A Target Audience is not a Genre

Gossip GirlIt’s nice to see teen literature get some good press these days. Most articles are about how books for teens are making us all go to hell in a hand basket. So, why does a positive article have to get things so very, very wrong?

On one hand, I really enjoyed this article from RADAR magazine. As I’ve discussed before, I’m a big fan of anything that stands up for my right to read Gossip Girl.

But… (there’s always a but, right?) There is so much more to teen literature than the trashy fun stuff! There is SERIOUS LITERATURE out there written just for teens, and I’m talking about a lot more than Catcher in the Rye.

I think one of the things that irks me most about this article is that it even discusses some of this literature (such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has significant Printz buzz) but, in the context of the article, makes it all seem like some guilty-pleasure-CW-trash-fest…

If all teen literature were like Gossip Girl, then yes, we would be going to hell in a hand basket faster than we could say “Bergdorf’s,” but, it’s not.

M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol 1: the Pox Party tells the story of human experimentation in during the American Revolution–written completely in eighteenth century English. Voyeuristic subway reading, it is not.book thief

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a wonderful tale of survival and courage during World War II, narrated by Death. I cried so hard at the ending, I woke my husband out of a deep sleep.

Mal Peet’s Tamar is another World War II story about the Dutch resistance and the tension of sheer boredom, as well as the scars war still leaves in modern times.

Geert Spillebeen’s Kipling’s Choice tells of the final moments of Jack Kipling as he lies dying in WWI.

Linzi Glass’s The Year the Gypsies Came is a moving coming-of-age tale set in apartheid South Africa–told from the privileged white point-of-view.

Sold by Patricia McCormick tells the story, in a series of poems, of a young Nepalese girl sold into child prostitution in India.

And then there is the fluff–the outrageously funny Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, teenage cheerleading witch (the magical kind) blues in Salem Witch Tryouts, sigh-inducing love stories in Enthusiasm and Boy Meets Boy.

And yes, there is the “trash.”

Teen literature has just as many genres and quality levels as adult literature. Let’s enjoy all of it, and not get confused that it’s all the same.

And, if you don’t know where to start, check out RADAR’s quiz… (the book being read on the front page is the fantastic Goose Girl by Shannon Hale–an amazing retelling of the Grimm fairy tale.)


14 Responses to A Target Audience is not a Genre

  1. Dana says:

    I agree with you, of course, Jennie. I think this is why I’ve always had sort of mixed feelings about the designation of books as “YA literature,” especially when they all get shelved together like a genre. I’m far more in favor of genre categorization than intended age group. Good writing clearly transcends target age boundaries. Maybe someday there will be enough YA books to start genre grouping them and this will seem less bad?

  2. Jennie says:

    I’m not against age-range grouping– there’s a reason the children’s section is separate from the adult section. Do you have the same icky feeling towards “children’s literature” that you do towards “YA literature”? I know that my library does group YA sci fi/fantasy with the adult sci fi/fantasy, I think because the line there is so blurred. We also have a few genres pulled out within the YA section.

    Obviously, there is a wide body of children’s literature and there is a long history there. Many children’s sections in bookstores and libraries further divide children’s literature into more specific age groups (at least shelving the picture books separately from the chapter books!) and then there is also some genre grouping within the different age sections.

    I could see YA having more genre grouping within the YA section though.

    Another trend I’m a big fan of is cross-listing books. There are several books in my library that have copies in multiple sections. (Diary of Anne Frank and the Lord of th Rings appears in children’s, YA, and adult) This happens most with adult titles that will appeal to teen audiences (Kite Runner, Joy Luck Club, and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, off the the of my head) but is also starting to happen with YA books that will appeal to adult audiences (Book Thief)…

    What interests me most is when characters age across multiple titles and parts of series are shelved in one location and the other part in another section. (Harry Potter starts in children’s and ends in YA, Adrian Mole and Jessica Darling both start in YA and end in adult)

    They’re interesting things to ponder…

  3. Dana says:

    I don’t have a problem with separating children’s books from the adult section, perhaps because it seems like a more obvious divide. My local library still puts YA in the children’s half of the building, though, which bothers me. I mean, sure, it’s just right inside the divide, sort of like it’s trying to break free and run to the adult side, but still. And it is all just “alpha by author” all on one shelf.

    I suppose shelving the YA in the adult area doesn’t really solve the problem, though, if it still all gets put on one shelf. It’s interesting to consider what happens to those series that age, as you pointed out, and I think that’s why I see a lot of crossover between adult and YA lit. Cross-listing is definitely a good idea, particularly for adults, because I don’t know that there are a lot of them that are going to realize that maybe they should go look on the YA shelf and find the good stuff that’s all mixed together with the… not so good stuff. It has always bothered me that some people who read Terry Pratchett may not realize he even wrote the Tiffany Aching books, which do have a direct tie to one of his other main “adult” story arcs, just because the Tiffany ones always end up on another shelf.

