Monday, December 7, 2009

YA Discrimination: Starting the YA Novel Rights Movement!

Lately, there's been a lot of talk from various people in my life about how young adult (YA) books are so much easier to read than adult novels. My husband even recently made fun of me for reading so many YA books, implying that just because the books were marketed to children/teenagers/young adults they weren't of the same literary caliber.

This really pisses me off.

The simple fact of the matter is, the person writing the book has no say over whether or not their book will be marketed as a YA novel. A well-known example is Stephenie Meyer: she didn't write Twilight with YAs as her intended audience, but when her agent or publisher or whoever read the book, they saw the high school setting and teenage main character and said, "Obviously, this is YA." Meyer was smart enough to say, "Fine, sure, whatever, I'm ready for my millions," and now she is a world-famous author.

What that means is that authors aren't always writing with the intention of "dumbing down" their vocabulary for teens or making an easy-to-follow plot so that YAs will be able to keep up (the idea that anyone thinks that either of those things needs to be done in the first place is upsetting). Writers just write. There are some writers (myself included) who write something with an intended audience, but even they/I don't know for certain that the publisher will agree. Therefore, it's ridiculous to assume that YA books are any easier to read or less of a literary challenge simply because they are marketed toward a younger audience.

Don't believe me? Here's a list of some YA and children's literature which includes complex vocabulary, themes, and/or plot points. If you think YA books are simple, you'll soon see that you are seriously mistaken:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass) by Lewis Carroll Talk about a total mind warp; drugs, twists of logic, and a narrative structure that was incredibly influential in its time. I re-read this book just a few months ago, and even though it's barely 100 pages long, I still found it to be challenging and incredibly thought-provoking. There are so many plays on language, and even allusions to mathematics (my favorite being at the tea party, when the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse are discussing inverse relationships in math and attempting to apply them to sentences. "Why, you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!") I still don't think I fully understand this book, and I'm not sure I ever will. To think it is supposed to be a children's book is just astounding; but then again, maybe it requires the mind of a child to understand the novel in the first place! (Sidenote: I am totally stoked to see what Tim Burton has done with this!)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak A moving story about World War II, this book will make you laugh and cry all at once. Zusak includes illustrations inside the pages, which are absolutely heartbreaking. In Zusak's native Australia, the book is marketed to adults, but here in the U.S. you can find it on the YA shelves. The motifs of death, guilt, friendship, and humanity play heavily, and the imagery is gorgeous. This is a shining example of a YA book that has many complex layers; I can't believe someone would write it off simply because of its location in the bookstore/library.

His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman I might get some sideways glances at this one, but hear me out: there is a LOT of literary merit to be found in the pages of Pullman's epic fantasy series. Namely, the way he weaves a philosophical viewpoint into a fictional tale in a seamless way - it's so complex that I didn't even fully understand all of the connotations until I did more research, and I read the book when I was 23. The series has all the markings of a classic epic tale (including a voyage to the land of the dead), and an absolutely amazing ending - I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read the books yet, but I love when authors do what Pullman did. Whether or not you agree with the book's anti-religious overtones is not the point here - the point is that the book succeeds in being more than just a fun tale for teens, and creates a world and philosophy that is complex enough to make both YAs and adults think.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott A timeless story of love - sisterly, motherly, romantic, and more - which is beautiful in both its tragedy and its triumphs. The book is such a classic that when I was compiling this list, I almost forgot that it was YA and didn't include it; but it definitely is. It's the coming-of-age story of four sisters, but the power of women in the book and the relationships they have with each other is so much stronger than you can find in anything else. Of course, part of the more sophisticated language may have to do with the fact that it was published in 1868, but still; it's a YA, and you can't discredit any YA book, whether modern or classic.

Trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a TON of YA books which prove that YA doesn't equate to an easy read. What's your favorite example of a YA novel that packs a literary punch?



    Man, this drives me bonkers. I really get riled up when I hear people talking about YA like the author scribbled it out with a crayon on the back of a spelling test.

    The Book Thief is such an excellent example. And, honestly, if it were published today, I'm sure To Kill A Mockingbird would fit the YA requirements more than the adult requirements. Scout is six years old when the book begins, and nine when it ends. But man, than book has complex vocabulary and so many layers.

  2. I'd have to say Little Women, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

  3. Hi Heather. Your aunt Wendy directed me to your blog. I was in your shoes a little over a year ago and now I have two books on the shelves at B&N, Borders and BooksAMillion, another one coming out in February, and a new series releasing next Fall.

    The best advice I can give an aspiring author is to put your butt in the chair and write. I see that you're a Nano winner - so obviously sitting down and writing is no problem! :) Congrats! The next piece of advice is, once you've finished your story and have gone back and edited it to the best you think it can possibly be, send it to someone you know who has a good grasp on writing commercial fiction - not an English teacher. There's a HUGE difference between writing for English class and writing for a commercial market. Be willing to listen to their comments, even if they're not so nice. Don't send it to someone who's going to say, "This is great; you're the next Stephenie Meyers." That doesn't help. Then, take their comments, see what works for you, and revise. Repeat as often as necessary. New eyes always see new things.

    Once it's at the best it can be, submit it. You can't get picked up if you don't submit. I'm doubting that that will be a problem for you from reading your blog post. And then go back to writing something else. This business is "hurry up and wait," so it's always good to have as many irons in the fire as possible. Author Kresley Cole said in one of her posts that before she was published, she always tried to have 25 things out, be they on submission, with critique partners or in contests. I tried to adhere to that.

    Last piece of advice: join a writing group. If your story has romance in it, you can join Romance Writers of America. I did, and it's what I learned through that organization and the contacts I made that got me published. I highly recommend it if you're not already a member.

    Best of luck to you!

  4. With the ever growing success of Twilight and many other YA novels, it seems that the YA market is slowly but surley becoming more accepted among adults. Pretty much all I read is YA. I love it. But maybe I'm a little biases since I am a YA writer. : )

  5. Jessica- LOL@ "scribbled it out with a crayon on the back of a spelling test." This post has been coming for awhile, but I think you know what inspired me to post it on this particular day...

    Carla- There was a HUGE debate among my reading friends as to whether or not Little Women was a YA novel; glad to see you agree!

    Judi- Thanks for stopping by, and for the advice! I've been working toward a lot of those steps already!

    Kimberly- There is definitely a lot of cross-over in the YA market, which I am so thankful for! It makes my love of YA just a little more acceptable, but unfortunately there are still plenty of people who think YA is garbage.


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