Amy Pattee, moderator, me, and Jo Knowles. Barry Lyga was also on the panel, “Overcoming Adversity in YA fiction.”
I’m going to post the little speech I got to give iat the Boston Books Festival–on the topic–why write YA? why read YA?
I have a friend who likes to give me a hard time about YA.
Last Spring, my friend sent an opinion piece from the NYTimes, The piece was by Joel Stein and it was titled, “Adults should read adult books”—and this is a little bit of what he said:
“The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.”
Joel, Joel, Joel.
When people ask about my book and I tell them it’s YA, sometimes they say—in the more or less dismissive way some people think about YA—“Like vampires?”
No. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with vampires. But I try to explain about contemporary realistic YA novels. That they exist. My book does have a murder, a suicide, and grand theft of an iconic national treasure. BUT it’s really a quiet story—Okay, it’s complicated, so often I wind up explaining more succinctly: it’s really a story about love.
I know what’s coming next. The eye roll. The knowing nod.
“Oh, proms and shopping then?”
I want to clarify, I really do. It’s important to me as a reader and writer of YA fiction to defend the books as well as the characters in the books, all the other writers of YA fiction, and of course, every teen in the world. Many of the people who left comments on the NY TIMES blog felt the same way. Some of them wanted to do violence. We all wanted to say is YA fiction is not trivial.
An adult YA fan talking about why she reads YA
YA fiction can be as transformative and artful and thoughtful as any great adult fiction. I keep thinking of ways to explain all this to Joel Stein. But, I also have to admit the adversity in these stories is different from that in adult books. It’s true.
When I think about what it means to be a teen—to be between things, on the verge of adulthood—with some of the responsibilities, but none of the benefits—being on the verge—when I think of what teens have to overcome in fiction as well as in their real lives—defeating personal demons, understanding who they are, imagining who they could be—all the while being vulnerable to things adults are not–—the first thing I think of is WHAT GREAT MATERIAL FOR STORIES! What I want to ask is why would you want to cut yourself—or anybody–off from those stories, Joel Stein?
Here is a world where the characters, like many of their readers, feel keenly how essential love is in their lives—arguably, you young people in the audience understand this better than adults—That love is as important as air or food. I’m going to say that again, that I believe teens, understand a basic truth about love—that it’s as important as air or food—better than adults do.
Their problems—about what they have to do to feel worthy of love, what kinds of bargains they strike to keep the love of others, what they’ll do to help the people they love, these are distinct and central to the genre.
There are other distinct conflicts for teens in fiction—and in real life.
YA characters balance their own quest for love with their need for the adults in their lives.
Because of this, often they are asked to live by codes they may not have yet chosen for themselves.
Because of this, often they struggle to understand how Love—the best and most necessary thing in the world—could also be a burden.
Because of this, they often have to keep deep, heavy secrets.
Since they are still close enough to childhood, they can still love unconditionally—and they do. They have best friends who share with them this unconditional love. You don’t often find this element in adult stories.
I’m a teacher and I work with young adults every day, and I can say this with some certainty: They love and hurt and heal. . . bigger. There’s nothing trivial about that.
The next time somebody asks me why I write YA, or for that matter why I, an adult, read YA, I’m not going to tell them all this. Instead what I’m going to say is the best stories don’t omit any readers. A whole genre doesn’t, that’s for sure–The best stories speak to everybody.
So. Here’s a bit of dialogue I found—It’s one character speaking to another. This could come from any story——any story.
“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”
This could be from YA—perhaps a young person in love with someone for the first time, or a best friend talking to another best friend. Or it could be from “adult fiction”–a mother talking to her child, or two very old folks at the end of life. It could be in any kind of story—adult or YA, but it’s not from either of those. It’s Christopher Robin talking to Pooh. Just a little story about a boy and his toy bear.
- On the Panel: Amy Pattee, moderator, Jo Knowles, and Barry Lyga.