Some thoughts on YA…

When I started in my current position thirteen years ago, our young adult section was primarily for students in grades 8 – 10. Now, it’s skewing much younger; our grade six students can regularly be found scouring the shelves for good titles, and our more ‘racy’ material has been pushed up to our adult fiction section. It seems as though every other fiction title that arrives in the library office merits some discussion about where best to place it in the library collection as we grapple with issues of content, suitability and appropriateness. I have a grade 1 – 12 library; defining these individual leveled reading sections is becoming more and more of a challenge.

The original definition of Young Adult, in a psychological sense, is someone in the age range 20 – 39. This is not useful for our school library purposes. Internationally, the term is open to debate. In the UK, ‘teen’ covers 12-14 year olds, and YA is for readers aged 14+. Here in North America, teen is a synonym for YA. As the publishing industry, and us mere librarians, grapple with these definitions, one can see how rules can be applied inconsistently to our collections. I also occasionally see references to ‘New Adult’ fiction, and have surmised that this is for college-age readers – YA with an ‘edge’ is how I’ve heard it described. But a lot of the YA we have is pretty edgy. Indeed, I consider ‘edgy’ to be a hallmark of a good YA book…

Our grade 7s ask for ‘realistic fiction’, but happily accept YA level fantasy. Our grade 8s ask for ‘romance’. Our grade 6s ask for teen books. Our grade 10s ask for an ‘easy read’. They all want the same thing. Is it any wonder that publishers are struggling to market these books, and identify a core market? Take, for example, an author such as Rainbow Rowell. Her first novel, Attachments, was marketed as an adult novel, and her second Eleanor and Park was touted as YA fiction. Her other novels, including Landline (maybe more adult than YA?), FanGirl and Carry On could fall in either camp. They have been marketed both ways; indeed, each can claim to be a true cross-over book.

My school is a great reading community, but on the whole, we find that adult readers are resistant to YA. There is little YA on our summer required reading lists (although this is improving), and when students come to the library to ask for a novel for independent study they tell us that it must be a ‘grown-up book’ (i.e. from our adult fiction collection); our English faculty are not YA readers. My fellow librarian and I are working to spread the YA love, but it is something of an uphill battle.

(And where does fanfiction fit in here? Are teens writing the material they want to read? And if so, why hasn’t a publisher jumped on this?)

I like this definition from Michael Cart: ‘…young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation and risk-taking’. Maybe we should stop trying to apply labels, and just let our readers roam free in the stacks. They always manage to find a good book, regardless.

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4 Responses to Some thoughts on YA…

  1. Lia says:

    I always refer to Margaret Edwards when asked about YA lit. She is amazing. The Margaret A. Edwards Award goes to an author and his/her body of word in young adult literature: “It recognizes an author’s work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world.” Her book The Fair Garden and the Swarm of the Beasts is wonderful – while older, it still carries for me many principles I live as a preteen/YA librarian. I’ve seen young adults as grades 7+, but I think being a public librarian has affected my decision there. Edwards said, “Too many adults wish to ‘protect’ teenagers when they should be stimulating them to read life as it is lived.”

  2. Dave Wee says:

    The resistance to YA fascinates me. My colleague in the library is the “go to” librarian for everything literature at all levels, but from what I see and hear here our 6-8 teachers get nervous about language and themes in YA and our HS teachers have the perception that things labeled YA probably are lacking in literary merit and rigor. Personally, I’ve become a big fan of young readers editions that seem to be becoming much more common. Maybe it’s just me, but when I’ve read adult versions followed by young readers editions of the same titles, I am frequently left feeling like the young readers version is really book as it should have been published–it’s more tightly edited and, therefore, a better read. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Claire Hazzard says:

    Thanks for your comments, both – and I love that quotation, Lia. We shall continue to champion our YA!

  4. Selene Athas says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post! What I observe in my 5-8 library is that the oldest students do not borrow as many fiction books as the younger students. I’m not sure if this is because their workload increases, or if they are not as interested in the titles we own. I also notice that even children in fifth and sixth grade are requesting books that I would consider to be YA (e.g. John Green books). It’s a challenge to keep things in balance…selecting titles that will excite students, but not be too mature for them. I believe there are many YA titles that have literary merit, and I also believe that summer reading should include books that students would want to read on their own. I’m always talking to the 7th and 8th grade students about the books in our collection, and it does help. It also gives me information about what they like to read.

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