The Difference Between YA and NA and Why It Matters, Part II: A Teen Librarian Perspective
I have been a teen librarian for 30 years now. Books written for teens are labelled as Young Adult by the publishing and library market, a thing that has never made a lot of sense. We are the only industry who calls teens young adults, arguably a misnomer because in the beginning YA lit was classified as a book written for teens ages 12-18. These days, most YA books are classified as ages 14 and up. And if you pay close attention, you will notice that a majority of YA protagonists are, in fact, 17. This ageing up of YA lit has been a source of discourse for some time now, and it broke out again in the past days as someone shared a picture of a book shelf labelled Young Adult at Target that featured nothing but adult titles, including a ton of Colleen Hoover.
In part 1 of this discussion, my former teen now new adult reader shares her perspective. Now, I would like to share mine as a librarian who works with and advocates for teens.
Teenagers are an age group that often gets a lot of bad press and hostility for adults. Teenagers have unique developmental needs and they fall somewhere on the spectrum between kids and adults, dipping a toe into each of these categories depending on the moment. Legally, they are not adults and don’t have adult rights. They also are not developmentally mini-adults, brain science shows us that they literally think differently using different parts of their brains and don’t really have the tools to make long term decisions, for example. They are dealing with intense emotional changes, trying to develop an authentic sense of self while navigating the wants and pressures of the adults in their lives, and have very complex emotional social lives that they are trying to figure out. And for the record, this does include thinking about, navigating, and sometimes having their first sexual experience, even though most adults hate this.
This is why the developmental and growth of YA literature was such a necessary revelation. Teens need and want books that speak to their lived experiences to help them navigate and understand them. Books are a tool that we all use to process our lives in meaningful ways. And in order to this, we must all have access to books that reflect our realities and help us do that processing.
I grew up in a time when there was not a lot of YA literature. I grew up reading Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Saul and Mary Higgins Clark, the books that my parents would leave lying around. And yes, like most kids of the 80s, we passed around dogeared copies of Flowers in the Attic and it did not scar me. But as a middle school kid with Scoliosis, the book that spoke to me most was Deenie by Judy Blume. It resonated, it reflected, it helped me process and made me feel less alone. It transformed me in ways that no other book had, in part because it reflected my life in ways that none of the adult books I read had.
I have seen the same thing happen time and time again with the teens that I have worked with over the last 30 years. They still read Stephen King. They are reading Colleen Hoover. But the books that speak to their hearts are the ones that are a revelation in that they speak to who they are in this moment and what they are trying to navigate and figure out in the here and now. I Crawl Through It and Still Life with Tornadoes by A. S. King spoke so deeply to my teen because it spoke to who she was as she read it and what she was going through in those moments. For other teens, it was Twilight, The Hate U Give or Simon Vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda.
As a teen librarian, I will always advocate for my teens to be able to read whatever they want, including adult fiction. But I will also always advocate for their to be a robust YA market so that they can have the books they need and want to process the lives they are living now. It is one of the reasons why teen librarians like me push so hard against the adultification (not really a word, but I’m going with it) of YA lit. There is no lack of adult literature, and I hate to see teens pushed out of their own literary market. Teens NEED books that reflect their age and stage of life just like every other age group does. And they deserve it.
Another important thing to consider is the this: we are living in a time where school and public librarians are coming under a ton of pressure to ban books. I have friends and colleagues that are fighting front line battles to make sure their teens get to have good, relevant books with representation in their libraries. Some of us have been called groomers and threatened with our employment or lives for advocating for ya literature. So muddying the waters between adult and YA lit is not helping. When a parent walks into Target or some other store and sees adult romances being marketed to Teens, it is not helpful.
Just because teens read a book does not make it a YA novel. I was a teen who read Mary Higgins Clark and that did not make it a YA book. The intended audience matters. Anyone can read any book that they want, but when it comes to marketing and promotion, labels matter. They can help readers find the right book for them. And they can lead them astray in harmful ways. But beyond the guidance that these can provide, what I want us to keep in mind is that having a teen market that caters to and represents teens is really vitally important. And it needs to be diverse in all ways, including books for younger teens and having different levels of conversations about important topics – including sex – to help teen readers find the right book for them at the place they are at as they think about the things that teens think about and try to navigate.
I hate to see adult books labelled as Young Adult not because I don’t know that teens can and do read adult books, but because it pushes the Young Adult books out of the market and makes it harder for them to find books that reflect their experiences. It makes it harder for authors of YA literature. It makes it harder for teachers and librarians who serve teens. It makes it harder for the parents who parent teens. It serves no one well, and that’s what I’m in the business of, trying to serve my teens well.
There is a ton of amazing young adult literature out there waiting to be found by teen readers. My job is to help get it onto the shelves and into their hands. It would be really helpful if others in the business would help me reach this goal.
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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