Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What’s a ‘young adult’ book, anyway?

Ender’s Game, as you probably know, is a book whose main characters are children. That would seem to automatically qualify it for ‘young adult’ status, yet Wikipedia does not categorize it as a ‘young adult’ book. On the other hand, it’s one of The American Library Association's ‘100 Best Books for Teens’. On the other other hand, it’s also suggested reading for the United States Marine Corps, which does not sound very ‘young adult’-ish.
Here’s an Amazon listing for Ender that does not include it in the ‘young adult’ ‘category. But here’s a different Amazon listing - for the same book! - that does.
So is Ender a ‘young adult’ book or not?
I’m glad books like Ender’s Game are out there blurring the lines defining the ghettos (or walled gardens, depending on who you ask) of ‘young adult’ literature. I’m glad adults read Harry Potter, and that young adults aren’t artificially confined by ‘age-appropriate’ labels.
The need for labels
I can also appreciate why the book-buying public wants these categories. People want to know what they’re buying. If the cover says ‘The Cat in the Hat’ or Jackie Collins no further labels are necessary, but most books aren’t so self-evident.
I’ve listed ‘The Patriots of Mars’ as a ‘young adult’ book on Amazon and other markets, because that’s the audience I most want to reach. For an author, the danger of adopting the YA label is that it can mean losing an adult audience. But I shouldn’t have to make that choice, and you shouldn’t, either, and that’s what the rest of this essay is about.
The usual ‘young adult stuff’ that’s NOT in this book
The reason an adult would avoid a ‘young adult’ book (certainly the reason I myself would) is because it carries certain baggage that’s just not for them. With that in mind, here’s what’s not in ‘Patriots’:
• There is no teenage angst & romance, vampires, zombies, or superheros. (Not to worry - there are endless alternate sources for one or all of these, if you’re looking for them!) Likewise absent: Concerns about popularity / grades / summer jobs / school politics / fashion / parental curfews. These subjects are the formula for ‘young adult’ potboilers, which dominate (and largely define) the YA category. That should be no surprise, since adults have potboiler categories of their own (such as ‘romance’ novels and other pulp fiction), which likewise predominate among older readers. 
• Conspicuously missing is the assumption that ‘young adult’ means ‘dumb it down or they won’t understand it’. Likewise MIA is the (untrue) assumption that ‘young adults’ can’t discern between well-crafted and mediocre writing. In the YA genre, Patriots is a fairly sophisticated and challenging offering.
What qualifies Patriots for a ‘young adult’ label?
Wikipedia offers a list of subjects that make for (presumably) worthy ‘young adult’ lit. Patriots involves a number of these, and others not on their list. Patriots’ central ‘YA’ theme is the passing along of a lifetime of insights from a 200-year-old man to an almost-teen boy.
Patriots is, in part, an attempt to address matters that concerned me when I was younger. The frustration of being a child in a corrupt and failing adult world is an important theme of this series. (This is especially important in the worldwide Depression of 2011, the time in which this was written. It’s a time that offers little hope or direction for those we are leaving behind.)
Patriots was built with (mostly) simple sentence construction and word choices. This is not because young adults are less intelligent or literate than any other group, but simply because they’ve had less reading experience than an older reader. There are many words and ideas young adults have not yet encountered, and complex sentence structure can be tiring and confusing (for anyone).
Much of Patriots tests at an average 4th or 5th grade comprehension level, which is my goal. This is the only literary concession that should be made for a younger audience. YA readers are far from illiterate, and certainly are not unaware of the world around them.
Nor is this approach to writing appropriate for young adults alone. Hemingway said the older (more time-tested and broken-in) and simpler the word, the better he liked it. I subscribe completely to that view. The most worthwhile literature speaks plainly and honestly to a wide audience about basic, common concepts.
It’s a misconception that writing simply is easier than writing complex sentences. (The opposite is more generally true.) In fact, the worship of overtly-complex literature is a detestable (but sadly persistent) form of literary snobbery.
Some passages in Patriots are more complex and challenging to read than average children’s literature. Those sections I consider integral to the book, and for the enjoyment of an adult audience. However, it is not necessary for a young adult or a child to completely understand the subtext of this (or any) book. This is a lesson I learned watching Rocky & Bullwinkle as a child, and again later as an adult, and coming to grips with the fact that it was written to play to two audiences simultaneously. (That show, after all, aired in prime time, rather than in the usual Saturday morning cartoon ghetto.) For that matter, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter - and just about every worthwhile entertainment presumably aimed at children - also speaks to both young and mature adults.
• For those concerned about such things, Patriots employs very little profanity. (There are a couple of ‘damn’s.) Profanity won’t destroy a young mind (or an old one), but it rarely contributes enough to justify its use. Profanity is often just a means of disguising weak ideas or injecting faux-excitement into dull passages. 
‘Sci-fi’ and ‘YA’ don’t mix?
A casual search of Amazon suggests that relatively few ‘sci-fi’ novels qualify as ‘young adult’. If that’s true (and I’m not entirely sure it is), ‘The Patriots of Mars’ is definitely an exception in that regard.
The ‘New York Times’ weighs in
In a controversial 2011 essay, Robert Lipsyte (a YA author writing as a guest for the ‘Times’) claimed that only 20% of all YA readers are boys, and that the reason for this was that the books offered to them fall short of their needs:
“If we’re to counter this tendency and encourage reading among boys who may collectively resist it, boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will… lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.
Given the rich variety in young adult fiction available today, this might seem easy. Not so. “We’re in a kind of golden age of books for teenagers — in fact, the best ones are more satisfying reads than most of the best books published for adults,” said Donald Gallo, a Y.A. Anthologist... “The important question is why aren’t boys reading the good books being published?”
He ticked off the standard answers: Boys gravitate toward nonfiction. Schools favor classics over contemporary fiction to satisfy testing standards and avoid challenges from parents. And teachers don’t always know what’s out there for boys. All true, in my opinion.
There are other theories. On his Web site,, the teacher and author Jon Scieszka writes that boys “don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction. . . . Boys don’t have enough positive male role models for literacy. Because the majority of adults involved in kids’ reading are women, boys might not see reading as a masculine activity.”
But I think it’s also about the books being published. Michael Cart, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, agrees. “We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become,” he told me. “In a commercially driven publishing environment, the emphasis is currently on young women.” And then some. At the 2007 A.L.A. conference, a Harper executive said at least three-­quarters of her target audience were girls, and they wanted to read about mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies and vampires.”
When opinions re how society fails to meet the needs of men and/or boys are aired these days, they tend to attract some heated dissent. This ‘Times’ piece was no exception:
By all means make up your own mind re the merits of Mr. Lipsyte’s article, but here’s an observation about the YA category that transcends gender issues:
“…today’s books for boys — supernatural space-and-sword epics that read like video game manuals and sports novels with preachy moral messages — often seem like cynical appeals to the lowest common denominator.”
As Lipsyte well knows, most books (in any category) are marketing-driven ‘products’ while a relative few are offerings of greater value. YA offerings in particular are like breakfast cereal: Most offer the nutritional equivalent of Cocoa Puffs. 
I like Cocoa Puffs just fine, but I wouldn’t suggest a diet built around them.
This train of thought is picked up again in the essay So Long, Arthur C. Clarke’.
from The Patriots of Mars [Postscripts & Essays]

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