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YA Inferior?

A recent Publisher's Weekly article discusses some of the big children's titles that were being buzzed about at Mid-June's Winter Institute. We were excited to see YA Highway friend Veronica Roth noted for DIVERGENT, the first book in her new series. Yay Veronica!

Later in the article, however, we were disappointed with a comment made by a New England bookseller and co-chair of the New England Children's Booksellers' Association. From the article:
"The other, Judy Blundell’s Strings Attached (Scholastic), is so well-written, says Hermans, that it could be shelved with adult titles."

One would think that someone so involved with selling books would be aware enough of the variety and depth of children's writing that a poorly worded comment like that would never make it into an influential publication. Perhaps the bookseller could expound upon that comment and tell readers which genre of adult fiction it's well-written enough to be shelved with. Has it earned a place with paperback genre books or could it be put within throwing distance of award-winners? After all, if young adult is all shelved together, that must mean the writing is all the same i.e. substandard. Is all adult writing, therefore, superior to children's?

It's a common misconception that children's book writers already have to overcome; that writing for children is easier, inferior and less valued than writing for adults. I think about Sherman Alexie, who has successfully written for the adult and young adult market and how his writing isn't different across the genres, only his subject matter is. How do we begin to value children's books as at least equal to adult titles if the influential sellers of children's books persist with outmoded notions and opinions? You tell us, does this comment get your back up as much as it did ours? Do you read more children's (young adult) books than adult and why? If you read both, do you see a marked difference in the quality of writing across the board?
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. I love YA novels for several reasons. One being the writing style. Many YA authors manage to successfully pull off the mindset, language, and thought process of someone much younger. I love being able to read a YA novel and go "I've thought that!" or "I agree with this!". I think it must be very challenging for YA authors to be able to leave their comfort zone and enter into one completely different.

    What draws me most the YA however, is how kind YA authors are. Every email, tweet, or letter I've sent letting various authors know how much I've loved their books has been met with incredibly kind and sweet replies. Not to mention the fact that many YA authors hold contests and donate to libraries, stand up for each other when books are censored, and take care of each other when one of their own is sick (like LK Madigan).

    I started reading YA as a teenager because I felt like the authors really understood me and felt for me. Now I'm 22 and still reading YA because I know that those authors care not only about their readers but each other.

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  3. Ooh, how very frustrating! Teenage fiction is so exciting and a whole world of its own! If it was inferior, it wouldn't be out there! And why would *anyone* write it if it wasn't worth it? Almost all of my favourite books are YA, and they tell wonderful, powerful stories I return to time and time again. There is a freedom and hope in YA fiction you don't find so much in adult fiction.

    Good YA authors never ever talk down to their audience, and that's what I love about it. People who don't understand that need to reconnect with the whole YA universe.

  4. Sadly, that's how it is viewed by many. My friends always asking me why do I spend time reading "kids'" books or why would I want to write one... A few times they got me to read excerpts from my work, they compliment me by saying "You are so good, you could be writing "real" books".
    Khhm... Oh, well. Let's hope that in some distant future things will change, because the next generation of adults will grow up reading YA fiction.

  5. It's funny how a comment that was supposed to be a compliment succeeds in undermining and entire genre. Let's face it: there is a large portion of the population, either in the business or out of it, that places YA in a little box labeled INFERIOR.

    I can't count how many times I've heard stories about YA writers being asked the dreaded question, "So when are you going to write a REAL book?" Which basically implies that YA is just that starter book one writes before they can even attempt an adult novel.

    I just think it's amazing that despite how far YA has come as a genre, no matter how many respected authors write it, or how well it sells - this idea of it being inherently lesser than adult books continues to propagate all over the place.

    Quite honestly, I think the quality of YA books being released and the popularity of YA novels in general, speaks for itself.

  6. This bothers me. I read a lot of YA, partly because although I'm not a teenager anymore, being in my early 20s, I'm still a 'young' adult. I've only been legally an adult for 5 years... That's pretty young. But, I also read it because it's often more readable, but gets the same point across. There are times when I think YA is vastly superior to 'adult' fiction.

    I'm sorry, but books like Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, Wintergirls, and Twisted, Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary, Walter Dean Meyer's Monster etc etc etc are vastly superior writing to the Stephanie Plum novels of the world. But, those are adult. And there is no doubt that they are entertaining, but I gave up on the series long before the end because the characters show absolutely no growth. They make the same mistakes (and jokes) book after book.

