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Young adult lit grows up fast

Young adult fiction is going through a growth spurt. Find out how it is changing.

By Marian Wilde

Parents of middle school children who are lagging behind in the gardens of Narnia and Ramona the Pest will be surprised to learn how wide and rich the world of young adult fiction has become, and how fast it has changed.

Young adult fiction (or YA, as it's frequently called) is not the teen literature of yore. Now we have acclaimed adult authors, such as Sherman Alexie and Nick Hornby, writing for the YA audience. Conversely, we have books written for teens crossing over to the adult market. The Book Thief by Mark Zusak is one example. But, we also have books with darker and racier content.

A great flowering of talent and titles

Young adult fiction is a fairly recent phenomenon. It wasn't until the 19th century, when the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were translated and beautifully illustrated books became more widely available, that publishers began to think of children's books as a market niche. This trend was codified in the United States in 1900, with the creation of the children's section of the American Library Association.

Children's literature continued to develop through the first half of the 20th century, with Mary Poppins and the Chronicles of Narnia being two major publication events.

However, there were still no books written specifically for teens. Readers of all ages embraced books like Swiss Family Robinson, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women, but these classics were written primarily for adults.

In the 1960s and '70s, we see the beginnings of young adult literature. In response to baby boomers entering their teen years, and spurred on by the burgeoning music and fashion industries, publishers brought out novels specifically for adolescents, such as The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and Forever by Judy Blume.

If the '60s and '70s were the classical age of YA, we're now in the midst of its renaissance, due again to the sheer number of teens out there — the children of baby boomers and a huge second wave of YA consumers. The Association of American Publishers reports that from 2002 to 2005, hard-cover books for young people accounted for the largest increase of books marketed to a general audience.

In fact, there has been such a remarkable increase in high quality YA fiction that many new awards have been created to acknowledge the authors. The two most prestigious awards are the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, created in 1996, and the Michael L. Printz Award, given by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and first awarded in 2000.

Says Barbara Feinberg, author of Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, A Memoir: "One of the discoveries I made when writing my book was that there really is a whole new world of young adult literature out there."

A dark streak grows

YA typically features a tween or teen protagonist and deals with topics favored by this age range: fantasy, adventure and coming-of-age stories. Recently, more graphic sex and violence has crept into books aimed at the younger YA age ranges, causing concern and consternation among parents.

It's important to point out that it's not unusual for books marketed to 12- to 18-years-olds to exhibit edgy qualities, the genre pioneer, The Outsiders — which is about boys joining gangs — being a prime example. "Authors realize that teens are exploring the edges of experience, and young adult books explore reality to the extreme," says Jennifer Collins, Teen Services Coordinator for the San Francisco Public Library.

Although the issues explored in YA literature are basically the same today as they were in the '60s and '70s, the descriptions are now more detailed and graphic. This has troubled parents in a number of communities, and books have been pulled off library shelves as a result of their protests.

"Within the explosion of young adult literature there have been some books that explore sexuality more graphically than in the past. In the past five years more books push the limit to explore themes of at-risk teens and teens on the edge," Collins says.

One parent who has criticized this trend is Barbara Feinberg, whose 2004 book Welcome to the Lizard Motel, is a memoir about her inquiry into young adult literature. She wrote it because her seventh-grade son was unhappy with his school reading assignments. "The books that were being assigned were very topical and dark, with topics such as maternal suicide, alcoholism, family dysfunction and abandonment," she says. "I would never want to censor things — I think kids should read what they want — but it seemed there was a preponderance of these kinds of things in young adult literature, and it was all kind of contrived."

The novel The Catcher in the Rye set the tone for YA literature. With its portrayal of adolescent angst and sex, The Catcher in the Rye became one of the most controversial and banned books of the 20th century. Now, however, it is frequently required reading in high schools.

The Catcher in the Rye, although it was not written for teens, is considered a benchmark by many YA authors. The main character, Holden Caulfield, narrates his story from a mental institution. Profanity, academic failure and prostitution are part of Holden's experience.

"The Catcher in the Rye is beautiful and subtle," Feinberg says. "It was really the first book told from the point of view of a teenager in a disaffected voice, talking about his inner turmoil. Huckleberry Finn was written from the point of view of a teenager, but it wasn't about his inner life so much. I think there has been a tremendous change since The Catcher in the Rye, which is a work of art. Now, a lot of young adult books have a pared down quality. They feel more like TV. It's all about the issue."

