One of the things that bothered me about that Slate piece proclaiming the shame of reading YA — you know, the one everyone else has moved on from — is that it was written in such an inflammatory manner, and with so many facutal errors (The Westing Game as YA? Really?), that it was roundly trounced and dismissed without giving any consideration to the legitimate issues it could have raised. Namely, what is YA anyway, and what does it mean if it really is being primarily purchased and perhaps read by adults.
To the first question: what is YA? I know there are many people who believe that YA is fiction written about teenagers. Judy Blume and Lerner Editorial Director Andrew Karre both agree that YA is defined by its subject: it is about teens.
— andrewkarre (@andrewkarre) June 3, 2014
But, as Andrew Karre himself points out, not all books about teenagers are YA:
So what is the distinction? Is it a question of distance? Once the protagonist has aged enough to reflect with remorse or nostalgia on his or her teen years, is it no longer YA? In the Slate piece, Ruth Graham writes
YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.
She says this as if it’s a bad thing, but I think this immediacy is the hallmark of good YA literature. It shows that the author is respectful of the teenage reader and his/her experience. As Charlotte Zolotow wrote
Many fine writers can write about children but are unable to write for them. Writers such as William Maxwell awaken in us, the older readers, an understanding of childhood that many adults don’t have, a sensitivity to children that is exquisite. But writing for children is different. The writers writing about children are looking back. The writers writing for children are feelingback into childhood.
Graham argues that YA is lacking because it lacks the mature perspective. I would argue that the mature perspective is precisely what gets in the way of good writing for young people.
So, if YA is not merely about teenagers, but more specifcally about teenagers in a way that respects their experience, does it matter who it’s written for? Does it have to be written for anyone in particular? I believe it does, and I believe — strongly — that the audience for YA is and should be teenagers. In this regard I am speaking less as a writer and more as a librarian. I believe firmly that teenagers deserve a literature that is authentic. They deserve a literature that respects their intelligence and their emotional growth. They deserve a literature of their own.
Does this mean that I think adults should be embarassed to read YA? No, of course not. But I do have worries about that statistic that’s being bandied about — 55-60% of YA is bought by adults. Now I know there are all sorts of ways to parse that statistic. They could be adults buying books for young people. Young people might be getting their books at the library, which would actually represent multiple readers for each copy. But I think it’s safe to say that many more adults are reading young adults than used to be. And this, I think, is an area that needs greater discussion. If the majority of YA readers are adults rather than teens, will YA change somehow? Should it?
Another day will surely bring another controversial article about YA, and I think the best thing we can do is let it roll off our backs. Perhaps it’s too much to ask ourselves to just look away when someone denigrates the thing we love. But rather than wrangle with those who are willfully — and proudly — ignorant of children’s lit, we should be wrestling with the issues that impact us. The question of audience is one that deserves some greater digging, and I look forward to hearing what people think about this issue.