Monday, May 10, 2010

I Missed the YA Train

Yup, this post is about the HOTTEST THING IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW OMG YA LITERATURE. And also about how I'm totally oblivious about it. Yes! Shocking, I know.

This is strange, in a way. I'm an eclectic and omnivoracious reader. I read a bit of everything. There are three basic exceptions.

1) Romance (though I once read a Harlequin novel out of curiosity! Luckily it takes only 45 minutes!)

2) Westerns (though I like western movies and always think I should read some westerns and plan on it and never do. I have read some literary novels that are sort of westerns, like Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, but that's really more Cormac McCarthyish than westernish).

3) YA

Yes, I am mostly unread in YA. How did this turn of events come about? I posit three possibly overlapping theories.

1) I am really pretty lame.

2) I simply missed the train. Or maybe I didn't even realize there was a train and merely stole a pickup truck and let out a YEEHAW! and tore off down the street. I think this is pretty likely. I started reading seriously in grade three when my Mom (happy Mother's Day!) forced me to read The Hobbit. LOTR followed, of course. I read a few Hardy Boys. Then Watership Down and the Duncton Wood series (and those mole books are certainly adult, what with the sex, death, and genocides of the faith). And I've read the Prydain Chronicles and the Harry Potter books, both of which sort of start out as middle grade and evolve into YA (in my completely uninformed opinion). The Prydain Chronicles I read when young (Harry Potter as an adult, perhaps my lone adult step back into the YA realm), but after that I simply read adult fantasy, sci-fi, crime, and then classics and literary novels, and then history, science, memoirs, etc. So from about grade five onward I was reading adult books.

I'm not sure I even comprehended the fact that there was a section such as YA. It was beyond the pale (or at least my interest). My parents trusted that I could handle the older stuff. But this leaves me with a sort of experiential gap.

3) My third theory has more to do with my adult self. I could go back and read YA now... and yet I'm not really drawn to, no matter how great some books are supposed to be. Why? My theory has to do with the nature of the stories, the idea that they're often (so I randomly guess!) of the bildungsroman sort. Young people and young people's issues. But I'm not a young person. I'm in my early thirties, and have kids of my own. These kids are young, though, and so I can't really engage these YA issues through them yet (in a decade, perhaps?). They make me curious, naturally enough, about stuff to do with kids. Kids literature and point of view, stories about kids. But not really the teen/YA sort of thing. And for myself, I'm just not engaged in these issues. They're long past for me, nor do I feel I have any real unresolved issues stemming from that period. If I were consciously or subconsciously working over such issues, I'm guessing I might be drawn back into such stories. So, for me, I just feel I'm not engaged right now in the sort of character dynamics that drive the YA novels.

Yet obviously I don't know what I'm talking about! Because YA is hot hot hot right now (Thank you, Harry Twilight and the Philosopher's Eclipse)! And a fair bit of this is driven by adult readers. Sparkly Loving Moms! Dumbledorf Dreaming Dads!

So as a writer and bookseller I'm curious. What draws you to YA literature? As a reader? As a writer? There is great writing there, obviously, as there is in all types of literature. Is that it? You'll look for a good story wherever? Or is there something more, something about the nature of YA itself that draws you in? And what the hell is YA anyway? I read and liked Catcher in the Rye, and yet I have the feeling that if this were publisned now it would not be in the literature section, but rather in the YA section. How has YA changed, and why has it changed? Curious to see what you all think! Lay out my lameness, if you will.


Matthew Rush said...

Bryan, I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about your kids. I have a 14 year old so she is of course the one that got me to read YA. Some of it is awesome (HP) some if it is great for its audience but was not written for grown men (Twilight).

The reason I wrote a YA novel is well ... a little harder to nail down (see what I did there?). It does sort of cover a coming of age thing that happened in my own life but then it jumps into the realm of paranormal/fantasy that obviously did not ever happen. The MC in my novel is 15 at the beginning so I suppose that makes it YA, but then again much of the material is not in line with the normal MS/HS social ladder, going steady kind of material that makes up most YA.

There is something to be said though for writing about that time in life. The whole coming of age and obtaining knowledge of self thing is a powerful time in a person's life and I think for that reason these kind of stories endure, fitting in with almost any archetype.

Sorry for the rambling comment but being at work I'm a little distracted.

Marsha Sigman said...

I love YA and I am far past that age. I also love Stephen King so I am not exclusive.

However, YA is not just about clothes, giggling adolescence, and who made out with whom. It is grappling with adult issues at a time when you still believed anything was possible. When you still had your whole life ahead of you and hadn't made decisions yet that would shape your life for better or worse.

Read 'Wake' by Lisa McMann or 'The Body Finder' by Kimberly Derting. You won't believe what you have been missing.

karen m said...

