Adventures in Reading

Bookends: Young Adult Fiction

I’m not sure of the etymological root of the idea of “young adult” and entirely oblivious to such attachment to “young adult fiction/literature/books.” In the libraries and bookstores of my youth, which wasn’t so long ago, it didn’t exist. Any such materials were found in the children’s department curiously enough along with many “classic” works of literature. [1] It would be nice to think that “young adult” has an altruistic interpretation and some lone librarian or bookstore clerk thought: “My, it can be tricky finding things to read between the ages of thirteen to eighteen. Let’s give them a hand!” But I’ve got a cynical streak and think it has more to do with marketing and advertising and a young adult population with credit cards.

But what exactly is young adult literature? Obviously, books targeted at young adults or teenagers. But what does that mean? In my store, young adult is described as being largely at the same reading level of most children’s books but are often more morally ambiguous and increasingly dealing with sex or sexuality and drugs and how these pertain to young adulthood.

As I did not grow up in a time with a “young adult section,” I made the leap that most readers also had to make: children’s books into adult reading material. I moved from the Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps into Terry Pratchett, Melissa Banks, and the novel The Archivist.

My last two books were The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti and Mexican High by Liza Monroy. Both are recently published books written featuring adolescent protagonists. However, both books are also located within adult fiction and after reading them I am curious why they are not listed as young adult. The most obvious answers I’ve found are that perhaps Tinti and Monroy don’t consider themselves young adult authors or perhaps don’t want to be considered young adult writers. Considering the recent young adult market with Meyer and Paolini, it’s not really such bad company.

The Good Thief in particular struck me as an odd novel to place in adult fiction. Ren a one-armed pre-teen/tween, is taken from an orphanage to live the life of a thief. Excepting perhaps one sentence [2] there is nothing questionable and though a Catholic netting exists over the book, I don’t find it anything so complex that the average young adult reader couldn’t plow through it. On the ARC copy, Tinti’s book is compared to Robert Louis Stevenson (twice) and the “children’s literature” of Twain and Dickens. All works more or less inhabiting the world of children. [3]

Liza Monroy’s Mexican High is a story of Mila’s senior year of high school after being uprooted to Mexico City. Mila deals with the usual teenage novel problems, boyfriends and homework, but in the crazy world of Mexico City. Though sex is never detailed it is happening, but I can’t imagine worse than any of the Clique or Gossip Girls novels. Monroy provides a nice exploration of Mexican history and culture with a spattering of Spanish words and phrases. While a book I greatly enjoyed after concluding it I left with a “young adult feel.”

The lines between children’s literature, young adult literature, and adult literature are increasingly graying and the only area that truly stands out in stark contrast is the price tag: expect new, adult hardcovers to have an additional $10 slapped on to it.

[1] Seriously, every time I pass Finnegan’s Wake in the children’s area of the library I lose an ounce of faith in the institution.

[2] A reference to post-sex smells and perhaps it’s simply my street gutter mind making something of it.

[3] Perhaps not originally so, but certainly existing firmly in the world of the children’s tradition now.