Dear Media, Let me help you write that article on YA literature
Recently, there have been a voluminous number of articles written about YA literature. And they are mostly wrong. So if you are a member of the press and given this assignment, I thought I would help you out a little. But first, let me start by telling you why I am, in fact, qualified to help you out. Credentials are important, something these articles always seem to lack.
What It Means to be a YA Librarian
So, this is me: I have been a YA librarian for 20 years. Non stop. Dedicated. There are lots of people like me out there, you should talk to us before you write an article on YA. I started in 1993 as a paraprofessional while in college working on my undergraduate degree with a major in Christian Education/Youth Ministry and a minor in Adolescent Psychology and Development. After graduating I went on to get my Masters in Library Science with an area of specialization in Young Adult Services and Youth Services. I have worked in 4 different libraries as a YA librarian in 2 different states. And I have read well over 2,000 YA novels. In addition, I have read reviews and articles on the topic way more numerous than I could even begin to count or articulate. In fact, I have been professionally writing YA reviews for VOYA magazine for 13 years now. Sometimes I even turn those reviews in on time. There are many more qualified, knowledgeable, dedicated and passionate YA librarians out there. So the next time you have to write an article on YA, please take 30 minutes out of your day and pick up your phone to call your local public library and ask to speak to the YA librarian. In fact, call 3. It’s called research.
YA literature, or young adult literature, is also called teen fiction. That’s because it is primarily written for teenaged people and it generally features teenaged characters. There is also middle grade fiction (MG lit), for middle grade readers approximately ages 8 to 12 or 13ish. And there is adult fiction. These aren’t so much genres as they are age classifications to let readers know who the target audience is. But it’s not a hard, steadfast rule because teens read MG and Adult fiction and that is a good thing. And adults read MG and YA fiction, and that is a good thing too. In fact, if you are the parent of a teenager, someone who works with teenagers or someone who cares about teenagers, well then I recommend that you occasionally read YA because then you can talk to them about books, or about life. Despite what a lot of people seem to think, the term YA is not a signifier of quality any more than saying a book is written for adults is a signifier of quality. It’s really more of a target audience indicator that assists readers in book selection. Teens like to read about teens for the same reasons that married adults who have children like to read about married adults that have children or sports fans like to read about sports: they can relate to it, they are looking for validation, it interests them because it speaks to where they are at in that particular moment of their life, etc.
Under the umbrella of YA fiction, there is any and every genre
YA fiction is not any one thing. In part because YA readers are not any one thing. A YA novel can be contemporary fiction, it can be a mystery, it can be a romance, it can be a horror novel, it can be fantasy, it can be science fiction, it can be magical realism. It can be any of the many numerous genres out there. In fact, sometimes it is a cross between a couple of genres. For example, it can be a historical fiction novel with paranormal or supernatural elements. And I know this is hard to comprehend, but most people are complex beings who are capable of liking more than one genre at a time. Teens are no different, that is why YA is full of a wide variety of genres.
Yes, sometimes a particular genre will dominate the YA landscape, but this is okay
Yes, sometimes a particular genre may be more popular in the moment, but the other genres don’t magically disappear. And I don’t know why we talk about this phenomenon as if it is unique to YA literature, because it’s not. All of culture goes in cycles. It happens in the movies. It happens on TV. It happens in fashion. It happens on the Internet. It happens in adult fiction. It happens in YA fiction. It happens in MG fiction. It’s basically how culture operates – in trends.
And yes, for a period of time the dominating trend seemed to be vampires. I don’t understand why we talk about this as if it is a bad thing. Vampires are cool. They have been trendy before and they will be trendy again. For some reason when we come to an end of a trend we seem to feel the need to belittle the trend. Maybe it makes us feel good about ourselves, like we were enlightened the whole time and knew better. Like we were so above it all. This too is part of the trend cycle, we like to kick an injured puppy on their way out the door. I think that says more about us as a culture than it really does about the dying trend. You can say what you want about the vampire trend, but it – like all trends – got teens reading. This is a good thing. It’s okay if you don’t like vampire novels. Or dystopians. And it’s okay that other people do. Let’s not disparage the interests of others, it makes the world a better place.
Contemporary Fiction has never not been an important part of YA Lit
Contemporary fiction, also at different points in the past twenty years called things like realistic fiction, edgy fiction, the problem novel, etc, has always been a huge part of YA fiction. Contemporary fiction is often also called realistic fiction because it is set in the current day and time and focuses on the realities that teens face in life. Some of the articles that I have read recently suggest that all of the sudden teens are into contemporary fiction and they attribute John Green with the resurgence of this genre. The truth is, teen readers have always been into contemporary fiction. Some of the most popular authors of contemporary YA include Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, Sarah Dessen, Ellen Hopkins, Sharon Draper, Nikki Grimes, Walter Dean Myers and so many more. Before you start hailing John Green as the savior of modern day YA fiction, you might want to take a look at the backlist and output of some of the above authors.