    YA books can teach us the same lessons about life as adult books, but they don't try to hide their message behind piles of literary devices. I've read adult books w/ similar themes to YA, and think... Wow. That other book did it so much better, because it wasn't pretending to be something it's not.

    Yes, there is a lot of fluff to YA, but there is even more to the adult industry. Did you know that romance books make billions a year, and basically fund publishing in general? I'm not saying they are good or bad reads, but I don't think I've ever talked to an avid romance reader who said they were anything containing serious literary merit.

    It also bothers me that the adult section has genres, but YA itself is a genre. That makes it sound like YA can only be one thing, but that isn't true. YA has every genre that adult books do, but they all seem to get lumped together. Sigh...

    Sorry for being long winded, but I think it's small minded to think that all adult is good, and full of literary merit, and all YA is not, and deserves to be stuck in a corner for the 'little peoples'.

    Maybe it isn't comparable to Dickens, or Ulysses, but hey. At least people actually READ them, as opposed to skimming because it's intolerable and marking it as read anyway.

  7. @Ashley: You make such excellent points, especially how YA fiction is lumped together no matter what the genre. No wonder I always take forever in the bookshop - I have to dig and dig to find the genres I love.

    And you're so right about character development too. You really do watch characters grow, and that's what I love - you go on the journey with them.

  8. It's not entirely true that all YA is shelved together--both Target and Borders have a separate YA Vampire section. Or is that one of the things that keep people from taking YA seriously?

  9. Ah, yes, the "Dark Romance" section. Not my cup of tea :)

  10. @ Angelica- Bwahahaha! I would have to agree on that one. YA- It's all about the vamps... Bleh.

    @Miss Cole- Thank you! I'm glad you agree! And, I agree w/ your comments that it's nice that YA authors rarely talk down to their audience. I never read YA thinking that the author can't believe he/she has to share his/her great intellect with the rest of the world.

  11. Bleh... that's annoying. I wonder if the people who talk down on YA, have ever tried reading YA?

  12. There is a spectrum of quality levels within all genres and sub-genres, but you have literary types who assume anyone who writes genre is a hack. You have others who assume any male-dominated genre is superior to any woman-dominated genre, and you have adult readers who assume anything written for a child is inferior...Prejudices abound and are almost as varied as readers themselves.

    But YA is growing, earning readers and respect.

    Kindergarten teachers used to be considered inferior, but I once had one tell me (I was an Early Childhood Special Ed teacher at the time) that the meeting after school was for all the "real" teachers. So, Kindergarten teachers have earned respect and Early Childhood teachers are still earning it. It takes time, but things do change.

  13. I have to jump in and high five Jennifer Hoffline on the early childhood ed analogy. Preschool teachers FTW.

  14. Oh, yes. I cringe along with your cringe. I am always unpleasantly surprised when I hear something like this. My experience as a librarian and as a reader of all kinds of fiction, from new releases in middle-grade to classic Brit Lit, has led me to believe that there is really no difference between good writing and bad writing, one genre or another. Bleh, bad comment!

  15. Oh man, that REALLY gets my back up! (I keep ranting then deleting things here, & have finally decided to just keep my mouth shut for fear I'll regret what I say. So, just GRRR!)

  16. LOL, Shari. That's kind of how I was writing this post. Write a sarcastic line, delete the sarcastic line. Force self to be analytical, not ranty. Rinse, repeat. That's why it's such a short post. XD

    Amazing comments in here! Thanks for the discussion. I'm nodding, nodding, nodding . . .

  17. That's such an odd comment to make when so many older people I know find YA so much more interesting than adult books. As far as the quality of writing goes... sometimes when I really like an author I can't get enough of their books so I read their adult books. The writing is the same as it is in their YA books. The quality isn't better or worse depending on the audience...

  18. I agree with Gracie about adults reading YA. That was the #1 trend in YA for 2010 according to Scholastic. If YA had no merit, adults and teens wouldn't be reading it at the rate they are. The variety, depth, and overall quality of YA is amazing. The field was not at all like this when I was a teen, and I'm not ancient! :.) I envy the choices my students have. Plus, if YA is inferior why are so many "adult" authors writing YA novels? Some mentioned Sherman Alexie. There's also Dean Koontz, James Patterson, John Grisham, Julia Alvarez, Isabel Allende, and the list goes on and on...I won't go on and on, though, because I know I'm preaching to the choir :.)