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

08/26/2011:
"I have a lot to say about this article because I am a 15 year old bookworm. I would like to start with the old saying, "Dont Judge a Book by it's Cover." Yes covers are becoming racier, but that is more from the fact that it holds shock and/or intrigue to todays teens. Although I will admit that I have read YA books with sex scences, only 13 of the 107 books I have read this year mentioned sex, and 11 of them said 'they had sex' then skipped to the next day. Yes that is a higher number than is wanted but if you look at all the TV show teenagers watch they do the same thing. Along with sex violence has crept up into YA books, but does that mean that all teen books with violence shouldnt be read? If it does that mean books like The Hunger Games shouldnt be read because of the violence and death involved throughout the series? One of the freshmen teachers at my Christian school doesn't think so, infact she made it assigned reading. Although I disagree with some things in this a! rticle there is one thing I do agree with. When I was in 7th grade one of my friends gave me the first 3 books in the Gossip Girl series, and I must say this article is correct it is a "bitchy girl book." Along with the fact the characters don't really have any redeeming qualities, the books have drugs, sex, and, well, bitchy-ness. "
03/4/2010:
"I just wanted to add another absolutely wonderful teen review website to the list of good places to check for what books are about. It's all teen books and the reviews are all written by teen readers of those books. The site is called Flamingnet.com."
08/24/2009:
" Ms. Wilde is right on the money in her summary of Young Adult offerings. While I feel strongly that reading engaging writers is a key resource in the development of empathy (the ability to see situations from another's POINT OF VIEW)I can also echo her concerns about the darker and racier content (i.e. the Twilight series). But I see no darker and racier trend in books for tweens and teens than I do in clothing, magazines, tv, movies, etc. On the contrary, I believe the creativity spawned by the use of young people's imaginations, and the critical thinking and taste fostered and developed by the reading habit, will equip the young adult to navigate the sometimes dark and racy world more safely. "
07/3/2008:
"Thank you for your information!! I have been looking for this type of info. since my son read at this level way ahead of time. He's fifteen now reading at adult level but we can still use the help!"
12/26/2007:
"My first posting was not published--so much for free speech and the lack of censorship. In moral training, especially regarding sex, parents have primacy. Some commenters complain 'How dare you restrict my child from reading any book they want!' (with the implication that those who oppose them are facists). However, what gives you the right to 'make available' books which abrogate my moral authority as a parent? Of course all stories are imbued with moral messages, but they should not delve into sexual topics at the elementary school level, especially themes promoting sexual deviancy. And, even at higher grade levels parents of children in the local school should still have the strongest influence over what is appropriate."
12/4/2007:
" Parents must be active in their child's daily lives and they must be the censors, because we cannot rely on public education to provide a moral background for our children. I don't believe in book banning or censorship, because that's MY job as the mother of a teenaged girl. However, in my particular situation, I endorsed the banning of the 'Sisterhood' books in my daughter's school because she attends Catholic school. I'm paying a large sum of money to ensure moral teaching as well as the normal curriculum, so I feel that a Catholic school is obligated to censor what they put on their library shelves. My personal opinion of this series and others like it is very low. The 'Sisterhood' books, which I have read, have no redeeming qualities to offer our young women. To put it bluntly, it's smut, and very badly written. I suggest that parents bring back the classics. My daughter is currently reading Sherlock Holmes stories and she loves it. Thanks for the article and the links! . It's a great help!"
11/26/2007:
"Great article - very helpful!"
11/26/2007:
"I've reviewed some comments below regarding removing 'inappropriate' books from school shelves. Bottom line up front - Schools aren't removing them because they are 'inappropriate'. Schools are removing them because parents complain and they don't want conflict. Period. I am against censorship. My problem is that I can't actually define in words what is or is not appropriate. But, I know it when I see it. The key is to be active and know what is going on in your kids life. Thanks!"
11/26/2007:
"It's parents that think everything under the sun is appropriate for all ages that are causing these 'signs of the times'. An eleven year old child should not be reading something like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, why was it in a library available to a 5th or 6th grader? Of course it didn't belong there in a school library. Public libraries are different, parents can have some control over what their children borrow, (if the parents take the time to bother to check, that is) but a school library is different, your child can borrow anything, age appropriate or not, and read it entirely at school and you the parent have no idea that the child read it. Schools have a responsibility towards the children and parents, moral judgments should be in the parents' control, not the school. Sex, drugs, 'edgy topics' should be available at the public library, but not the school's library. To comment on the user who said she learned great lessons from 'edgy' books growing up, should read both her books of her generation and the ones available now and say they are great for learning not to engage in risky behavior. What was 'edgy' when we were growing up is tame compared to today's standards. I think I learned and emulated every risky thing I did as a youth from inappropriate books. "
11/26/2007:
