Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What is Young Adult/Teen Literature?

A teacher once asked me, " What is your definition of YA (Young Adult) lit. I have yet to find one all agree on." A good question I wasn't sure how to answer. And since he asked the question close to my retirement date, I didn't reply because I didn't have time to research the question before saying my "fare-thee-wells". 

This dedicated teacher wanted to use Snow Falling on Cedars in a Young Adult Literature class. I told him I had read the novel and enjoyed it very much, and while it featured young protagonists [in flashbacks], I didn't know if it was considered a YA novel - which brought us to the whole topic of defining YA/Teen Lit.

I decided today is a good day to do a little research as I have read a few books that were written for the adult market, but are titles I would like to use in an English Language Arts class.

Two online articles about this topic agree that a clear definition of what is and what is not YA literature isn't really out there. But 2014 post from the The Guardian, a British publication, and a 2013 entertainment story from The Atlantic offer some poignant ideas. 

While there are some British terms I am unfamiliar with and some vocab words I had to look up, Imogen Russel Williams of The Guardian states
the sine qua non (indispensable ingredient) of YA is an adolescent protagonist, who will probably face significant difficulties and crises, and grow and develop to some degree. Patrick Ness described it as 'finding boundaries and crossing them and figuring out when you end, who you are and what shape you are.' 
Williams also talks of a genre I had not encountered - "New Adult". This target audience "features college- rather than school-aged characters and plotlines; ostensibly the next age-category up from YA". She throws such titles as Fifty Shades of Gray into this category - YIKES - "because of its student protagonist.

Nolan Feeney, The Atlantic journalist, claims the following: 
At their core, YA books are for and about teenagers and pre-teens, usually between 12 and 18 years old, but sometimes as young as 10. ... Some authors believe the intent to write for young readers is a prerequisite of YA fiction; others don’t even realize their books will be labeled as YA until after they finish writing.
Maybe readers, writers, and literary analysts cannot agree on a definition for "Young Adult" literature, but I do agree with Williams observation that "YA means challenge – encountering diverse protagonists and situations I'll never experience myself (including being a teenager again) but which stretch me to empathise with and contemplate." And I like what Feeney says about YA authors: "Many successful authors say there’s no secret to writing for teenagers. Good writing is good writing; believable characters and compelling plots are crucial regardless of who’s picking up the book." 

With that said, I recommend that good writing, strong plots, and interesting characters be the hallmarks of books used in the classroom - not to mention a reflection of community values. Because the topics, language, and situations run the gamut in YA, Teen, Adolescent, and Adult books, teachers need to consider "village standards" when choosing titles to talk about in class. 

Three books that are not necessarily targeted to teens that I would use are The Life of Pi by Yann Partel for its "magic realism" and commentary on faith; Wishing You Well by David Baldacci for its treatment of family history even though this book is a novel; Unbroken by Laura Hilldebrand for its World War II history and treatise on heroism; The Rent Collector by local author Camron Wright for a story of poverty, literacy, and hope; and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr for its beautiful writing, intriguing point of view, and unique story line that takes place in Vichy France during the second world war

What books would you like to see on an approved literature list? Share your comments here or on the JCIRA Facebook page. 

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