When I was young, I don’t think there was anything called “YA Fiction.” In fact, I don’t recall having heard the phrase “YA Fiction” until after the Harry Potter series hit.
Now, I’m not saying anything bad about the Harry Potter series, and I’m not even sure that I’m saying anything bad about YA fiction, I just have some concerns.
It’s probably appropriate to mention at this point that I am not an expert and I very likely have no idea what I’m talking about.
So, like twenty to thirty years ago, which I think is a reasonable timeframe for evaluating my reading habits as a child, we started with picture books, like the Berenstain Bears, for instance, and then we’d move up to some of the Shel Silverstein stuff, which still had pictures but way more words. Then you’d move on to the first chapter books, which are like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. And then the Redwall books were more like novels, in fact I read the Redwall books over again in my adulthood.
But after that, at around age twelve, I was reading grownup books. And it wasn’t just on my own, but I think that was around the age that schools started introducing me to some basic literature stuff. Most of what I read voluntarily was science fiction or fantasy, but there was also poetry and Mark Twain, and Thoreau and things like that. We went straight from kids books to adult books, and I think there’s value in that. Now, I know that just because I grew up a certain way, that doesn’t mean that that was the right way (God knows), so here are some specific reasons that I have concerns about YA fiction:
It’s not a genre. I mean, sure, it’s used as a genre, but in this case it’s a differentiation that serves marketers more than it does readers. There’s a lot of young adult fiction out there, on a dizzying array of subjects. The purpose that genre serves for readers is that it allows readers to know at least some of what the book will be about, or what purpose the volume will serve, before the reader even opens it. It’s a way to sort through the tremendous volume of printed matter that’s available to us. YA fiction doesn’t do that. It just provides a channel for publishers to further narrow down their marketing to a more specific niche.
It’s a false division. There’s really no need to draw a line between what teens and “tweens” can read and what adults can read, unless you have concerns about sexual or violent content. I was reading literature and sci-fi long before I entered adulthood, and most of the people that I know who read and enjoyed the Harry Potter series did so as adults. This is entirely appropriate, the Harry Potter books were wonderful stories that dealt with important and complex themes.
I don’t want to limit young adults. My brother, who’s a high school teacher and admittedly has some expertise on the subject of getting kids to read things, says that one of the good things that YA does is direct kids toward books that are geared toward them and that they may be more likely to enjoy, and I’m the first to admit that for kids, getting them into books that they’ll enjoy is a good thing and can make that kid a reader for life. But there are so many very good books that are in literature and in regular genre fiction that I really think kids should read, and I worry that since there is now a category specifically for young adults that teens might feel as though literature is not for them… or worse, that they’ll be force fed literature at school and all of their voluntary reading will be in young adult fiction, and they might be forever ruined as regards literature.
It can damage writers’ credibility. Okay, so this is probably true to some extent with any genre division, since as discussed earlier, publishers and promoters will use genre to get your work to the most receptive audience for that work, and on the face of things, that’s great. We all want our work to get into the hands of people that enjoy it. The problem is that as you become a product, a publisher is going to want uniformity from that product because uniformity is easier for capitalism to deal with because it’s a lot cheaper. But people aren’t uniform, and many writers have had to write under pen names in order to move outside of the genre that they’ve become known for. Because if, for instance, you’re famous for writing a science fiction series, and then you have a book you want to write that’s literary, your sci-fi fans will pick it up, and some might like it, but some are going to feel disappointed and even betrayed. To top that off you have to start all over with marketing your literary work, since you’ll be marketing to an at least somewhat different crowd. So this happens with any genre, but I worry that the stigma against people who become famous for writing young adult fiction may be seriously damaging, because among some consumers, YA fiction is kids books.
So there are reasons here on behalf of both writers and readers. This kind of division benefits publishers because it allows them to finely dial in their marketing, and efficient marketing benefits authors as well, I suppose. But I worry that we’re selling our kids short, and I don’t want the capability of our kids to read and understand good fiction, from literature to murder/mystery books, to be hampered by our underestimation.