Friday, April 17, 2009

The Book Thief: Young Adult Literature?

For the past few years, I've subscribed to The ALAN Review, a journal published by The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents. As their name suggests, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents isn't really an organization for adolescents. After all, what thirteen-year-old would want to tell their friends they belong to an "assembly"? To do so would only conjure images of stodgy old British folks sitting around in leather chairs wearing black robes and pre-colonial wigs.

"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.


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?


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?

Your thoughts?


max said...

LOVE the name of your blog!

I always appreciate finding others who are concerned about helping children become readers.

That's because I grew up as a reluctant reader. And my father was the author of over 70 books. Now I write action-adventure and mystery books especially for tween boys. My blog, Books for boys, is # 4 on Google today.

Keep up your good work!

Max Elliot Anderson

Scott W. Galer said...

Josh, have to admit I didn't read your whole post carefully so you may have already mentioned this. I'm pretty certain that The Book Thief is only marketed as young adult lit in the US market.


Anonymous said...

Josh, finding great books for my 12yr old is always a nightmare. We need more writers like Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn. Great young adult lit! Thanks for the info on the ALAN Review!

Patty said...

I honestly don't know why The Book Thief is considered a young adult novel. While it was released as an adult novel in Australia, where the author is from, for some reason the U.S. publishers slapped a YA rating on it. The only reason I can fathom is because it has a young adult protagonist...and yet, I can't think of a lot of 12-16ish year olds who would get a lot out of the story. But as to what constitutes a YA book, I don't know. I'd like to say it should be something relatable for the reader, but how many vampires or wizards and such do younger readers come in contact with? I think the underlying theme is what differentiates a YA from an adult novel, but that line gets blurred when marketing for an older YA audience. Generally speaking, I think YA books at the 12+ age level are easier to pick out than those at the other end of YA classification of 17,18, etc.. I guess I don't really have an answer for that question.

But here's another question. Why did the U.S. publishers change the book classification from an adult novel (in Australia) to a young adult? What "proof" do you think they used to make that decision?

My sidenote: I have to agree with you about the Twilight series (and this is coming from a girl). I will admit I read all the books, but with the understanding they are mind candy and hold no real literary significance.

Professor Josh said...

Scott and Patty - I think it's fascinating that the book was released as a young adult novel in the US while being released as an adult novel elsewhere.

Could the publisher's motivation be that in the US young adult books typically sell better than others? I don't know whether this is the case or not, but I think most adults are willing to read a young adult book (and are even eager to do so as young adult books are typically easier to read), but are a lot of young people eager to read adult books?

Also, as I'm getting deeper into the book, and the human suffering is being drawn out more and more, I'm questioning whether the content of this book is really young adult. Of course, many young adults can handle such sadness, but by classifying the book as young adult aren't the publishers saying they believe it's a good read for the general young adult population? Is it?

Mel said...

I believe that _The Book Thief_ should be classified as YA. Like you, when I first read it, I couldn't believe that it wasn't being marketed for adults as well. But publishers seem reluctant to cross-market. There are several YA books that would be appropriately categorized in the Adult section. In fact, the _His Dark Materials_ series by Philip Pullman is sold in the US in both the YA and Sci-Fi areas. (I should note that I believe that it rightly deserves a place in the regular Adult section as well.)

Most young adults at the lower end of the age range (10 to 13) would find this a difficult read. However, I think that this is an entirely appropriate and comprehensible book for most older teens. And this book appeals to them. The story line is involved, the perspective unique, and the prose is accessible yet powerful. So, no, to your question, this book could not be broadly applied as a good read for the young adult population, but that is the case with any book in any section.

Diane said...

Months late, but wanted to put my in my two cents worth.

Looking at this book from a Mom's perspective, I would not label it as young adult literature. Several reasons for this. Two of the main reasons are the sadness in the storyline, and the language. I don't believe young adults have the ability to really understand what is happening in this book. The sadness and historical significance is something that takes maturity to really understand. The language is also a little harsh in some places. Not exactly what I want my young adult reading. Death's perspective was very intriguing and also something I would view as difficult to understand for the typical young adult.

However with that being said, I probably would not have bought the book if it had not been labeled Young Adult. I choose young adult literature for its ease of reading, light content, and because I generally enjoy them. Looking at this book, it doesn't really fall into what I usually read, does it?

Thanks for the thoughts!

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