Once upon a time…
(Well, I’m about to write about the topic of Literature for Children, so why not use the time-honored beginning for every fairy tale alive…?)
Once upon a time, then, there were just stories.
When I was a little girl, my home town library had only two sections – children’s, which I blew through in a spectacular fashion, and adult. We had no such thing as a “young adult” section or concept.
You read the kiddies books until you realized that you were past them and then you went on to read the adult books, those that caught your interest and held your attention.
I was reading Howard Spring and Pearl Buck novels (in English translation) before I was ten. And poetry. When I went moved to Africa and learned English, I read the unabridged John Galsworthy “Forsyte Saga” novels by the time I was thirteen.
I was, perhaps, a throwback. The story was the thing that mattered. I read for the story, not for the story that was considered to be ‘appropriate’ for me by some stranger in the publishing industry who had never met me and did not know what I would be interested in.
I was a throwback in the sense that in the long-distant past what we think of as pampered and protected ‘childhood’ simply didn’t exist. Teenagers are a modern phenomenon. In the olden days, a teenager was an adult. Period.
In the middle ages, girls were married at 12 or 13 and mothers by 14 or 15. Many of them died in childbirth as their young and possibly still not fully formed bodies failed to measure up to the stress of giving birth to a real life-size infant. Boys did a man’s work by the time they were fifteen. There was no mollycoddling and no extended coming-of-age as we know it today.
The first real recognition of “young adults” as a distinct group as it pertained to reading and readership, came by a woman by the name of Sarah Trimmer who made the distinction, in a children’s literature periodical of the time, between “Books for Children” (for those under fourteen) and “Books for Young Persons” (intended for those between fourteen and twenty one) – but the distinction remained words on paper, because 19th century publishers did not market books specifically to that readership. The culture of the adolescent, so absolutely prevalent and accepted today, still did not exist in the modern sense.
What was perhaps the tipping point into the modern world came as late as the 1950s and 1960s, specifically after the groundbreaking “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton – something not seen before in this particular kind of literature. It had none of the patina of nostalgia that often characterized books about young characters before this time, books written by adults who were reflecting back on a long-past youth. No, this was a novel about the here-and-now – written BY an author who was technically a Young Adult herself, about people LIKE herself, and the immediacy and verisimilitude – not to mention a distinct darkening of theme and ideas – was obvious.
Publishers began to see this segment of readership as a distinct – and new and lucrative – market. YA sections began to appear in bookstores and libraries, for books distinct from books considered to be “children’s books” and distinct from stuff that was considered appropriate for an adult audience.
The range of these books spread across genre – but the contemporary YA novels began to tackle topics that were faced by actual YA readers in their own lives. Topics such as rape, suicide, parental death, murder, drinking, sexuality (both straight and gay), drugs, identity, beauty, and teen pregnancy. Young Adult fiction, particularly the kind that librarians and booksellers liked to describe as “edgy”, portrayed young-adult protagonists, teens, who were depicted as having to confront social and cultural issues which the readers of such books frequently faced in their own real lives. Young Adult literature was morphing from a literature of nostalgic escapism into a golden past to works which functioned as manuals, almost, for the business of living.
The distinctions between works of literature deemed to be ‘children’s lit’, ‘YA’ or ‘adult literature’ have been notoriously fluid and flexible. The fracture lines have deepened, more recently by the introduction of ‘middle grade’ – novels which fall between blatant kiddie books and the threshold of what is considered YA, often assumed to fall somewhere between the ages of 9 – 12 (apparently when you hit the ‘teen suffix you’re YA whether you like it or not…)
The Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) branch of the American Library Association, the ALA, defines a young adult in the readership sense as a person between the ages of twelve and eighteen – but once again the borders are arbitrary and flexible, because authors and readers of this branch of literature routinely estimate readership ages to start as low as ten, and to as high as twenty five.
Which is where we came in, as far as the reason behind this post is concerned.
You see, I am currently writing the conclusion of what was originally marketed as a YA trilogy, my Worldweavers books.
The three original books in the trilogy – “Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam” and “Cybermage” – followed the fundamental elements as required by the definition of the YA genre. I didn’t push the envelope in the “edgy” direction – I didn’t go for the more hardcore elements of plot or setting or theme – but my young heroine, who is 14/15 in these books, has to grow and change to meet the challenges of growing up, growing into her gifts, and into the sort of adult she is supposed to be. Sometimes this was far from an easy thing for her to do. But so far I have done pretty well according to the YA yardstick (which is that the subject matter and the story lines of this genre of literature are supposed to be, under the modern definition, typically consistent with the age and experience of the protagonist character of the novel).
Here’s the thing, though. In the latest and last installment, my heroine is 16. She has a whole different set of problems. To all intents and purposes, she is an adult – and while there are moments that she still responds like the “child” that her culture would still have her be, mostly she makes the choices and decisions which are consistent with that adult worldview.
Who is my audience…?
I think, mostly, I am writing for people like the girl who I myself once was, readers who read for STORY rather than on the basis of which section of the library or bookstore the book was shelved in. I believe that a good story can be appreciated by readers from 9 to 90 without anyone missing out or losing stride – and that the whole YA thing is a marketing gimmick, and not in itself “real”.
I was allowed to find my own reading level while growing up and read whatever I was comfortable with. I am writing for those readers – in fact, one of my most cherished compliments came from a book buyer of the acclaimed New York children’s bookstore Books of Wonder who told me that I wrote for “readers who already know how to think”.
I don’t think my books are going to be a big hit with the Twilight crowd. My books are a lot deeper and more nuanced than that – and, for all that they are fantasy, more real. So I am writing for kids like the kid that I was, the kids who are bored with the stuff that accepted wisdom maintains that they are supposed to be reading, who are crying out for stories that are not written “down” to them, stories that are honest, stories that will be just as readable when they are in their thirties without them having to cringe and hide them in brown paper wrappers. It is my highest standard of achievement to write that kind of story, and I have a cadre of readers who are telling me that I have got there with my “younger” stuff.
But still. I worry. It’s a marketing thing, now, and beyond mere words, beyond the input of just an author like me. It’s not the story any more, it’s how and where and to whom the story can be peddled. If it cannot be easily pigeonholed or labeled, it starts to discombobulate and annoy the gatekeepers who publish/sell books, because they cannot slap an easy label on such stuff.
Here’s the thing, then. Although my fantasy has been called a work fit for Young Adults, although my protagonist is a teenager, although her trials are often rooted in the problems of teenagerhood – this is not where I rest, this is the ground in which the story is rooted and its leaves and its flowers reach much beyond this level. I hope that I am writing for everyone who loves to read – for precocious ten-year-olds like the one I used to be, for fourteen-year-olds who might recognize aspects of themselves, for thirty- and forty-somethings who may smile as they remember something from back when they too were counted in the ranks of those whose chronological age ended in that ‘teen’, to even older readers who may be starting to see signs of a grandchild generation that is starting to blossom into reading and for whom my stories may, in turn, become something that can be treasured.
I am writing for readers. Not for genres.
My hope is that we can all, storyteller and story reader, can agree that a story is a story is a story and belongs to whoever chooses to claim it, and live happily ever after…