  19. That makes me really sad. And I don't think it's just YA. Adult romance gets the same bad rep. I think a lot of people think pretty much anything not adult literary fiction is substandard.

    It's such a shame because, in my opinion, some of the best writing out there (never mind the most fun storytelling) is YA.

  20. Great post, Kristin, (and great writing)!

    I read your post this afternoon and was dying to comment but lost my internet due to the winter storms that blew through.

    But I wanted to say that your post both fired me up and got me thinking. It remained on my mind all day.

    I ended up posting some of my thoughts on my own blog, and gave you/your post and YA Highway a shout out. : )

    It makes no sense to me to separate writing into categories of "real" or more/less worthy than other types of writing.

    Writing is hard work, period. Good writing is good writing, period. Good writers put their hearts into their works, and that's what resonates, that's what stands out.

  21. I was just talking about this very subject four hours ago with a friend of mine, who is a middle school English teacher. Her friend is a tutor and was telling her how he couldn't help with the modern books because they were "all crap."

    He then told her he hadn't read any of them.

    I think a lot of people have a preexisting prejudice toward YA because the category wasn't all that prolific until (relatively) recently.

    Usually, when people say these sorts of things to me, I tell them to come back and talk to me after they've read M.T. Anderson, Laurie Halse Anderson, and a few others (depending on the person's interests).

    I'm almost 30 and I read about 80% YA. My roommate is the same way.

  22. Ignorance is frustrating.
    I can think of many books off the top of my head that have children as MC, but wouldn't deign to be considered YA. I think that's silly.
    I think the best solution is for YA authors to keep writing well.

  23. The only thing I read in adult fic is 'chic lit'. So all the YA I read is generally more awesome than that.

    I don't really care what ppl think about children's writing. People are silly and often wrong.

  24. You hear so many reiterations of this: literary fiction> genre fiction, adult fiction> YA. Good writing is good writing, and even the definition of what constitutes good writing is subjective. If you like plot-driven stories then literary fiction focused on character growth could be 'slow' and 'boring'. If you like your prose akin to poetry then thrillers might leave you cold.

    Lumping an entire category -- technically YA isn't even a genre unto itself since paranormal romance exists alongside dystopian -- into 'easy' and 'hard' is not useful for anyone.

    To summarise: book racism much? Kind of expect more from someone supposedly on the side of YA.
    - Sophia

  25. Sadly, I've heard remarks like that many times. I'm in a master's program specializing in writing for children and young adults and have heard people comment that I'm not indulging in any "real" writing unless I write for adults. I read mostly YA and children's books. It's interesting that some of the most anticipated books of the year are YA or children's book series. I think the standards for YA fiction are very high.

  26. That's an interesting point you bring up, LinWash. Most of the "top" MFA programs don't even recognize children's literature as a viable study option so don't offer it or supply mentors studied in writing for children/YA. It's an interesting reflection on the valuation of different types of books to see higher education relegating children's/YA lit to education majors or sometimes ignoring it completely (though I recognize that some schools do offer a course or two on children's lit).

    Thanks, everyone, for your amazing comments. Keep fighting the good fight. *fistbumps all around* ;)

  27. Some of the BEST books ever written were intendent for younger audiences. It makes me bonkers when people think that only adult literature can be "good" or "literature". I've noticed a lot of conversations happening about this topic though - and most of it arguing that there is a lot of really quality YA out there - I'm grateful that the stereotype is being fought.

  28. That's ridiculous. I find YA to be much easier to write than children books. I tried once for a school project,and failed. I did well on the project, but WOW was it BAD. At least, by publication standards.

    When writing children books, you have to be able to get a lot across with simple simple simple language. I have so much respect for those authors!

  29. I'm SO tired of YA being shoved aside and belittled. Some of the best writers in history are YA authors. What's the problem? Seriously I was going through this list of the "best" young adult authors and it's impressive:

    Sets up strong arguments that YA books and writers are among the elite.


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Item Reviewed: YA Inferior? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook