Saturday, December 25, 2010

Why YA?

I finished reading a friend’s manuscript earlier today. It’s a stunning novel, and she’s getting some interest from agents, which, after reading it, isn’t surprising. More about that in a moment, but first, I wanted to talk about one of the things that struck me while I was reading.

The protagonist is a talented violinist in a youth symphony who’s faced with the choice between pursuing her music or choosing another field of study when she goes to college. There was much in the novel that reminded me of my own struggle as a writer to find justification for continuing to pursue this impossible dream of becoming a Published Author. One passage in particular reminded me of what it’s all about: the trying, the process or, to use a well-worn cliché, it’s the journey, not the destination that matters (Not that my friend’s novel is about a cliché. It’s not. It’s amazing and original, and her writing is gorgeous).

Anyway, the passage reminded me that art for the artist is never about the finished piece – it’s not the painting that matters, or the performance, or any given book. It’s about the finding of it, the engagement with the material, the struggle to make it be what you see or hear or feel in your mind and your body. Yes, it’s satisfying when the painting stops people in their tracks, or the performance brings people to their feet, or the novel makes them think and feel things they’ve never considered before – but all of that is beyond the artist’s control. What is in the artist’s control is bringing him or herself to the act of creation completely, wholly, and with joy and reverence for the incredible gift it is to be able to do this thing.

My friend’s novel was a nice reminder of that on this Christmas day.

Now, the other thing I wanted to talk about was that one of the agents who’s shown interest in her novel is asking her to consider the Young Adult (YA) market for it. Would it fit? Yes, very nicely. I think it would be a stunning YA book that would be a contender for some of the YA book prizes.

While I could talk about how agents are really pushing any book with a youthful protagonist into the YA marketplace because YA is selling right now, that isn’t the soapbox onto which I’m climbing. Nope. I’ll concede that there’s some good YA out there and there are enough literary novels that have been discovered by teenage readers that the publishing industry is taking notice of the crossover potential for new releases and, sometimes, coming out with dual adult/YA releases.

But it’s that last part that has me concerned. So here’s me, climbing up on the soapbox to talk about what bothers me the most about the whole YA phenomena in publishing.

I think it takes away the thrill of a young reader discovering the world of adult literature.

When I was 11 years old, I discovered my dad’s science fiction collection in the guest room in our house. He had the classics – Asimov, Bradbury, Clark, Heinlein. The first non-kid’s book I read was Fahrenheit 451, and I never looked back at the kids’ classics my parents and grandparents had given me – Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Little Women, my collections of fairy tales (although, to be very honest, those books and stories were not intended for a child’s reading when they were first released), those were put by the wayside as I delved into the fantastical and philosophical worlds of the masters of science fiction and fantasy. A year later, I was reading James Mitchner, a precocious 7th grader carrying around the 1,000+ page Centennial and eagerly devouring it at every opportunity (the mini-series was on that year and, at a chapter a week, it was moving too slowly for me, so I got the book, and I remember one of my teachers looking at it and commenting that she was impressed because she would never read a book that long).

I remember getting a library card that allowed me to take out books from the adult section of the library. A major milestone in my life.

I fear that the desire to promote literature that is geared toward young people, marketed toward them, with characters who are similar to them and situations they can related to, will rob them of one of the great pleasures of growing up: that wonderful moment when you cross out of children’s literature and into the adult world of grown-up novels.

I don’t mean to imply that YA books are not well-written. Many of them are incredibly well-written presenting complex characters and situations in fine, nuanced prose. In many cases, I think the publishing industry’s desire to cater to young readers is wonderful. Yes, it’s driven by a desire to make money, but it’s also driven by the desire to create life-long readers (even if, in my more cynical moments, I think that it’s that “cradle to grave” philosophy so many businesses aspire to) by giving young readers good things to read rather than risking them turning off from literature forever by being cast adrift in the sea of Important Books.

It’s an impulse I see at work in my older son’s high school curriculum – no Scarlet Letter or Canterbury Tales for him, his reading list is comprised of YA cross-over titles, those “published for an adult audience but with a youthful protagonist that appeals to a younger reader” books (this young man is, even as I write this, reading Gulliver’s Travels – he was motivated to pick up the book after listening to an interview with Jack Black talking about the new Gulliver movie earlier this evening. I commented that he probably wanted to see the movie now, and he said no, but did we happen to have the book in the house? He’s been reading it ever since).

But I think this denies young readers the opportunity to truly understand what literature is about, to challenge themselves, and to have that secret thrill of gaining access to the previously unknown world that adults inhabit.

It feels like yet another way in which, in our eagerness to provide our children with “advantages,” we have co-opted their lives instead, pulled the curtain away and revealed the Great and Powerful Oz as just another guy from Kansas trying to make a living, by making it all so accessible for them. Just like the plethora of child-sized furniture that is available now, we have cut our literature into easily assimilated bite-sized morsels that are safely on display in the children’s and YA sections of the bookstore. No need for the teens to go wandering into the wilds of the literature section. Who knows what they’ll stumble upon there? But if we make these books available in another place, tell them it’s for them specially, we can keep them in this insulated cocoon of childhood longer.

And maybe that’s what worries me the most.

Those books I read when I was a teen, the ones with adults struggling to figure out their place in the world or coming to terms with different philosophies or impossible situations, those books prepared me for the adult I would become. They showed me that adults don’t have all the answers. They made the adult world that was rapidly moving towards me a place in which I could envision myself. I didn’t need someone to show me what my own world looked like – I was living it every day. But I did need someone to show me there were other ways of seeing the world than the one I lived in and that I didn’t need to have all the answers even when I was a grown-up.

I worry that YA makes our kids too comfortable - it gives them visions of their own world, hands them characters to whom they can relate, but it doesn't offer them something more. It doesn't ask them to envision the world as it could or will be. And it absolutely doesn't give them the thrill of discovering it on their own.

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