Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Why YA?

Like a lot of bookish kids, I didn't read much young adult literature growing up. I skipped right from Madeleine L'Engle and C. S. Lewis to Dorothy L. Sayers and Georgette Heyer. Though most of my grad school colleagues, unlike me, jumped straight to the Brontes or Dumas or Tolstoy (well, I did try to read War and Peace after seeing it on Masterpiece Theatre, but I skipped all the "war"), I did want to stop reading "books for kids" from a fairly early age. And there weren't all that many YA books then, so I found "grown-up books" instead. After A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye, my tenth grade English class moved on to the too-little-known Good Times, Bad Times (by James Kirkwood, better known for A Chorus Line and PS, Your Cat is Dead), but by then we'd pretty well exhausted the boys-in-boarding-school genre that my English teacher thought appropriate for girls in boarding school, and we moved on to "real literature" like Macbeth and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. While I might have sought out S.E. Hinton's books or Go Ask Alice (wait, there's a DVD? With William Shatner?) on my own, the genre of YA literature really didn't come into its own until the late 1980s, by which time I was married and starting my own family.

Which may explain why I find the genre so compelling now. While I'm skeptical of the bibliotherapeutic approach to reading, which suggests that for every problem there's a book, and every book should help solve a problem, still I do find that young adulthood is its own developmental stage, and literature that recognizes that good readers may still have a lot of growing to do does have an important place. (I've never been able to read John Fowles' The Magus again, after trying it way too early.)

So that must be why I spent the weekend in YA land. I went to the library with Nick on Friday and came back with four books: Gail Gauthier's Saving the Planet & Other Stuff, Mitali Perkins' Monsoon Summer, Meg Rosoff's Just in Case, and Christopher Paul Curtis's Bucking the Sarge. I'm halfway through the Curtis, having finished the others. These are books I wish I'd had to read when I was a teenager. Monsoon Summer tells a great story of being bicultural (and falling in love, and learning to dance!), Saving the Planet reminded me of my first job (out of college), which was with a way-less-cool magazine than the protagonist, Michael's, and Just in Case is heart-breakingly realistic in its depiction of anxiety and fear (though, yes, the novel itself is more allied with magic realism than any other genre). Add in Bucking the Sarge and you have a great range of teen experience: kids who have more responsibility than they know what to do with, who want to make a difference but don't always know how, who love their families even when their families aren't quite working.

Not every teenager wants to read about teenagers, of course. I might have thought myself too "grown up" for these books--I was desperate to grow up and grow up soon. (No Peter Pan syndrome for me, thankyouverymuch.) But maybe if books like this had been available for me I would have realized that other kids felt the same way. Maybe not--again, I'm not so sure about bibliotherapy. What I'm sure about is that these are terrific writers, writing terrific books: great characters, snappy dialogue, plots that make sense. It was a fun reading weekend.

(And stay tuned for news later this week on another YA book I read recently--I'll be blogging about James Patterson's Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports on Tuesday.) [um, sorry, Wednesday.]

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