Sunday, June 7, 2015

Question: Are YA Novels Really for Young Adults?

This is a question I am often asked by parents. Parents are becoming more aware of what is written in today's "young adult" novels, thanks in part to the sudden flurry of books-turned-movies that have graced our theaters since Twilight. They are noticing that the books aimed at teenagers appear more mature in theme than the YA fare of their youth. But is it really becoming "too adult?"

First of all, Young Adult is a designation, not a genre. It represents novels about teenaged characters undergoing a coming of age moment. Within this designation, there are different genres for young adult readers to choose from, from science fiction and fantasy to romance and historical fiction.

A Little History

Children's fiction has been around since books became widely accessible in the 1800's. Books for older children sprang up like Swiss Family Robinson(1812), Oliver Twist (1838), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer(1876), and Alice in Wonderland (1865). These and others became the literary classics of "Children's Literature" and were filled with the adventurousness of youth, but it also carried the problems children faced then: poverty, child labor, family obligations, and poor education.

In the 1950's and 60's books written for teenaged readers reflected the darker, more turbulent times. Gone were the adventures of youth, replaced by the harsh realities of an era of war, racism, and one's place in society. Created were the great but controversial works like The Outsiders (1967), Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Lord of the Flies (1954). Clearly, older teen readers were searching for something more than "children's"  literature.

Publishers began to see the opportunities available in a "Young Adult" market, and in the 1970's and 80's booksellers and libraries began creating young adult sections to easily distinguish between books meant for young children and books meant for older teens. Thus the YA designation was born. But the themes were still no less edgy than its predecessors, only different. These later decades reflected the fears of youth: pregnancy, death, and self-identity. Judy Blume's Forever (1975) and Tiger Eyes (1981), Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974) andFade (1988), and Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terebithia (1977) are a few examples.

It may seem that the content of young adult fiction has gotten heavier through the 90's and up to present day, but in truth the themes are the same. Teens moved away from the more formulaic coming-of-age novels and sought out other genres. They fell into horror with R.L. Stein and Christopher Pike, ate up stories about ghosts, vampires and werewolves with paranormal writers Neil Gaiman, David Shan, Stephanie Meyer, and Richelle Mead, and dove into dystopian worlds from Lois Lowry, Marie Lu, Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. These imaginary realms of monsters and mayhem opened up new ways to see sex, death, and identity.

Are YA Novels Safe for my Child to Read?

When I am asked about whether a YA novel is okay for one's son or daughter, my answer always comes with a caveat. It is a book that is marketed to teenagers, BUT (here's the caveat) you may not feel comfortable with the problems addressed in the story. Then again, let's face it – if a teenager finds a book interesting enough to want to read it, he or she is going to find a way to read it.  And perhaps these titles are a bit heavy on the sex, violence, or death, but to quote someone who posted this thought on Goodreads: "There is nothing 'safe' about reading. Reading is a dangerous, subversive activity intended to challenge authority and expand the mind."(Moonlight Reader)

It is a parent's responsibility to look out for the best interests of their children. Some parents are more open to the "dangerous and subversive," others are not. If teenagers are voracious readers, they may not even bother with the young adult section and move straight into the adult genres. I certainly did. So worrying about whether a YA novel may be to risqué might be the least of your problems.

There are acceptable limits, to be sure. For example, I know a 9-year-old that reads the Hobbit series with relish. But just because he can read and comprehend such works doesn't mean I would recommend the Game of Thrones series to him. But if a high-schooler wanted to read GoT, as a parent you could discourage it but the decision ultimately falls to your teenager.

What is most important is that parents should read what their children are reading so that there can be a meaningful discussion about the themes presented. Pay attention to YA titles, but also pay attention to what is in the pages. And above all, trust that your child will be able to interpret the themes of a book in a mature and meaningful way.

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