I'm an eclectic reader - if it has an engaging premise, is written halfways well, and isn't filled with potty language and happenings, I'll probably read it. I'm not all that much into romance but everything else is good. YA and fantasy, however, didn't really come across my book shelf in recent decades.
Last year, however, I decided I needed to know more of what's selling in the explosive fantasy realm. Wasn't planning to write a YA fantasy but it ended up that way. In my research, I read an old Swedish fairy tale that screamed "Tell me!" and so I did...incorporating history, which is my abiding love, with a modern setting. It's been all sorts of fun.
As for a description of what is YA, as near as I can tell it involves protagonists from about age 14 - 18 in situations that would have meaning to kids from about ages 9 to 90.

Jane Steen said...

I occasionally read a YA novel if it gets recommended somewhere, but I really prefer books aimed at adults. I know that YA is popular because the novels tell stories in a straightforward fashion - many readers are just looking to be entertained - but if I want to relax I'll read mystery novels, which are similar in their forward-driven stories and short chapters. And then sometimes I need to read a book that makes my brain WORK.

This trend in YA/fantasy does worry me a bit - are novels going to have to get simpler and simpler to be published? I can't help feeling we're losing something, possibly our brain cells.

BTW I used to read my grandmother's romance novels when I was a kid, but trying to tackle them these days is like sipping coffee that's been diluted to 10% - not a pleasant experience. And I NEVER read Westerns.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

You know I have opinions about this, right?

YA didn't really exist when I was a young adult, and like you I just went on to the adult books. However, now I read a lot of MG, some YA, and write both. The main reason I enjoy writing (and reading) those genres is the coming-of-age themes that run throughout.

In MG (really upper MG, which is more like a young YA without the sex and teen angst), you are also talking about first experiences, and therein lies the material for great storytelling. I love this genre because I share it with my kids and see the wonder in their eyes when they discover new things about the world through stories.

In YA, much of it is romance (which I enjoy only in YA, strangely enough), but it is compelling because so much of what we understand about the world is forged in those years of heartbreak, and yearning, and striving to find your place in the world. It provides great fodder for a writer, and meaty subjects for a reader.

I think there are a lot of grown women that enjoy YA, but probably less men (again the romance is heavy in YA, even with the stories that are not explicitly romance - we're talking TEENS after all!). I think this is actually why YA is hot - plus, yanno, teens actually read, all clamoring to the contrary aside. Twilight and HP did not get to be worldwide phenomena just by teens reading. Then again teens DO have a lot of time and disposable income.

Westerfeld and Dashner are great YA reads (and Westerfeld's Leviathan is really almost MG). And of course Hunger Games (YA).

You might be surprised. :)

Taryn Tyler said...

My favorite YA writer was always Lloyd Alexander. Though I suppose a lot of his work is actually for younger than YA audience as well. I read most of them in my late teens. There is something about the honesty in addressing an audience that isn't jaded by cynicism yet that can be refreshing. Not that I don't like a lot of darker, more complicated stuff with difficult issues too but sometimes I think writing with a less skeptical audience in mind lets an author actually dig deeper.

Vicki said...

I love reading YA, but, adversely, I haven't found much calling to write it. The themes that seem to run throughout - the romance that Susan addressed, the coming-of-age that Matthew brought up - weren't things that I experienced at that time, so I don't find myself prepared to write about them.

I also tend to find kids annoying. Go figure, right? I think I'd have too much fun killing off my YA characters to actually reach a ending to their conflict. I guess, if I'm going to have a mature character, let's just go ahead and make them mature, not simply acting mature.

Reesha said...

I'm drawn to YA Lit because it usually seems well put together and more willing to go into imaginative themes.

I've been told that when writing children's books, every single word has to be justified in being in them. Which is great.
But they obviously don't speak to me at the depth they do to a two-year old.

So with YA, you get the tight wording combined with a little more depth. Though I totally get annoyed when they focus entirely on "teen issues" (aka, angst).

Anonymous said...

I don't read a lot of YA. I think I may have missed the train, too. I'm a huge HP fan but that's about it. I'll, of course, give it a chance if any YA book cross my desk but I don't seek them out. In my experience, the writing just hasn't fit with my particular preference. I am quite happy that I'm not alone in this! I was feeling like a bad person for a while there.

Donna Hole said...

So many good questions, Sir, about the YA genre. And possibly, reading in general. You took the prospective post right out of my own blog sentiment.

I am not a fan of YA. Yes, I've read a few books: Harry Potter series, Eragon series, Maximum Ride. Maybe a couple others. I haven't read Stephanie Myers latest vampire craze for one of the very reasons you state: its full of teens and their world/issues.

That's not to say I don't enjoy a book that features young people - even children - as the main character. I read John Grisham's A PAINTED HOUSE, and loved it, though it was from a 12 yo POV.

So when you say you think you missed the YA train, I don't think that is such a great loss. Its like saying you haven't read every new childrens book out there, though you were once a child, and may have children now.

If you are writing in that genre, then I think you need to read everything you can. Adults write successful YA/MG, not children. But if that is not where your writing passion lies, then I see no reason to revisit that world except to see what your own teens are drawn to. Or to incorporate some of the concepts into your own writing to give the characters/setting authentic depth.

