Young Adult literature: why all the kookiness?

The more people discover how good YA literature is--or, more likely, how lucrative a tiny portion of it is--the more you get really baffling articles like the ones that have appeared lately in the Wall Street Journal and Slate. I blogged here about the WSJ one. The Slate one, though milder in tone, is possibly even worse.

Titled "Writing Young Adult Fiction: It's Better Than Going to the Prom," the article starts off with two nutty claims:

  1. ..."There's no shame in Y.A. these days. Since 1999, the market has grown by 25 percent, and all the big authors are doing it: Patterson, Grisham, Bushnell."
  2. Writing Y.A. as an adult is a chance to rewrite being a teenager.

OK. For starters, there has never been any "shame" in writing YA or any other category of children's literature.

Why would anyone be ashamed to create art for young people? Is it not cool enough? Please. Do we think children aren't smart enough or sophisticated enough for thoughtful stuff? What is supposed to make them smart and sophisticated, if not the books they read?

What's more, it's irrelevant that James Patterson, John Grisham and Candace Bushnell have joined the fray. They get lots of attention because of their celebrity-author status. No doubt many kids enjoy the books. But in terms of literary merit, there are many, many lesser-known writers who have produced significantly better books.

Certain writers in the field, I'd pit against anyone writing for adults. That the books are written for teens and younger kids does nothing to diminish the artistic achievement they represent.

What's more, YA books do far more than Silly Claim No. 2: that they give old people a chance to "rewrite" being a teenager. Sure, you can do that, if you--as the authors of the Slate piece--feel bummed that your high school experience wasn't an episode of "The Gilmore Girls." But books do vastly more.

They can ask big questions: about love, about what it means to be alive, about the nature of friendship, about the shocking ease with which we can be stripped of our humanity. Consider Eve Bunting's Terrible Things, a holocaust allegory. It's elegant, spare, and heartbreaking--and it's meant for kids who don't yet know how to read.

I won't even talk about the inanity of the assertion that YA books are written in six months. It's no doubt true for their authors, but that's like defining "breakfast" as one soft-boiled egg and a glass of grapefruit juice because that's what you happen to eat yourself.

Articles like these say a lot about our culture and the value we have for children. The shame in all of this is that we treat the books for the young as some sort of second-class thing. When The New York Times covers the National Book Awards, the lede inevitably says, "The National Book Award went to [insert adult book here]." Only much later in the story will you find out which book for young readers won the honor. Same goes for poetry, nowadays a second-class category because there is no money in it (unless you're Ellen Hopkins).

At any rate, it's true that children are smaller and younger than adults. But they are no less important. They deserve great art. They need it, too. And it says something wonderful about the people who continue to make great books for kids, even when it gets less respect in the often-idiotic adult world. Forget no shame in it. There's a lot of pride in it. Carry on, people. Carry on.