"This SCARES me. Is there not any moral codes anymore? Many children read at a higher level at a younger age. Our 3rd grade boy, age 9, reads at a 7th grade 6 month student according to his IBTS scores. He had already read the entire Harry Potter series in 2nd grade. What is a Christian parent to do? He is a very good athlete, but most sports stories are predictable without much of a plot. We have a kindergarten daughter & I am worried WHAT she will read as she gets older! I read FOREVER as an middle schooler, all of us girls had to 'hide it' from our mothers & that was in 1977! Someone please write something that is ok for younger age but at a more difficult reading level!"
11/26/2007:
"Thank you for this article; I found it very helpful. I have an 8th grader and a 12th grader. I have been very surprised at the books the public schools have required them to read. While I can monitor what they read at home, the required reading is out of my control. Keep up the good work."
11/21/2007:
"Thank you for this article & websites to visit. Everyone is asking why are our kids turning out the way they are? Well, the 'teen' shows on TV are smutty and now alot of the teen reading is too. What's a kid to do? Parents should be the ones discussing 'coming of age' issues with their children, so they have a realistic view of what growning up is like. My guess is, a lot of these books don't really emphasis any morals but focus more on fantasy. Thankfully, my 14yr old daughter is not interested in those books. Hooray to the family that reads together! Hooray for the mom who stood up and got the 'Sisters...' book off the shelves. I'm not saying that the book itself is bad but it had no place being where it was at. I'll have to check my daughters school library and see what turns up!"
11/21/2007:
"Thanks so much for upholding a little decency for the sake of healthy kids. Keep up the great encouragement!"
11/21/2007:
"It really angers me that some parents get to decide what material is appropriate for other people's children to read! This is the United States of America not Iran or China! I agree that book banning is unconstitutional, and that school should not have caved in to parental pressure. Now those children don't even go to that school any more but, other children don't get the opportunity to read the books this parent found inappropriate. This is outrageous! I agree with the writer who said to read with you children and if you find a certain book/author inappropriate for your child, don't allow him/her to read it, but it's not fair to force this tyranny on the entire school."
11/21/2007:
"Two comments from me: 1) I'm appalled by the commenter who decided that 'no girl under 16' should read 'Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants' and got it banned from the school library. If this mother finds a book offensive, she certainly should not let her own daughter read it. That's good parenting. But what gives her the right to make that decision for OTHER parents by banning the book??? Every parent has the right to decide what's right for THEIR children. 2) I think 'edgy' topics in YA literature can be useful if done in a non-graphic way and if there is - as Feinberg says in the article - a 'moral center.' I remember when I was a teen, I read a book called 'Steffy Can't Come Out to Play.' It was about a starry-eyed teen who ran away to New York thinking she'd become an actress (because she starred in her school play), but who got targeted by a pimp and forced into prostitution. It was NOT graphic at all (no actual sex scenes), and it was more about her fear and the horror of the lifestyle and wanting to go home. A cop did end up helping her and she did get home, obviously changed by the experience. For me as a teen, reading a book about this topic was a 'safe' way to learn about some of the dangers out there, as well as it being a very compelling book. I also read other 'cautionary' books as a teen - 'Go Ask Alice,' about drug abuse, was a really popular one at my school, and it very much scared me off ever trying drugs! Obviously these topics would not be right for everyone, and it's up to parents to decide. But I think teens are curious, and a well-written book that explores issues they're wondering about can help them navigate these confusing years."
11/21/2007:
"Read with your kids and read some of what they are reading to start a dialog with them that they find relevant. My daughters are smart, savvy and careful. Sex is a part of the world they live in and I would rather them read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and talk about choices the characters made and how those choices affected their lives. They understand how things work and have the character to continue at their own pace. I have not had a moment of real trouble out of either of them. When you take sex off the table, all the information they receive will be from peers and you cut off the most important source of all: MOM. The Stephenie Meyer books: Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse are about vampires and werewolves, but they are contemporaries of the main human female character. The main character graduates high school a virgin and the characters are compelling copies of Mr. Darcy, Heathcliffe and Romeo all packed in one eternally 17 year old package. I lik! e the classics and if girls read a Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters, because they read about the book in a contmeporary book...way to go! I have loaned this series to other mom's who end up saying, 'Three books and they are still not sleeping together?' Good literature is a jumping off place to examine our lives. Read with your kids and explain the world we all have to live in."
11/21/2007:
"Intellectual Freedom... Freedom of Speech... Freedom of Religion... If a book is in a library it is NOT being pushed on anyone. It's in the library. If you don't want your kid to read certain material, that's fine. Let the librarian know. But, please do not take away my/my child's right to read that title. This being America, a former Democracy, we all have different beliefs. Mine may be similar or different from yours. It scares me that one person can push hard enough to get a book removed from the rest of the population. As a parent and a teacher, I want my son to be free to choose what he reads. If he reads something I don't agree with, we talk about it. It's a great way to bond. In addition, he doesn't have to hide anything from me. It's out in the open. I do give him limits, but not in the titles he chooses from the school library. I teach at a middle school and the conversations I overhear and the notes I confiscate from 12 year olds are a lot more graphic than folks want to know. It's reality. If we didn't have realistic, authentic literature available, many of these kids wouldn't read at all. And, I believe, a lot of topics, like alcoholism, anorexia, molestation-would still be in the closet-dirty secrets to be kept and not dealt with. Dirty secrets that keep happening because it's too dirty or offensive to talk about. People in the 50s loved Elvis. Their parents thought he was the devil. Go figure. I am so grateful to YA authors who have the courage to take the heat and risk the loss so that my kid can have experiences through literature so that he may not have to have the experience in reality. Thank God these authors still have the right to publish. Thank God for some school districts who are willing to stand up to ONE parent and protect the intellectual freedom of their students. Amen."
11/20/2007:
"Last Year, my 11 year old daughter was reading the 'Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants' about 4 teens sharing a pair of pants by an author that has the surname Brashares (marketing at work). I randomly opened the book and realized that no girl under 16 should be allowed to read this smut. It was a school library book and when I brought it to the schools attention, I was laughed at. I went higher in management and eventually got the result I was searching for. It was removed from the shelf. Every child should read, and fiction is a great escape and wonderful substitute for television. However sex and violence should not be pushed upon our children by anybody - especially the teachers. Here are 2 books I bought for my daughter to read this year: The Pigman by Paul Zindel (who touches on romance without being vulgar) and The Silver Sword (aka Escape from Warsaw) a novel of fiction with a background in truth of young refugees during WW2 by Ian Serrailier). Everyone is talking about the sign of the times - It is like this because NOBODY SPEAKS UP! Everyone just allows it to happen - not on my watch. My child no longer attends the school I mention above, but I know that there is at least one book that I helped get off the shelves. After I had accomplished this, I discovered that there were a few other parents upset with this schools library books, but none of them brought it to the schools attention because they were afraid of possible conflict. Sad is what I call it. Thank you for the article and thanks to those of you who have recommended books. And to those that believe that many of the books of today are wonderfully inspiring to our impressionable children, I leave you with Rule #4 of the pants - You must never let a boy take off the pants (although you may take them off yourself in his presence). "
11/20/2007:
"As a parent of a 20 and also a 16 year old daughters who enjoy reading a variety of genres, I have noticed the change in tween lit. However, I think that some of the subject matter covered in these new books are very important in helping tweens or teens to learn about issue that face them today. Unfortunately it is a different time than when we were growing up and many of these books reflect the issues of today. As long as you continue to talk to them about what they are reading and discuss it, I think it is a great learning tool for everyone to help with todays problems."
11/20/2007:
"READ with your kids! There is no age limit! We read 30 - 60 minutes aloud each night from books we mutually agree upon. Our son hates to skip a night. There are lots of terrific YA books out there if you know where to look that have the underlying themes that help kids understand social issues, morality and making choices. Natalie Babbitt's The Search For Delicious, Rafe Martin's Birdwing, Wedelin Van Draanen's Flipped, Swear To Howdy, and her Sammy Keyes mystery series, Carl Hiaasen's Hoot and Flush, Michael Buckley's The Sisters Grimm series, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians series are all great books. Some have a modern voice while some have a fantasy take, all of them have a little bit of 'darkness' but they are well written and explore values and life issues. When I was a YA, I was reading the likes of Poe, Dickens, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and Shakespeare, as required literature for school. Animal Farm, The Red Badge of Courage, Death of a Salesman, B! eowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey and others are not for the faint of heart. There was enough sex and blood in those upon interpretation. The best thing to do is to explore literary genres together so that you can discuss the sensitive topics. If your child is reading something in class and you're curious, pick up a copy at the library so that you can engage each other in discussions. What is your student learning from the book? What values does he see? We have another 'rule' in our house - if the book comes out as a movie, we must read the book before seeing the movie. Then we have a chance to compare the differences and literary license of the two media. It is up to parents, regardless of the type of media (film, books, magazines, internet) to monitor according to their child's needs and social level. Censorship is unconstitutional and should not be forced upon individual families by government or other organizations. It is our responsibility as parents to be aware of what o! ur children are exposed to. We need to do our own research, ju! st as we read the labels on the food we consume. We have the power to decide what goes into our families' bodies and minds."
11/20/2007:
"Thanks for addressing this! I'm not a parent, but I am an art-teacher & I see a lot of media influence in my students. Even the bookish ones!"
11/20/2007:
"Interesting article. I've noticed some of the books my middle schooler is bringing home from the school library... The is just another sad, sad sign of the times."
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