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?


Rachel said...

Hiya! Before I forget, just got What Angels Fear (Spellman Files was checked out) and I'm so looking forward to it. Thanks for the recommendation; it sounds awesome!

I have also heard the age of protag definition for YA and also feel it's pretty ludicrous. However, I would say that the very nature of the age group makes it hard to determine what is YA. Interest and maturity vary so widely in the age range that what is right for one YA reader will not be right for another. I very much adhere to your school of thought: I won't recommend stuff that seems too mature to me but I also won't prevent readers if they pick a book on their own. Usually a reader will do a pretty good job of finding where s/he belongs.

I am not a parent but speaking as a lifelong reader who was quite an advanced reader at a young age, I read tons of stuff that was way too mature for me and I carry no scars, lasting or otherwise, from the experiences. :)

On a related note, one thing that does bother me about YA, or really any books that young people are reading, is that as we are forming opinions and being inundated by the terrible and stereotypical images of our media, young readers often don't recognize when a book is undermining a person or a group's dignity (in this case as part of the book's framework not as a story-telling device). This is where I feel it's so important for an adult reader to know what a young reader is reading so that these negative aspects of our socialization can be pointed out. This, of course, is impossible to do fully as an adult but hopefully the conversations and decisions an adult makes in a young person's life will serve as a counterpoint to some of the negative frameworks to be found in fiction.

Sherry C said...

Scary isn't it... my oldest son has read book after book most of which he gets at our local school library. He finished every book his teacher Mr T has in his class library already. I can't keep up with his reading.

M. said...

@Rachel - Loved 'What Angels Fear', was so-so about Book 4, let's see what you think about CS Harris. But I'm even more curious to hear what you think of the Spellmans who are ultra unique, you love them or you really, really don't.

Thoughtful extension of the YA risk debate. I hadn't really thought to be concerned about possible sexism/racism/etc. (which is, I think, maybe what you're talking about) as a more widespread issue rather than things that happen to a single character only. More aspects to be vigilant about!

@Sherry - do you give your son suggestions of what to read? My boy has recently unfolded enough for me to be able to do that, and he even asked me to friend him on Goodreads where he writes occasional reviews (after I remind him to do so)

Rachel said...

Hi! That is what I meant and something I worry about far more than actions that might happen to one character.

Speaking of reading with your kids... do you know this blog?