Posts Tagged ‘young adult’

Context or Where Do the Ducks Go in Winter?

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Used under creative commons.

Every couple of months or so, my twittersphere (which consists mainly of writers, agents, editors, and other bibliophiles) explodes because someone has written a new opinion piece about how Young Adult Literature Is Dumb And Ruins Everything. The latest one is on a website for teachers and claims:

“Several generations of teenagers, especially boys, have been effectively prevented from ever becoming literate adults by a publishing industry that has decided young adult readers have an insatiable appetite for what amounts to nothing more than gossip fodder, the endless recycling of petty anxieties and celebrity confessions that choke the pages of magazines placed strategically at the supermarket checkout.”

This inflammatory sentence is unfair on a number of levels. Since when does reading make you illiterate, regardless of the content? Since when does the introduction of more female protagonists detract from the male-reading experience? And imagine for a minute telling a teenager, male or female or otherwise, that their anxieties are “petty.” I’ll let you sit with that for a minute.

The article’s author is angry. Angry at what he sees is the denigration of literature. Set aside for the moment that one kind of writing doesn’t “destroy” another kind of writing merely by existing. But this man is a teacher; beneath the rage is a nugget of  clear-sighted honesty. He wants to make sure his students are still  “engaging with the thoughts and ideas of intelligent men and women who have important things to say, things which may even make that adult life, still some years off, a richer and a happier experience.”

A commendable goal. A goal, I would say, of writers and teachers and parents everywhere. But this goal isn’t the sole property of adult literature. But how do we prevent students from being alienated by adults telling them how to feel?


When I was in tenth or eleventh grade, we had a student teacher in my honors English class who was incredibly earnest so of course, being teenagers, we gave him no quarter. He had to scrape for our attention, withstand frequent mocking and eye-rolls. I’m not proud of it. We were reading Catcher in the Rye and I remember that his book was full of little post-it flags. A student asked “what is that all about?” and he looked at us bewildered. “What,” he asked, “Don’t all of you flag your books?”

We thought he was ridiculous because he spent so much time focused on Holden Caulfield taking off his hat and putting it back on again. He kept pushing us to ask ourselves what Caulfield meant when he asked where ducks go in winter. We read The Great Gatsby and spent an inordinate amount of time on Daisy’s white dress. We read The Grapes of Wrath and were told the turtle was very important. None of us tried very hard in our answers. Basically, we were a classroom full of adolescents. We were being told that a turtle represented hardships and that ducks symbolized rebirth and it all sounded like a lot of hokum.

The student teacher was an adult with good intentions, trying to expand our young minds. Trying to teach us serious literature. Salinger and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck are considered real literature (note: written by white men, a topic for another post). Catcher in the Rye should have worked – it’s about a teenager, right? It’s a classic. But for the most part, it fell flat. Why?

I didn’t like Catcher in the Rye. I didn’t get Caulfield or his devil-may-care attitude, his frank disregard for the people around him and the life that had been handed to him. I didn’t get why I was supposed to like this book. Talk of red hunting hats and ducks made it feel even more silly. My husband harbors a lot of bitterness against his own high school English class experience. “How do the teachers know anything about what the author ‘intended’?” How does the teacher know that Salinger meant the ducks to symbolize rebirth? What if a duck is just a duck? He couldn’t connect to the classics he was supposed to read and appreciate; don’t even get him started on A Prayer for Owen Meany or Native Son.

This is where YA literature becomes very very important.


In one of the recent episodes of the podcast Writing Excuses (which, my fellow writers, you should definitely be listening to), our merry band of writers discuss writing across genres – meaning writing books for kids versus teens versus adults. Author Mary Robinette Kowal gets to the heart of it:

 “One of the primary differences between a child audience and an adult audience is an adult audience has context. A child audience – elementary school and above—they are still learning about the world and so frequently you have to explain things a little bit more. They can’t make the leaps because they don’t have the experience yet.”

This is the key that unlocks both the frustration with the teenage experience of adult classics and the importance of young adult literature. To a high school student, Holden Caulfield’s hunting hat is just that… a hat. Meant to keep his head warm. Who says it’s anything more than that? But as adult readers, especially teachers and writers, we know that a book is as full of symbols as it is words. That what makes a book a meaningful classic is it’s layers beyond literal meaning.