    I don’t feel like I’m being very clear. I guess it’s just that I read a lot of stuff that crosses back and forth across the YA/adult line all the time, and have since I was in middle school. I feel like a lot of readers won’t know what they’re missing because a good book ends up with a YA label and gets shelved somewhere they’d never think to look.

  4. Jennie says:

    It’s actually interesting to have this conversation from this prospective–adults missing out. Usually people argue for YA not having it’s own section (or its own label at all) because it keeps teens in the YA section instead of having them branch out to adult materials.

    I feel that the issues of teens having their own physical space within collections, and those of us in charge recognizing that they are not children and not adults are more important than the issues of adults missing out on good reads.

    I also think we’ll see a lot of teen sections move out of children’s sections as time allows. This really is relatively new field and growing field of literature. Previously, many libraries had the few title that were specifically for teens with the children’s because, well, it wasn’t for adults… and they weren’t sure where else to put it.

  5. Dana says:

    Well, the flip side of my argument above is that, just as the adults don’t know that their favorite authors have written something YA, the YA readers don’t necessarily know to go look in the adult section for other books that are essentially in the same series. I’ll be glad to see the YA section move more into the adult areas of the library, in any case. I mean, the graphic novels and comic books are in the adult section…

  6. kidsilkhaze says:

    Are all the graphic novels and comic books in the adult section? My library has them with their respective section (so, Babymouse is with the kids books, Plain Janes with the teens, and Fables with the adults).

    Where I would love to see more cross-generational reading, I think interfiling the collections creates bigger problems than it solves. Teens need their own space in the library, both for their books and their bodies. When the teen section is just part of the adult section, then they’re caught in this middle ground of not-kids, not-adults and just not-fitting in, which makes them come to the library less, so then it’s a moot point. When teens have their own section, it gives a better sense of belonging, which means more teens at the library, which means more teens checking out books and reading.

    I am a firm believer in teen-special space, both for the teens and their books.

    What we need is a way to have adults aware of teen books and teens aware of adult books without the teens losing their space.

  7. TheGnat says:

    We have a way, it’s called the library catalog. People with two brain cells to rub together walk over to a computer and go “I wonder what else this author has written” and punch in his/her name. They can also, of course, look inside the books since most books these days have a “other books by this author” section.

    Meanwhile, the Iowa City library has a YA section on the opposite side of the library from the children’s, and the comics are upstairs with all the non-fiction books. o.O;

  8. Dana says:

    Hmm, you’re right Jennie, I doubt they’ve put all the comic books in the adult section. Oh, well, overgeneralization. And yes, cross-shelving everything would be such a pain. Is it already starting to cause problems at your library for the books it is done for?

    I do agree about teens needing their own space in the library. I wasn’t really suggesting that we should do away with the YA shelves entirely and just put those books in with the adults, just advocating that the YA shelves not be in the children’s area, as they are at my library. It seems every library is handling this in their own way.

    Now I’m sort of curious about the issues of library culture this is bringing up. I’m not a person who actually stays in my local library very much. I get my books, I take them home, I read them, I return them, I get more. It’s just more comfortable for me to read there. I didn’t even really hang around in Burling either, unless I was assigned a reading that couldn’t be taken out. So how do teens tend to use the library?

  9. Jennie says:

    TheGnat– I think the problem is less about books by the same author and more about titles or authors that might be missed entirely. That, and if all the books by the author are shelved together, except for 2 YA titles, people assume that the library doesn’t have other books by that author…

    Dana–there is a trend to use the library as community space, and teens definetely do, especially after school. There’s a difference between interfiling (doing away with YA shelves all together) and cross-listing. Cross-listing isn’t a problem because there are 3 dedicated “adult” copies of a title and 3 dedicated “ya” copies of a title. But to cross-list a book, it has to be a title where the library can justify having multiple copies (there’s only so much shelf space).

    I do agree though that YA needs to be out of the children’s department. It’s so uncool to have to go to the kiddie side of the library. In my branch, when you’re walking down the hall towards the collection, the children’s room is off to the left, and then there’s YA on the right, with the info desk right in front of you. You have to wade through teen-town to get to the adult stuff (unless you go down the other hallway, which puts you in the middle of grown-up land).

    Where to put the YA section is a major topic of conversation amongst librarians these days, and almost every time a library gets a renovation or a new building, a dedicated teen space is usually on the top of the list of needs.

    One of the reasons I liked this article, despite its flaws, is that is painted teen lit as

  10. Jennie says:

    Crap. Hit the enter button too soon,

    Anyway, even though the article was flawed, it painted teen lit as something that adults should look into, because it’s really good and enjoyable.

    I think the problem of teens not reading adult lit is actually a nonissue, but adults missing out on great titles?

    YA just needs some better PR, or some good librarians who can really handsell a book.

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