This article belongs to The Writing Life—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly column.
A disturbing thing is happening in bookstores. Favorite titles, old and new, are getting misplaced. Most recently, I was talking to my sister about Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. This beautifully written story is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl.
As I was getting into the plot nuances, my sister said, "Oh yes. I heard about this one and wanted to read but it's a young adult book." It was an Oprah Book Club book, a book that won awards, a book taught in universities and high schools, but young adult? Nope, never was. Yet, this is the problem facing books with teen narrators.
When I was in high school, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were literary classics. They were discussed in terms of themes, symbolic value and character intentions. Now, some book stores place them a few feet away from teen chick lit serials. I had tried to figure out why this was, and then it hit me. Book stores are stumped as to what YA lit really is, and in an effort to sort novels into pretty little packages, they get it all wrong.
Let's begin there, then. What is YA lit? When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, books for teens centered on boy-meets-girl themes. He wants her, she wants him; hilarity ensues. Some of you may also be familiar with light murder mysteries like those by Christopher Pike or fun high school/junior high books like the Sweet Valley High or The Baby-Sitters Club series. My favorite authors were Norma Klein and Norma Fox Mazer - authors who added grittier themes, like alcoholism, molestation, and student-teacher affairs to their novels. But most teens I knew went for the more light-hearted fare.
Fast forward to the 21st century and YA lit has expanded. Sure, the serials still exist and are popular as ever, but teens are also given more choices. There is vampire and gay lit to add to the mix, protagonists who have had abortions, those in interracial relationships, and more. What sets all these new types apart from what our parents once pegged as teen books is that most could be easily classified as literary novels as well. And this is probably what trips bookstores up.
According to the definition on Wikipedia, YA lit "includes all works which are written for, published for, marketed to, or consumed by young adults, or books with themes that young adults might find interesting." That's pretty broad. Young adults find many themes interesting. Another definition states "young adult literature deals with issues of adolescence, coming of age, and maturation into an adult." This is more specific but it also explains why bookstores have issues with placement of YA novels. There has to be better criteria, and I wish I knew what it was.
Here's what I do know, though. While YA lit is becoming more accepted and recognized as "literature," people still look down on it. Why is this? If one rereads Catcher in the Rye, and then compares it to novels by Sarah Dessen, Jacqueline Woodson, and Laurie Halse Anderson, one will see that these authors produce novels just as worthy of discussion and which are written even more artistically than Catcher. If readers give this book a chance - this book with a teenage male protagonist that is considered a classic -why not open their minds to the new novels out there with teen protagonists. Can these not be the next classics?
If your are reading this and saying these books are not the same but you have not yet read any current YA - current high end YA that is - then take this challenge before you comment. Read the authors I mentioned above. Specifically, Dreamland by Dessen, If You Come Softly by Woodson, and Speak by