As adult readers we’ve learned (and continue to learn) how to parse those layers and how to connect our own experiences to that of the book’s characters. But for teen readers parsing a book for adults, they often have to be told to look out for symbolism. They are still learning the language that a writer uses to communicate with her reader. To appreciate adult literature at the level an English class requires they have to be handed the tools to interpret a context that’s in many cases alien to them. Those tools feel stupid because teens are smart: how often does a symbol have just one meaning? Who says the English teacher knows what the author was thinking? But they are told this is how literature functions because they don’t yet have the context to draw out that meaning for themselves for books written by and for adults. A context that experienced adult readers take for granted.

Young adult literature, on the other hand, taps into the teenage experience and the context of teens’ lives, their present emotional landscape. I’m sure an argument can be made that there are classic novels that transcend time by speaking to universal teenage-themes but those books weren’t written for teens; they speak to adults who were once teens, who have, presumably, already had to cope with the storms of adolescence. They are told from a perspective of having been, not being. Which is why the first-person present tense is so common in YA literature – it’s immediate. Not from the distance of “I should have known better” but the “I am living this right now.”

And I don’t know about you but as a teen, life felt a bit like a soap opera or a tabloid. Dating and crushes and breaking up and peer pressure and sex and kissing and fluctuating friendships and drama drama drama. Whether it was in the hallways or school or at summer camp or behind-the-scenes in the theater club, someone was always making out with someone they weren’t supposed to. And harder things too: depression, divorce, body image issues, racism, prejudice, poverty, drugs, suicide. For many students this time in their life is their first encounter with difficult lessons. So teenagers being drawn to stories that seem overly dramatic to adults? Makes sense to me.


Using literature written for teenagers as a bridge to literature written for adults seems like a no brainer. Sure, not every YA book is worth taking apart in a high school English classroom – neither is every adult book – but that doesn’t mean those stories are any less important in developing a reader’s sense of context. Whatever it takes to get someone reading – books about vampires or aliens or romance or graphic novels or comic books or whatever other currently maligned genre – is someone’s open door. I can’t tell you how many parents would come into the bookstore looking for the book that would open up their young “reluctant reader” to the world of reading. I always assured them: we just have to find the right story to be the key.

There is wonderful YA literature out there right now; stories that are nuanced and layered while still speaking to teen readers. Many school districts and teachers appreciate this and have wide and varied reading lists. I’m not saying eliminate classic books from the English curriculum. Novels written for adults are an important part of teen’s reading education too – they challenge, they shock, they introduce new ideas. But reading is a continuum. Allow students to explore themes relevant to them in books written for them. Show them the bones and symbols of storytelling within the context of their own stories. Then introduce them to Catcher in the Rye and ask: how about them ducks?

Image Sources:
• “Flying V Ducks Close” by David Spinks, used under creative commons
• Neil Gaiman quote from Chris Riddell’s Sketchbook


100 word review:
This Side of Salvation

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews.

This Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready
Published by Simon Pulse
received as a galley
Read in August 2014

Target Audience: Young Adult

What if you discovered your parents appeared to have been taken up in The Rapture (or in this case, The Rush), leaving you behind? So hinges Smith-Ready’s complex book for teens that tackles hefty themes (faith, love, grief) with a gentle touch. The dialogue is sharp and spot-on, balancing darker moments with wit and humor. The last quarter of the book slumped a bit for me, as if the author wasn’t sure what to do after the pieces of the mystery fall into place. Ultimately this story isn’t about religion, rebellion, or sacrifice; it’s about the resiliency of family.

Should I read it? Yes. I get the sense that Smith-Ready is just going to keep getting better. Don’t let the religion bit turn you off – it’s another dimension to the story, not the only one. I was pleasantly impressed by this book.


100 word review:
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland…

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews.


The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan
purchased at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, MA
Read in July 2014
Target audience: Middle grade, Young Adult, Young At Heart

Once again, a lush and intricate book for young readers. September is growing up and learning that hearts are fickle things. When she makes her way back to Fairyland, she finds herself drawn to Fairyland Below where her wayward shadow is making merry and wreaking havoc. The shadows embody the parts of people that they keep hidden, the “sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts.” Valente’s language is spell-binding and there seems to be no limit to Fairyland nor her imagination.

Should I read it? Why yes, but this is a sequel so I would definitely go about reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making first, as you will get more out of it and then proceed straightaway to read The Girl who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. This series is perfect for young and old dreamers alike who are always peeking inside wardrobes and broom closets seeking grand adventures.

A little plug for bookstores, inspired by this purchase: I want to remind readers that bookstores, like World Eye Bookshop, can special order most titles for you, as long as they are in print, just as well as an online retailer. That is, if it’s not something they have on the shelves at the moment (instant gratification!). Many stores also do shipping. Either way, it’s a nice way to support stores in your community (or in the community of someone you are gifting).