I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Refined Reader (35) The YA Issue

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!
Old and new YA literature

The fact that adults also love to read young adult literature has been a big topic recently among bloggers and readers, usually fueled by weird people who feel the need to judge others for what they like to read.  But I was actually surprised to see just how long this topic has been discussed.  I work at a university and occasionally will look at research papers, and though I'm in science, I'll sometimes just look up papers related to literature for the fun of it.  And I happened to come across two articles from the 1980s that talked about the young adult novel.  After reading through them, it was interesting to see what the perspective was on YA lit just about 30 years ago, and I wanted to thoughtfully explore how our attitudes towards YA has either changed or remained the same in the intervening years.  And also to take a look at how the YA genre has changed.

The articles I read and will be referencing are from The English Journal and titled:
  • Looking Backward: Trying to Find the Classic Young Adult Novel by Linda Bachelder, Patricia Kelly, Donald Kenney, and Robert Small (published Sep. 1980)
  • Some of my Favorite Books Are By Young Adult Authors and Some Are by Jane Austen by Robert C. Small Jr.(published Apr. 1986)
From these articles, I think it is important to track the progress of how YA literature was regarded by adults.  In the fifties, it seems, YA was largely denigrated.  One reason was that there were no early "classics" of the YA genre - books that were thought would stand the test of time.  Children's lit had such classics as "Alice in Wonderland", "The Wind in the Willows" and "Charlotte's Web." But YA remained insignificant when there were no strong representatives of the genre.  Another reason was that YA was not very challenging literature.

Starting in the sixties, YA started broadening in style.   The literature became more mature in a way - more topical and relevant to the issues that teens faced.  Before this, there seemed to be an attitude that teens should be sheltered from topics like sexuality, drugs and violence.  But books in the sixties started talking about these things and taboos gradually were broached.  This helped YA to become more significant to teens, as well as show adults how important the genre can be.  YA started to become more than just childish entertainment.

That move to stories that were told honestly, simply and transparently really resonated with students.  But there was still a gulf between YA and adults.  In the latter article I read, Robert Small's editorial makes it clear that even in 1986, it was thought that adults should not read books aimed at teenagers. Yet Small, as a high school teacher, decided to give them a read when his students challenged his view that YA wasn't as beneficial as the classics he wanted them to read.  And Small began to appreciate YA in it's own right.  His arguments for adults also finding that appreciation mirrors almost exactly what others have said now about YA lit.  It's really odd to me that this is still being talked about after so many years.  Even though YA has advanced quite a lot from it's earlier counterparts (to become very broad in topic and style) there is still this idea that adults can't gain anything from the genre.  Yet Small's thoughts on that in his article is absolutely spot on -

"The concerns of these novels center about a teenager's reaction to life, but a literary type must be judged on its own terms not by the conventions that govern it.  What these novelists do marvelously well is to use shortness and simplicity to achieve directness and honesty.  They use the struggles of teenage life to give readers, adolescent and adult, insights into their own lives."


"These are works of literature even in the narrowest and most conservative sense. They have serious intent, careful craftmanship, effective expression, and other qualities that make literature literature."
Usually my main argument for adults reading YA, is that it's not anyone's right to tell someone else what they should or should not read, and if someone finds a book is enjoyable, than that's wonderful, no matter what genre or type it belongs in  But in truth, there is also an importance to YA lit that shouldn't be overlooked just because of who it was written for, or the age of the main character.  Teenagers experience life very strongly and that experience can impact everyone later in life.  Those experiences are not less important or less relevant and can have a lot of meaning even later in life.  And YA can be hugely appealing in that it can be personally meaningful, but in other ways as well.  It is a broad kind of literature and embraces a myriad of styles and emotions so it can resonate with so many people.  This is the best time to be a YA reader because of all the choices out there, and I hope, with the more widespread discussions we are having about it now, the stigma of adults reading YA will finally be put to rest soon.

What early works of Young Adult literature do you remember reading?  Did they have a big impact on you?

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