I'm not a fan of YA, or Harlequin Romance, or some aspects of adventure/ sci-fi; but when I'm writing something that uses those elements, I think it only natural to learn from the published experts how to write those characters or scenes effectively.

Its important to be aware of writing trends, and what the market is currently pimping; but like all fashion, the tide moves on, and who knows when your literary novel or epic fantasy might change the course of publishing.

Stick with your chosen genre Bryan. When it sells, it will be all the more satisfying for not compromising your story concepts for a quick buck.


Mira said...

I love YA. I read it because it's sweet and fun. Frequently it's very funny, too.

I love fantasy, and adult fantasy tends to be very dark with multiple episodes of torture. I am not looking for that in my fantasy, so, I go toward YA fantasy. I've rarely, if ever, found torture in YA, but I still find it fun, intelligent, and interesting.

I do find it interesting that alot of YA writers say they did not intend for their books to be YA. Their books just got placed there. I think there is a trend to place things that are sweet and lighter in the YA section, with the exception of Romance and Chick Lit, maybe. These divisions are rather arbitrary, after all.

So in terms of numbers, Bryan, I'm voting for numnber 4 - it's just not your thing. You write and read adult fiction and that's great. Nothing wrong with that.

In terms of YA's popularity, I would guess that the economy has something to do with that - just like comedies are more popular right now - people want lighter works. That will most likely change as the economy improves.

Mira said...

Oh, I do want to say something about the arrested development thing.

First, I strongly doubt that I like YA because my development was arrested as a teen. My development was arrested way before that. On a good day, I'm about four. On a bad day, I step outside, look around the world, and try to crawl right back into the womb.

But in seriousness, being stuck at developmental stages happens to lots and lots of folks - probably the majority of people - and it's way too common for anyone to be embarrassed about it. Emotional maturity and chronolgical age are very different things, and frequently a matter of luck of upbringing.

Two long posts - sorry. Guess I had lots to say. :)

Ink said...

Some great stuff here.

Mira - Yes, I agree with that, and I wasn't even thinking of going so far as to say arrested development, though that does happen. I think even the carry over of certain issues might do it. Like, if someone had some really difficult relationships at that point (whether parental or boy/girlfriend), and they realized these conflicts were still affecting them... well, I think exploring them in fiction would probably be very natural. I think we use stories as a way to reinterpret our own lives, at least at times.

Donna - If (and hopefully when) I do sell, I'm gonna hold an MC Hammer dance party. Hammer time! Breakdancing is also allowed. I'll bring big cardboard pieces for everybody to spin on.

E. Elle - If you missed the train, too, you can come for a ride in the pickup truck. :)

Reesha - I like that. I like the idea of simplicity as clarity. I can still read Lloyd Alexander. It's not complex, but it's deep and moving.

Vicki - Yes, I think I'm like you in that the character dynammics that I'm drawn to as a writer are mature dynamics. Less about who am I or who likes me and more about how am I going to survive in the world?

Taryn - I still love the Prydain Chronicles. Simple, and yet deeply felt. Taran's transformation into a man in the last couple books... beautifully wrought. I reread it recently, and looked back at the chapters and said... how did he do so much, and do it so simply, in only five pages? Good writing.

Susan - I think I must not have had enough heartbreak and yearning in my teen years. :) Maybe because I already knew I wanted to be a writer? Well, actually, I wanted to be an athlete and a writer, and having the first taken from me wasn't entirely easy. But my teen years were fairly smooth sailing. A lot of long hair and plaid. :)

Jane - I must admit, Agatha Christie is like my Brain Candy. They're like brain revival snacks.

Karen - Swedish fairy tale? Okay, now I'm intrigued.

Marsha - Yeah, I think if I try to break into YA I'm going to look for the least angsty stuff, the least this is my life at shitty highschool sort of stuff. I've heard a lot of good things about The Book Thief, and the subject matter is more in my line.

Matt - I'm thinking when my kids are that age... I'm probably gonna get sucked in. Right now I'm in kid books and reading chapter books to my five year old. The good ones are fun, the bad ones make me want to rewrite them. Or just right something better. Grrrr.

Mira said...

Bryan - I agree.

And I'm making up a list for you. Fair warning. :)

Pretty soon, you'll be a YA convert. You'll talk about the days before, the dark, dark, days when you hadn't seen the bright shining sunshine of YA goodness.

It's a small step from there to romance. And chick lit. Maybe even...........westerns. Oh, what fun you'll have! :)

Anonymous said...

I adore coming of age stories, whether they're titled as adult or YA. I definitely got hooked on YA when I was traveling, and a friend who was getting her PhD in English recommended some titles (confessing that YA was her secret pleasure). This brought me back into the fold. One book I'd highly recommend is the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Hilarious. Heart-breaking. Sad.

Girl with One Eye said...

I love YA but not the "here are teen issues check this out" types. Those usually bore me but I love paranormal YA,especially those with a dystopian theme. I see you have that same love since it is Dystopian Month here on your blog. I'd like to suggest exploring "The Maze Runner" by James Dashner and "Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins YA dystopian novels. Some YA to wet your feet without diving in the whole pool.