Why YA?

As Princeton continues to swelter through this summer’s seemingly interminable heat, it’s sometimes too hot to do any real work. So, like any good southerner, I did what we do best during the heat, which is get a cold beverage (iced coffee is a good substitute if no decent sweet tea can be found) and shoot the breeze with my fellow librarians. Of course, being librarians, our talk quickly turned to books and the always knotty question of what makes a good young adult (YA) book.

The book in question was the recently released “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman. Without spoiling too much, Gaiman’s fairy tale plot tells the story of a 7-year-old boy who befriends a mysterious neighbor, brings something back from a strange journey, and then struggles to return it before it destroys his family and the world.

One of the many things that set this book apart from similar fantasies on the juvenile fiction shelves is its use of a framing device. The story, about a 7-year-old protagonist, is told from his perspective as a middle-aged adult. This adult perspective subtly creeps into the narrative, in a way that might go unnoticed by a younger reader. For example, an assignation witnessed by the 7-year-old merely confuses him (and, likely too, many young readers). But, with his adult awareness, the narrator, without spelling the event out in any more detail, is able to suffuse his recounting with an after-the-fact sense of melancholy.

So – is this book for children? Youth service librarians grapple with this question daily when we are asked to give “appropriate” recommendations. The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is certainly less scary than Gaiman’s “Coraline.” In its vocabulary and plot structure, it is easier to read than classics like “Treasure Island.” It is more svelte than the slimmest entry in the “Harry Potter” series. And yet, to many of my colleagues, its tone and themes of sadness, innocence lost, and a child’s trust betrayed marked it as an adult book, and not appropriate for the children’s or teen section. While I understand this position, I’d like to advocate for what “adult-ish” books can offer younger and older readers alike.

Despite the efforts of the most protective parents, children are exposed to situations, conversations and events that are beyond their ken, many of which must seem baffling, inconsequential, boring, and maybe even a bit scary. A vital part of growing-up is struggling to make sense of this torrent of stimuli. Children do not live in a special, “just for children” world, nor should their books aways reflect such a simple worldview. Reading books “above their level” might seem as pointless for children as when they dress up in their parents’ clothes, but both cases reflect an eagerness on their part to start learning about and identifying with situations outside of their own experience – even if they won’t be able to fully relate for years to come. For me, this last point is key: Children need not understand everything that they are exposed to, nor do texts have to yield their full meaning on a first read. Much like the tryst the narrator in “Ocean” witnessed scenes and images can register as important to young readers, making an impression that sticks with them, even if they are not fully understood until much later in their life. A book doesn’t have to be fully digested to be a worthwhile: Indeed, great literature for children and young adults often takes as a central theme this idea that the very process of learning to slowly peel back layer after layer of meaning is more important than ever arriving at any grand truths.

Great books for young adults embrace this complexity. They might leave the young reader perplexed at times, but what is being a child if not being caught in a swirl of confusion most of the time, and yet still seeing flashes of beauty, wonder, and understanding in this mix.

Don’t worry: I am not advocating turning off “Sesame Street” and plopping children in front of reruns of “The Wire.” Instead, I have two other recommendations. These books may have been written for adults, but to me, they are ideal YA books, capturing the heady swirl of excitement and confusion of adolescents thrust into adult worlds and situations:

  • The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker. In this wonderful first novel, a 13-year old girl faces global cataclysm, and finds it in many ways less troubling than navigating the truly tragic terrain of young girlhood. It is not the end of the world as she knows it since, as a teen, she is just now discovering what indeed the world is.
  • The Magicians” by Lev Grossman. This literary sequel of sorts to “Harry Potter” imagines a more realistic view of what a magic school for college students might look like. And like any normal teen, not even the most miraculous magic seems able to address the character’s most pressing questions, “Is this really all there is to life? How can I learn magic but not learn to be happy?”
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