Yesterday my (almost 13 year old) son, who has become quite the avid reader, picked up my current book and asked what it was about. I immediately responded “Doesn’t matter. It’s not a kids’ book and you’re not going to read it.”My reaction visibly startled him. We both frequent the “teen” and “adult” sections of the library equally. As often as not, I pass on to him the books I’ve just finished – and vice versa. While I am aware of what he’s reading and have on the rare occasion vetoed a choice, I don’t know that I’ve ever shut down an inquiry quite so forcefully. In truth, I reacted the way I did because the book made ME uncomfortable in spots and certainly addressed issues I’m not quite ready for my child to broach. And that realization got me thinking. How DO we define young adult literature?
Obviously there are books/series that are written, marketed and published with a young adult audience in mind. But many of those end up popular with the adult crowd: Harry Potter, Twilight. On the other hand, there are books originally written with an adult audience in mind that are now commonly considered young adult reading: Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn. (It does seem though that modern day literature tends to cross over from young adult to adult rather than the opposite.)
I thought maybe writing from a young adult’s perspective or having a young adult protagonist might be a fair criteria but I can’t even support that idea. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Ian McEwan’s Atonement are both written from the perspective of a young adult but are both considered adult novels.
My son and I just finished a series that I thoroughly enjoyed but would categorize as young adult. On the other hand, I also enjoyed and finished another book (different from the one mentioned initially) but would never let my teen near it. In many ways the two are similar. They’re both fantasy novels containing fey creatures. Both have conflict and injuries and death. Both address relationships and love and sex. But the writing in Series A handled it all in a realistic manner that I felt was still appropriate for my 13 year old boy. Series B was much more graphic.
So is graphic description an indicator of young adult literature? I don’t think that’s a fair criterion just as I don’t agree that language or subject matter is fair criteria. I say this for one primary reason: what I consider appropriate might – most likely – differs from what you would consider appropriate. That being said, I’d love to hear from you guys that work (or have worked) in a book store or library or publishing house. I’d love to hear from you guys that have young adult readers in your life. How do YOU classify literature as young adult?