Don’t get me wrong, John Green IS very popular. In part because he writes good books. I admit it, I am a fan. But also in part because he is a very smart businessman who was utilizing the Internet in creative ways long before others and built for himself a huge fanbase. John Green’s popularity is about more than just his books. And that’s okay. But for an interesting comparison, ask any YA librarian what author they have to replace the most in their library. 9 times out of 10 YA librarians will respond with Ellen Hopkins. I don’t know what it is, but Hopkins really seems to capture the heart of YA readers and she tends to be one of the most stolen authors in libraries.
My point is this: John Green did not invent or save the contemporary fiction genre. In fact, it has never gone away and it never will. Again, people are complex beings and they often like more than one thing at the same time. This is a good thing.
Yes, there is darkness in YA lit and I don’t understand why this is a bad thing
Some YA lit is very dark. Sometimes I read articles that say all YA is dark, but again – that’s just someone not doing their research. But here’s what I can’t ever figure out: why is darkness in YA lit a bad thing? Let’s think about teens for a moment. By the time teens reach the age of 18, 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will have been a victim of some type of sexual violence, most often by someone they loved and trusted. 1 out of 5 kids and teens go to bed hungry each night. Soon, the current generation of teens will never have lived in a time when the United States was not actively engaged in a war on foreign soil. Teens today live in a world overshadowed by the events of 9/11, where we stand in lines at the airport to take off our shoes and listen for announcements of what the current color threat level is. Schools today have duck and cover lock down drills where they practice what to do if a shooter comes into their school. They will know someone who has a mental illness (it is suggested that 1 out 3 people have or will have), a form of cancer (again around 1 in 3), and a host of other issues before they graduate from high school. They can’t escape the very real darkness of the world around them and if authors didn’t reflect that in their literature, it would ring shallow and false.
So if you want there to be less darkness in YA literature, then I guess you need to ask yourself what you are doing to make the lives of teenagers – and the world they live in – less dark.
So let’s talk about quality, shall we
There is a hint in the way people talk about YA literature in the media that suggests that YA literature may not be a high quality thing. To this I say, poppycock. Also to this I say, Two and a Half Men was the number one show on TV for many, many years, so who really are adults to judge quality? YA literature is like every thing else: there are some amazing, high quality titles, there is some fluff, and there is a little of everything in between. Seriously, go walk through the adult fiction section of your bookstore. Are you really going to argue that very popular authors like Danielle Steel and James Patterson are high quality literary authors? They’re not and that’s okay. Because we’re allowed to have fun. And teens are too. Not every book has to be a magical, transformative reading experience that expands our vocabulary and makes us question the ways of the world. But let’s also not suggest that there isn’t the same quality to fluff ratio in YA as there is in Adult fiction. Just pick up a book by A. S. King or Libba Bray or Laurie Halse Anderson (and that doesn’t even begin to cover it) to find some high quality writing. If you suggest that there are no literary quality YA novels out there then I know you haven’t done your research and I can’t believe anything else you say. You are no longer a reputable source of information.
Speaking of A. S. King. Or, there is more than 1 YA author that matters
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal referred to a bunch of authors as “rising stars”. One of those authors was A. S. King. The other was E. Lockhart. This is problematic because when you refer to an established, respected and award-winning author as a rising star, you automatically make everything in your entire article invalid because you have proven that you didn’t take the time to do your research. Or that you have a bias. Or both.
The thing is, the pontification of one author over all others sends a dangerous message. And when that author is a white male author, it reinforces the ongoing dominating cultural message that demeans, objectifies and oppresses a significant portion of the population. John Green is a talented author. Right now, he is a hot commodity, I get that. I will be there on opening night to see The Fault in Our Stars movie, largely because I am the parent to a pre-teen girl who wants to see it. But when you write your articles about him and YA lit, do a better job. Do it in a way that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of all the other authors working hard out there to reach teen audiences. All those authors who are adding their yelp to the universe.
And do it in a way that doesn’t disparage or demean teen readers. As a teen advocate, I take that very seriously. I’m tired of teens getting a bad rap and their interests being marginalized or belittled. Teens are a diverse group of people with diverse interests. Don’t put them in your little media box because it’s easy. Do some research and write articles that reflect the truly amazing things happening in the world of YA books. These are my teens and these are my books and I can guarantee you, you are missing the bigger story. For 20 years I have watched books change lives and it is an awesome thing to behold. Tell that story.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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