"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Friday, June 10, 2011

For Young Adults

Otherwise known as Teens. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal decrying the state of YA fiction had the literary internet all abuzz this past week. Tor has a good overview. I was a YA librarian for 8 years, back in the '80s, and believe me, YA lit wasn't exactly pristine and upbeat even then. And that was fine! Because the books were what kids wanted to read. What's published now is what kids want to read. And on average, teens are a lot wiser and resilient than some people want to give them credit for.

Of course, there are exceptions. Lots of them. And parents usually, or should, know their child and what they can handle. Age and maturity factor in, but so does whether or not a parent is trying to protect their kid from life's harsh realities so much so that when the kid grows up and is smacked by harsh reality, he or she isn't prepared to handle life's disappointments.

When I was in my teens, in the '60s, the division was mostly between books for children and books for adults, with some exceptions. In the first half of the '60s, we had book clubs where we could, as a class, buy pbs written for our age level. We had Arrow Books for the first 3 grades and from grade 4-6, we had Tab Books. I think Scholastic published them. They were pretty tame. I read a few. But mostly, I read library books and what my parents owned. And comic books. Lots of comic books.

I was pretty heavily into Nancy Drew, The Dana Girls, and Trixie Belden. For Nancy and the Danas, it wasn't the later, sanitized versions, but the originals that were hand-me-downs from my mother's friends and then later titles published in the '50s and early '60s, when Nancy routinely got chloroformed/knocked out. Back then, that was pretty dark. I loved it!

I aged out of books for kids when I was 10 or so. While I still read Nancy Drew and other kid books (Little House books, especially), I also started reading Agatha Christie and such titles as: The Martian Chronicles, Rebecca, and Sherlock Holmes (too boring for me), among others. I was blessed with parents who knew I was reading 3-4 grades above my grade level and who didn't care what I was reading as long as I was reading. Which is why, when I asked, my mother agreed that I could read the James Bond books my parents owned. I was 11 at the time. Those books got me into my late teens, but Doctor No, which I read when I was 11, is still my favorite.

The best way to grow a reader, in my opinion, is to get them excited by the written word. Readers typically want to be entertained, to be thrilled, to laugh or cry by what they read. If reading about vampires (not my favorite topic), then let them read about vampires. Would I give the Twilight books to a 10-year-old kid? Probably not, unless that kid is exceptional. But I'd have no qualms with the average 14 or 15-year-old reading them. Having recently read the Hunger Games trilogy, I can't think of a single thing in them that would not be appropriate for the average teen. But then, it's an imagined future.

To be honest, I've been away from YA work for many years now, so I'm not as in tune with what's out there now, but reading The Hunger Games reminded me how much I love good YA fiction. At its best, it's a clean form of writing, getting right to the heart of things, without burying the characters and themes under a barrage of poetic prose. YA fiction has always been about a good story and in trying to not be art, it becomes art just the same.