coffee cups. Eiffel Towers sound perfect.)

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  23. Okay, so glad you wrote this response, because that article is ridiculous. (My biggest red flag is when someone refers to YA novels as a whole as a “genre.”) I mean, the story getting in the way of the message? Are we writing pamphlets for doctors’ offices?

    It’s so narrow-minded and condescending to think that teens won’t be able to read a book and relate what they’ve read to their own lives if it’s not spelled out literally for them.

  24. I’m consistently amazed by the number of non-YA readers who only see two categories of books. Fantasy (which, in most cases, actually means paranormal to those on the outside) and “Tune in this week for a very special episode of…”

  25. Thanks for this post! The reviewer not only misunderstands the nature of YA novels (where did she even get her “definition”?), she writes to her own points in a convoluted way. That last paragraph is an absolute bear.

  26. Thank you for this post.
    Either the writer doesn’t understand that the purpose of every book is to tell a story, or they have something against YA. However, I haven’t read the entire article so I am not sure. You’re completely right. Readers want drama and lots of it. If we learn something along the way that’s fantastic, but many people don’t read to learn.

  27. So what YA authors are supposed to do, when writing about the harsh stuff, is trod down their writing with statistics and facts and preach on high? WTF? I’ve immediately discredited the review when the reviewer said that YA is supposed to send a message. Wrong. And then asking if anyone reads Anne of Green Gables anymore? Really?

    As I said to Deb, how can someone that’s so obviously detached from YA literary trends today even deign to think they can actually accurately review YA books?

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    • Terrific post, Sarah. And an important conversation to have.

      I especially appreciated your very clear, “The need to tell a good story trumps all else in fiction. And in music, art, dance, photography, poetry, and arguably any creative expression. We create to share stories and make real human connections to universal truths and experiences, not to teach finger-wagging lessons.”

      Fantastic response to such a flawed review. If only the NYT would take notice and make a better effort to have the people reviewing YA literature be people who appreciate and understand it.

  29. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Sarah. If Lisa Belkin can’t look at YA novels for what they are – entertainment, while some may be moved, challenged, even changed, it’s still entertainment – then she should not be ‘reviewing’ the genre. It’s actually a bit ironic that this happened and Belkin’s article particularly states that YA novels are written with the purpose of teaching the reader something because I was just at the Diversity in YA tour stop in Cambridge, MA and the authors brought this point up.

    It’s unfortunate and completely untrue that YA novels have to convey some deep message to young, definitely non-adult, readers. I’m not a teen anymore, I’m going on 23 and I predominantly read young adult. In fact, I read adult fiction on occasion, but mostly stick to YA and MG fiction. Belkin obviously needs to reevaluate YA fiction before she decides that she can adequately review all those books written for teens.

  30. I agree 100% that YA novels shouldn’t be held to some moral standard that other artwork is not. However, I think by saying that it’s all about story, and that our work doesn’t say anything, is equally devaluing.

    “But one of those stories might be the very thing someone reads before she finally understands she’s not alone.”

    Learning that she’s not alone, that is a message, and one this is important to get out there. Just such a message is the very reason that books like Speak — and Twenty Boy Summer — are so powerful. They do not try to solve the problems of teens, or offer facile solutions. They are not advice columns, which seems to be what Belkin wants them to be. But I think we do ourselves a disservice if we say that books are just stories.

    • Hi Megan! Definitely agree. I didn’t mean that our books are just stories — only that the purpose of writing them is to tell a story. A subtle but important difference. All of those things you mention — our work saying something, helping someone realize she’s not alone, any messages that a reader takes from it — those are outcomes of the story itself. So the work becomes more than just a story, but only when we get out of the way and tell that story.

      I personally took a lot of messages from Secrets of Truth and Beauty, but that was because it was such a beautiful, authentic story that hit me in a very real way. And that way was probably different from how it hit someone else. But again, I really believe it comes down to story. Everything else happens after, between the reader and the book.

      • Megan–yes. Sarah–yes. The story is the key, but as you both say, the story unlocks meanings for each of us that are personal and communal, all at the same time.

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  35. Amen, sister! If you are not a fan of YA, do not have a teen who is, or you don’t lead a classroom (or library) full of teens, I really don’t think you should write YA reviews. Today we are blessed with a much wider variety of YA writers than we had when I was a teen. I love that my daughters are reading books that are important to them because they are READING! Isn’t that the point?

  36. Yes, tell a story. Don’t jam morals don’t their throats.

    I don’t even know what she’s talking about regarding what the parents read. Or that she thinks parents aren’t reading teen books today.

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  38. Wow, Sarah, so true. It’s about _story_. And when I book talk a novel to a group of teens or am talking to some kids in the stacks, I am telling them about the story and why I think they might like it (might being the key, lol…I want to leave the final decision up to them). But yeah, the furthest thing from my mind is a lesson, a moral compass adjustment. Certainly not handing the book over with “here is your lesson for the day!” Have not actually read the article, but I will when I get to work this morning. I’m speechless–sigh–well, not really 😛

  39. I completely agree. All I’ve read of the article is what you posted, but I don’t really need to see anymore to understand what you mean. I think it’s awful when people dismiss YA books. They really need to open not only their eyes but their minds. After all, some of the classics from the past would be categorized as YA these days. Would you still dismiss them??

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