Literary Quality

Defining what it is that makes quality literature is one of the most elusive and disagreed upon issues in English/language arts.  The fact is that differing tastes among readers make it difficult to pin down definitive characteristics that make a good book.  The way  this plays out across public school curriculums is that far too often young adults’ exposure to literature is limited only to the “classics,” with the purposeful exclusion of texts that might have a greater impact on them.

Before deciding what makes literature good, we must first decide on what the purpose of literature is.  If the purpose of literature were to sell as many books as possible, then defining quality literature would be quite easy–did the book sell?  This approach, however, is not the one the Printz Award Committee takes.  The committee is looking for books that “do something unique to make them high-quality literature.”  Though the qualifications for the Printz Awards are frustratingly vague, they need to be, because I believe that quality literature attempts something new.  It’s something that looks at the human condition in a fresh way that interests readers and stays with them.  Quality literature can take countless forms, so judges of an award like this must be open to surprise.  Overly rigid definitions do not make sense because literature is not cut and dry.

That being said, there is value to a book’s popularity that the Printz awards disregard.  If a book is widely-read, it is most likely widely-read for a reason.  Especially when dealing with young adult literature, I think we run the risk of taking an elitist view of young adult literature if we don’t let the young adults have a say.  If a book is popular and it speaks to a wide demographic of teens, then it is our responsibility as adults to take notice.  Otherwise, we run the risk of being no different than our colleagues who refuse to read or teach anything but the purported classics.

I enjoyed reading Rot and Ruin, and do think that it possesses characteristics of quality literature.  I usually am not a huge fan of books in the fantasy genre, but this had me engulfed in the story for the whole time.  What made it interesting to me personally was though it took place in a fanciful world, it explored very human problems and relationships.  For example, the first part of the book when Benny is looking for potential jobs is very easy for young adults to relate to.  Also, Benny and Tom’s relationship is very interesting to me. The way that Benny, at first, blames Tom for the death of their parents but as the story progresses, learns the truth about the way he’s different from most bounty hunters, shows a very human dynamic that young readers can readily relate to.   The moral crisis that he faces as he learns more about what goes on in Rot and Ruin, though the details are fantasy, is a convincing and grabbing conflict.  To me, connecting with today’s young adults is one the most important things that make quality Young Adult Literature. bookhenge

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2 responses to “Literary Quality

  1. I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly and enjoyed your critic of “good” literature. What I agree with mostly is the sense of audience being one of the most profound aspects of young adult literature. As an author of this genre, I believe that he/she must be very aware and conscious of their audience when writing, more so than others, in order for the piece to be rateable.

    In adult literature, the idea of writing for the audience allows for a bit more freedom. While young adult literature focused on the feelings of coming of age and discovery, adult literature has the entire scope of the human experience. A sense of audience is still prevalent for the author, of course, but the author’s creative freedoms seem to be not as restricted.

    In Maberry’s “Rot & Ruin,” the abstractness of the setting and events allows for young readers to relate with the sentiments first and be engaged and entertained by the happenings all at the same time. Very nicely written!

  2. Cris

    “There is a peculiarly persistent Victorian affection that there are some books that every child should know. This notion has its roots in the Renaissance; but it needs to have its branches pruned. Every child should know the world in which he lives as thoroughly as it lies in him to know it.

    This world includes traditional lore and characters, classic tales and long-enduring, if not eternal, verities. It is well to assimilate a great deal of this intellectual background. But it is more urgent to learn the present world in which he is going to live.” –Sidonie M. Greenburg

    I thought you’d appreciate this quote, Hannah. You’re right that it really isn’t a either/or but a both/an solution that teachers need to be well aware of YAL published each year that is distinguished for its literary quality and at the same time be aware of which books are entering the popular culture. I’ve heard a terrific story of how high school teachers have embraced the Twilight series and used their familiarity with it to begin to bond a bit with their classes or even to begin to talk about YA books. Stories of a marketing teacher and an English teacher come to mind (the English teacher’s SL name was “Twilight Everymore.”) While another English teacher lamented that she just couldn’t force herself to read even one book.

    The American Library Association does a great job of giving us awards and book lists that help us keep up with what’s being published and how we might use these recommendations to reach a wide diversity of students. Some, like the Teens’ Top Ten, are selected by students.

    Here’s the ALA link: http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/

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