Sunday, February 20, 2011

YA: How Young is Too Young?

In contrast to the dismal news coming out of the publishing industry as a whole these days, young adult fiction seems to buck the trend in a big way. Formerly a type of literature actually intended for the young, it is now being read by vast numbers of people long past their teens. Perhaps because of this dual audience, top-tier YA authors command advances and contracts other authors can only dream of.

Why does Apprentice Writer know this? She attended a seminar conducted by ultra author Kelley Armstrong, whose current paranormal YA series launched her up among that genre stratosphere - a place that should feel comfortable given she landed there before with her adult-oriented paranormal series.

Does this expanding popularity simply mean that stories intended for a youthful audience have wide-ranging appeal?

Could it be that the content of the stories is changing to accommodate more mature readers?

Or is it possible that Apprentice Writer is operating under a wrong assumption of the definition of YA fiction?

AW wants to know because she has started reading novels in which junior apprentice writer #1 is interested so as to have topics of discussion with him. At least, that was the reason to start with. It quickly was joined by another reason, which threatens to overshadow the first. It is called parental policing.

Because sometimes, the content of YA books can be eye-bulging. When she commented on this at the seminar, she learned that

"....A YA book is simply one which features a young protagonist."

Meaning: in terms of content, anything the market will bear goes. Therefore, caveat emptor.

Here's the problem: it is natural for young readers to choose books that feature protagonists who are similar, or slightly older, than themselves in age. But the content of books with a YA label at the library or on YA shelves at the store vary enormously. If it is hard for AW as a adult to figure out if a book may be too mature for a pre-teen or young teen, wouldn't it be hard for the kids to figure out also? Do they really have to get to a part of the book that is too much for them to decide it may not be the best choice (by which time, they may be so invested in the story that they plow on)?


Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George (protagonist: age 13)
This is rightly considered a classic and AW read and enjoyed most of it while at school at a double-digit age. The parts that she didn't enjoy as much - and, more importantly, did not have an adult with whom to talk it through for reasons that are not pertinent to this post - were her first ever exposure to the issues of attempted sexual assault, fetal alcohol syndrome, and domestic violence, which form the catalyst for the protagonist to run away into the wilderness. The bulk of the story has to do with what happens there and how she decides whether to stay 'away' or return to life with people, provides much food for thought, and is in AW's view well worth reading (with her single big criticism being that recovery from sexual attack is depicted way too facile and simplistic a manner). That worthwhile reading, however, should be done by readers old enough to be able to process the stark elements.

She was therefore highly surprised to encounter it on a recommended reading list for junior apprentice #1 in Grade 3 (= age 7-8) . When AW inquired how this title had landed on the recommend list for such young readers without any warning to parents who might not be familiar with the content about the very serious themes, she was informed that it was based purely on evaluation of the difficulty of the vocabulary.

White Cat, Holly Black (protagonist: age 16?)
This is a recent, megapopular YA title that came highly recommended to AW from different sources. It fell into that group of books that results in split personality for her. As an aspiring writer she was impressed with the deceptive ease with which the author unfolded the story about the youngest member of a con-artist family in first-person, present tense mode, something which requires enormous skill and resulted in multiple points where the reader thinks, "Wow, I didn't see that coming.".

At the same time, she questioned whether she would directly encourage junior apprentice writer #1, aged 13, to immerse himself in a world where the protagonist supports himself by exploiting the desire of his classmates to gamble. She decided 'No' when she reached the part where the character's two older brothers beat him up on orders of someone else, and he figures out that not only is this is something they've done to him before but that they willfully manipulate his memory, and have been holding someone hostage in a cage for years. Too dark, too casually violent for AW to recommend it to a new teen, as opposed to him choosing it on his own or through peer word-of-mouth. In such a case, she would not try to discourage his reading it, but make sure to talk to him about it during.

Bleeding Violet, Dia Reeves (protagonist: age 16)
This is the title that AW feels most strongly about, perhaps because it had so much going for it at the outset: biracial heroine (as someone of mixed background herself, AW loves these kinds of stories), rejection issues, bipolar disorder (mental health deserves much more media/literary attention), and the big one: some really deft writing.

By the end of the book, AW had no ambivalent feelings (like with 'White Cat)'. She had problems both as a reader and a parent. Unlike others (to judge by GoodReads reactions), it was not the suicide attempt that gave her pause - since it seems to her that in a book where mental health is one of the central features, it can't really be surprising that suicide might come up. Nor the seriously dysfunctional relationship between mother and child. Though AW had a number of issues with the book, the dealbreaker was when the story crossed the line into full-on horror mode.

AW anticipated this book to be a paranormal story about a mid-range teenager dealing with difficult health and childhood issues (all of this info being plainly available in the back cover blurb). She did not anticipate a teenaged character being not only tortured but made to appear ridiculous as it took place due to inclusion of a sexual element while the protagonist looks idly on, nor that same character being killed in horrific fashion that left body parts dumped at the front door of a family, nor a preschool aged character learning of this.

So why did AW finish the book, the Gentle Reader may ask?

Because she hoped that the story resolution would show some parts having been influenced by the protagonist's altered perception of reality, given her bipolar condition.

Didn't happen.


Does AW think young readers shouldn't read stories with mature themes?

On the contrary. She very much thinks they should. Here's the big IF: They should read them when

a) they have the opportunity to discuss those themes with someone trusted and older, who can guide them past potential nightmares, anxiety, and personal triggers (all of which are very real risks as AW is aware through personal experience and observation), and

b) they have reached a minimum level of developmental maturity for how explicitly those themes are handled in the book. This can vary, depending on the individual parent's views (and given the Grade 3 reading list example, she'd rather go with parent views than teacher views) .

AW's rule of thumb is that it is probably good for the reader to be the same, or very close to, the protagonist's age.

Blanket Labelling of all Books featuring young protagonist with generic YA label = Insanity

Bookstore and library books featuring adult protagonists are not all slapped with a generic A label. They are subdivided into historical, fantasy, science fiction, etc. etc.

Why in the world isn't this done with YA books? If 'Bleeding Violet' had had a horror label attached, AW could have simply left it on the shelf for afficionados of that genre, and everyone would have been happy.

Alternatively, if the front cover and back blurb were more careful to include clues as to content, readers would be better able to sort out which are good personal options and which they should steer clear of.

Is that so hard?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

Apprentice Writer grows ever more irritated by cliched similes and metaphors. She has been forced to endure far, far too many instances of garments "...fitting like a second skin" and men moving " a jungle cat". These kinds of descriptions are not only tedious, but inept as well since they can so easily be interpreted away from where the author wants to go. Frex:

Like a second skin could mean that the garment hangs in wrinkly, saggy folds. So if that's not what the author meant, s/he would have to write " like a second skin of someone not yet past their thirties and who hadn't lost a lot of weight suddenly and who didn't possess longlasting signs of childbirth across their abdomen". That would be more accurate but a little wordy.

Similarly, the description of moving " a jungle/large cat" always makes AW think "As opposed to a mountain/small cat, because everyone knows that jungle and large cats are silent and graceful whereas mountain and small cats are leadfooted klutzes."

What all this means is that AW is utterly delighted to come across a fresh new description. Bonus marks if it is funny. Allow her to present the quote of the day from Terry Pratchett's 'Going Postal':

"His beard looked like he'd been interrupted while eating a hedgehog."


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentines Day

In honor of all things romantical....

and, P.S. :
Bravo, Egypt. May your love affair with democratic ideals remain unextinguished.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Semi Colon Day

Apprentice Writer loves a well-deployed semi colon.

She is therefore grateful to Signor Aldus Manutius, an Italian printer who way back in 1494 invented the picturesque little symbol that still lends so much drama to sentence rhythm and so much frustration to grammar teachers who one and all feel it is used incorrectly, all the time.

Hooray for punctuation innovations!

And hooray for people who appreciate them, such as comment poster/poet Ozzie Maland over at who wrote

'Ode to a Semi Colon

Thou art the fairest mark of all;
Thy graceful curve and stellar dot
Would e'en the singing lark enthrall:
Who'd spurn thy use had better not.'

Apprentice Writer feels that half a century should not have to pass by before more punctuation is invented. For example, she thinks it would be great to have a symbol to deploy instead of a regular-type question mark in situations where the question is intended rhetorically, and another where the question is intended sarcastically.

Since the upside down question mark is already claimed by Spanish-speakers for standard issue questions, perhaps a sideways question mark? A reverse question mark followed by a regular one to form a question mirror image?


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Quote of the Day

Apprentice Writer recently posted a book review that contained the observation that one of the most fun things about fantasy and science fiction novels is the opportunity for the author to get creative with language. That book reviewed on that particular occasion feel flat in lingual creativity, a fact AW was reminded of recently when she came across an example where it didn't.

In 'Scar Night', a dark (very!) fantasy by Alan Campbell, one of the villains travels deep into the so-called Deadsands outside of the chained city and encounters members of the so-called primitive nomadic tribes who have survived, some more and some less intact, the city military forces periodic attempts to exterminate them. An elderly, partially senile member of the tribal council objects:

"You loose-fluted bastard! I don't give a shrivel!"

AW's point is made: the reader doesn't have to know what loose flutes or shrivels are to understand the character's meaning perfectly.