"No," our nation's teenagers would rightly say, "but thank you."
What's more, The ALAN Review includes articles with titles like these:
- "From Basketball to Barney: Teen Fatherhood, Didacticism, and the Literary in Young Adult Fiction"
- "Critiques and Controversies of Street Literature: A Formidable Literary Genre"
- "Adding a Disability Perspective When Reading Adolescent Literature: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"
As you certainly already know, vocabulary words like "genre" and "didacticism" and "critique" scream to any adolescent, "STOP READING ME NOW AND GO TEXT SOMEBODY."
But, despite its academic snobbishness (ahem), The ALAN Review does provide a valuable service to parents and teachers. Other articles have titles like, "Reaching Reluctant Readers" and "Books for Boys." Overall, I've found The ALAN Review to be a fabulous resource in helping me find books for my students and children and, mostly, myself.
The one thing, however, I've never found in The ALAN Review (or anywhere else for that matter) is a decent definition of young adult literature, which brings me to the question The Book Thief (a supposedly young adult book) has me pondering today. Here it is:
Is The Book Thief really "young adult literature" and what does that term even mean anyway?
I've been exploring this question for a long time now, and through my study of young adult literature and through various conversations I've had with a good friend who's a professor of young adult literature, I've determined that there are two dominant and largely unstated definitions of young adult literature in the literary world today. Neither of them, however, seems to be very good. In fact, they both seem to be pretty belittling to young people.
DEFINITION #1: YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE AND EASY, SIMPLE, OR TRASHY BOOKS
The first definition I see of young adult literature looks something like this:
"Any literature we adults would like to read but don't necessarily want associated with us because, after all, grown-ups are grown-ups and a lot of this literature is just too short, too simple, or too trashy."
I think this definition is why books like Twilight end up getting the young adult label slapped on them despite the fact that their readership is made up primarily of adult women. A lot of adults are uncomfortable reading cheap, sloppily-written, lit-candy. But if they can call their lit-candy "young adult," they never really have to acknowledge that the book is part of their own world. They can see the book as a part of some other universe, one they explore, but never inhabit.
Practically speaking, the young adult label lets insecure adults say things like, "I'm only reading this to see if it would be appropriate for little Jennifer" or "I'm reading this to stay in touch with young people." To these folks, I'd say this:
Please. We see through you. So do book publishers, but they're quite happy slapping a young adult label on something if it'll make you more comfortable buying it.
TANGENT: I know by calling Twilight "cheap, sloppily-written lit-candy" I've invited the scorn of the masses. Bring it on. I'm ready for it, and I can take it.
The result of this definition is that a lot of the shorter or easier or trashier literature on the market ends up being sold as young adult literature, not because young adults enjoy short, easy trash any more than adults, but because adults (the people who buy books) want to read short, easy trash without having to claim it.
I should clarify here that I don't believe by any stretch that The Book Thief is trashy. It is, however, written in simple, accessible prose. It has pictures. It's full of breaks and white space. So, when deciding whether this book was an adult book or a young adult book, what impact might these details have had?
DEFINITION #2: YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE AND CHARACTER
The second definition I see of young adult literature looks something like this:
"Literature in which a typically adolescent main character experiences a coming of age."
This definition seems flawed to me for two reasons. First, it's far too broad. Arguably, every story is a coming of age story. Characters grow and evolve. Without this growth, literature becomes stagnant, and stagnant stories are typically bad stories.
Second, because this definition is so broad, it also ignores content. The assumption that books about young adults are for young adults is silly.
After all, Romeo and Juliet is a story about asolescents, but I'd argue that it's not even remotely for adolescents. Romeo and Juliet isn't even a love story (sorry, Taylor Swift). Romeo and Juliet is a story about bad parenting, and Shakespeare has far more to teach parents in Romeo and Juliet, I'd argue, than he has to teach adolescents. Yet, we thrust Romeo and Juliet onto young people and tell them it's a love story simply because the main characters are young.
Which all brings me back to my original questions:
Why is The Book Thief being called a young adult novel? What is young adult literature? When is a book more appropriate for young people, and when is it more appropriate for adults?