No—the National Book Critics Circle still doesn’t offer an award in the Young Adult category, but literature for teens was the focus of a recent panel discussion at the New School in New York City. The panel was part of the NBCC Award events, which culminated in the awards ceremony that evening.
The speakers were: Lev Grossman, book critic at Time and author of The Magicians and The Magician King; Laura Miller, cofounder of Salon.com and author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia; Ben Schrank, president and publisher of Razorbill and author of Love Is a Canoe; Lizzie Skurnick, former editor of Girls’ Life and author of books in the Sweet Valley High, Alias, and Love Stories series; and Tina Wexler, literary agent at ICM. The event, which took place on March 8, was moderated by NBCC president Eric Banks.
The speakers broached the topic by discussing the origins of YA literature as a genre and its defining characteristics. Schrank remarked that S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (from 1967) played a pivotal role in carving a niche for YA. Skurnick pointed out that The Outsiders features only peripheral female characters and is largely directed toward a teenage boy audience. Instead, she suggested that the seed of YA may have come from authors like Beverly Cleary and Lois Duncan, whose books explored the interior lives of adolescent female protagonists. She specifically sited Duncan’s When the Bough Breaks (from 1973) as an early novel that would help set the tone for future books in the YA genre.
In terms of what defines the YA category, the panelists noted that it has less to do with subject matter, and more with being written from a teen point of view. On the topic of allowable content in YA literature, they agreed that these days the boundaries are largely without limit. However, addressing claims that provocative content in YA has escalated significantly in recent years, Skurnick implied that some taboos surrounding teen sexuality might be more pronounced today than they were in the past. She referenced early chapter books for teens like Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) and Then Again Maybe I Won’t (1971), which both contained graphic depictions of teen sexuality. “Could that be published nowadays…a book that really is about what puberty is about for a 14-year-old boy?” she wondered.
Grossman commented that “a lot of sex now is converted to violence” in YA books. “The explicitness of the violence in books like The Hunger Games,” he said, “reminds me nothing so much as the explicitness of the sex in a book like Forever.” Wexler also noted that, whereas paranormal themes in YA books are often metaphorical, it is difficult to view violence in the same figurative terms—an observation that suggests perhaps there has been a sea change in YA content.
Drawing the panel’s focus to the YA audience, Miller remarked that young readers probably aren’t spending time thinking about a book’s potentially incendiary content, but instead are drawn toward particular books for a myriad of reasons. “Kids really decide what they want to read,” she said.
As, it would seem, do adults. Schrank brought up some YA qualities that might be driving crossover appeal for older audiences, saying that YA novels have a way of captivating readers with their powerful and “cinematic” storytelling. Grossman also emphasized YA’s strong, straightforward narratives that perhaps don’t rely upon stylistic conventions as much as they do on satisfying readers’ “hunger” for good stories.
In her research for writing about The Hunger Games for Salon, Miller spoke to both teen and adult fans. An especially enthusiastic 32-year-old reported that she reads almost exclusively YA, finding that books intended for adults are often “too gloomy,” a point that might come as a surprise to critics of the dark subject matter that seems a mainstay in much of YA literature today. The fan went on to tell Miller that, despite the serious themes evoked by the dystopian series, the books provide “hope” and resolution in a way that adult novels may not.
Skurnick expressed that she has come to think of many YA books as existing on a multimedia continuum that spans print to robust online promotions and author outreach. Skurnick noted her own excitement over seeing YA books transform to screen, and suggested that expanding the world of a YA novel can be deeply rewarding for readers who have grown up with the Internet and other visual media.
A question from an audience member brought up the topic of whether or not adults are drawn independently to YA or whether they arrive at the genre through their kids. While the panelists agreed that adult readers often purposely seek out YA for themselves, parents sometimes connect with YA books through reading to or with their children. “Kids are a gateway drug to YA,” joked Grossman.
The panelists mentioned several novels that nudge at the boundaries between YA and adult realm, including Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was marketed as YA literature in Europe, but categorized as an adult book in the U.S., and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Miller commented that when she wrote about Green’s novel, she did so with an eye toward a prospective adult audience (in her article, she also praises Meg Rosoff’s There Is No Dog, which she refers to as “an astringent fable”). Miller initially learned about The Fault in Our Stars through Grossman, who gave the novel particularly high praise on his blog: “I can see this book sitting next to The Catcher in the Rye. It’s that good,” he wrote. He told the audience that, when reviewing a book of such depth and far-reaching appeal, sometimes age specifications are irrelevant. “Let’s drop categories,” he suggested.