Promise and Peril

“A YA book is one that offers art and ideas in a fashion that communicates especially well to teenagers.  A book a teenager should read, is any book” (Aronson).

What is young adult literature?  Despite its consideration as its own genre, its defining characteristics remain relatively obscure.  Typically, according to Stephen Roxburgh, young adult novels are characterized by (1) a character-driven plot, (2) adolescent characters, and (3) a first person narrator.  Roxburgh argues, though, that there is no essential difference between an adult novel and a young adult novel.  He writes, “There are distinctions to be made between them, but they are not different art forms.”  A young adult novel is still a novel, and follows all the same conventions as its adult counterpart.  Interestingly, as he points out, children and young adult books are the only genres that are defined by their audiences; all other genres are defined only by their conventions.  Essentially, I believe that YA novels  are simply novels.  The fact that they are designed to communicate well with young adults makes them a specific subset, but they should be approached first as novels.

That said, the role of YA novels is a complicated one.  Like Aronson, I seem to have an visceral belief that the books kids read will shape their behavior.  Especially in dealing with young kids, I am wary to expose them to violence or defiance in books or media, mostly out of fear that they will replicate that behavior.  Perhaps I think this because in my limited experience, they have.  This belief extends, I think, to teen literature.  Nevertheless, I would consider myself to be a part of the “great literature” camp, who place a greater emphasis on the love of reading than on the text’s message.  If we consider YA novels to be first novels, and second books for teens, then I think YA books should be more than a fancy package for a lesson about morality.  I wouldn’t want to read that as an adult–why should teens?

I was particularly interested in the question of why YA novels tend to be dark and full of angst.  To be honest, that is the exact reason that I never got into young adult literature as a teenager.  My perception, though uninformed, was that all YA books were about angry teens who hated their parents and tried to kill themselves.  That was not me, so I didn’t think I could ever relate to a YA novel.  Aronson’s explanation for this disparity between what young adults want to read and what is being written for them was interesting.  He writes, “authors are mining their own adolescence, teenagers are living there.”  I agree that for some reason adults, looking back on their teen years, remember being more miserable than they actually felt at the time.  I realize now that not all young adult books are grim and depressing, but I hope that YA books continue to align better with the reading that teens actually want to do.

The role of YA literature in the classroom, I believe, should reflect its purpose: to engage young readers.  It should be used amongst other genres to provide students with material with which they can interact in a meaningful way.  I don’t think that it should be used exclusively, as it is our responsibility as ELA educators to provide our students with all kinds of literacies, but I do think it has a place in the classroom.  Unfortunately, it has been disregarded in the traditional curriculum.  Bookhenge.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Promise and Peril

  1. That’s interesting that your first perception of YA novels was that they were full of angry teenagers. I think my first perception was that they were about teens who crushed on classmates and next door neighbors and who didn’t understand their parents. Maybe that’s why I did get into YA when I was younger. This brings up an interesting point and, I think, further evidence for why a wider range of YAL should be part of the classroom.

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