By Sarah Hannah Gómez
If you are a Book Person, you’ve heard of young adult literature, more commonly referred to as YA. As the Hunger Games movies were hitting screens, everybody on the internet became obsessed with YA. Each and every ladies’ lifestyle site, newsmagazine and entertainment blog was publishing some version of a listicle about favorite YA heroines or best YA books to read when you’ve finished Harry Potter.
Young adult literature is for teenagers, and it honors their experience going through the torture that is adolescence. Special imprints at publishers and specific editors are dedicated to finding stories that will resonate with teenagers. Promotional budgets are earmarked for cool swag designed to make books, authors, and fandoms as big a deal as 1D. YA, a category (not genre) of literature that has been around for 30, 50, or 70 years depending on where you start counting, is an amazing gift to give the demographic that feels (rightfully, thanks to a combination of actual neurological symptoms and sociological beliefs) betrayed, confused, alone, on display, and ignored. It’s also a place where women run much of the show, girls are heroes, and young people save the world while the adults around them are largely impotent, sadistic, or just incompetent. Whether it’s science fiction, realistic fiction, or fantasy, YA books are acquired by YA editors, rather than adult fiction editors, because they celebrate and bask in the immediacy of being a teenager, of experiencing things for the first time. YA characters are gritty.
The problem with the YA bandwagon articles wasn’t that they wanted to celebrate how cool YA is. The problem with those listicles was that most of them, regardless of what superlative they were going for, were rounding up a bunch of books that share the label “I read this before I was old enough to vote,” not YA. Harriet the Spy? Smart, feisty, subtly queer, awesome kid. YA? No. Harriet is 11 years old, and the book is for kids. Madeline? Adorable. Also a book with a large trim size, very few words, and a great deal of pictures, making it….a picturebook!
The YA community, made up mostly of writers, agents, editors, critics, scholars, and librarians, was not feeling this. Find any one of those articles, and you will find fights in the comments between people who didn’t know what YA was until The Hunger Games and one of us. They say it’s an amorphous term, we tell them it’s not; they say it’s evolving, we remind them that we’ve been watching it for years, and they’ve been watching it for weeks. And everybody outside of the community just stares blankly when they hear the term “middle grade.”
What’s middle grade? You know it as “children’s books” or “children’s novels,” and it’s for those between 8 and 12 years old. Middle grade is what the canon is made of: The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Penderwicks…those are middle grade. There is a long, robust tradition of novels in this category, especially after the industrial revolution and even more so after the labor movement, as ever more children started going to school instead of to work. When you have kids with the freedom to be kids, you have kids with the time and the literacy to read books. If you walk into the children’s room of a public library today, or if you flip through the mental library of books you read as a kid, you probably notice some common motifs. Kids are powerful, smart, and cooperative. They work together, and they save the world.
Adolescence took a long time to be invented at all, and it took an even longer time to become a somewhat stable archetype. It’s only in recent human history that people a) live long enough for adolescence to be a different physical experience than adulthood; and b) live in a society that indulges an extended period of fooling around, experimenting, and generally doing nothing to benefit society. And it’s really only in the last few decades that medical advances have allowed us to understand that adolescent brains truly are distinct from children’s and adults’ brains, and they respond to stimuli in a different way.
The “first” YA books were published before there was a term for it, and each was published by an adult press, not a children’s imprint. Those titles are Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer (1942), J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967). But if you really want to talk early YA, you look to the 80s and 90s. You name authors like Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War), Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer), Nancy Garden (Annie on My Mind), and Angela Johnson (Toning the Sweep). These books and authors represent a time when shifts were taking place in children’s departments and editors were taking stock and making plans for what they were realizing was an untapped market. What’s going on in these books? Teens are battling things that are more inside than all around them, they’re experiencing it now (as opposed to many teenaged narrators in adult fiction, who more often than not have retrospective glance on the things they are experiencing) and in the end, they save themselves. They’re not simply slightly older Pevensie siblings, gone again to Narnia.
So why does it matter that the entire internet, minus the incredibly vibrant internet subculture dedicated to children’s and young adult literature that knows it better than anyone else, uses the term “YA” so indiscriminately?
I used to be a librarian, and there is no word I hated to hear more than “appropriate.” I do, however, believe that books should “resonate,” and the work of librarians, teachers, and other adults who get books into the hands of non-adults is undermined by casual internet journalism’s insistence that anything written for people too young to buy cigarettes is YA. There are tons of YA books out there that are great, that I would hand to every 17-year-old who walked in the door, but I would never give it to an 11-year-old. That’s not because the tween can’t “handle” it or lacks the reading level. It’s because good books with good editors and good marketing departments are aimed at the people they will most resonate with. An 11-year-old is not experiencing the same things, physiologically or socially, as a 17-year-old. They should not be reading the same books. They deserve to have books that are for each of them as individuals.
Middle grade literature has its giants and its celebrities, both in the form of today’s author-superstars and in the reverence we hold for editors long gone, like Ursula Nordstrom. Kids have skills and needs that are met by these books, from vocabulary level to themes to alignment with developmental stages. YA is not for them, and the authors of the amazing middle grade novels that hit shelves each year deserve to be celebrated for the people they choose to serve—children.
The same goes with teens, but with higher stakes. The best thing about YA is that it taps into a demographic that is never interested in doing anything an adult says they should do and, without trying to teach a lesson or change any minds, simply offers a story that says, “I see you.” Ever since adults jumped onto YA, book prices have gone up, which makes it difficult for actual teenagers to afford the books purportedly just for them. New imprints that boldly and loudly assert that they are For! Teen! Readers! strive to reclaim the YA space in the name of real adolescence, but it’s difficult to retain that control when adults (who are by all means welcome to read whatever they want) keep trying to take, twist and rename a cultural product that was not made for them. Content and themes have grown darker, grittier, and more true to the real lives that many teens live, which is wonderful. This fuels the fire of would-be book banners who seek to control what teenagers read before they escape adult clutches and enter the real world. In turn, conflating middle grade and YA mean that more YA is appearing in libraries where it has no place, and that gives way to even more book challenges, because “YA” becomes synonymous with “dark, horrible book about despair.” The people who work to craft stories that successfully do the very difficult job of accurately portraying teen life without inciting an eyeroll and without harming an actual teen along the way deserve praise for what they do.
It’s not about which category (not genre) is better; it’s about not wanting to be given a social studies award when you’re a biology teacher, and not wanting to be asked to sing karaoke when you’re tone-deaf and would rather be painting.
Sarah Hannah Gómez writes, teaches group fitness, sells biotech skincare products, and consults on library- and literature-related matters. She is pursuing a PhD in the history and critical theory of children’s/YA literature. Visit her at shgmclicious.com or on Twitter @shgmclicious