When “Young Adult” is too “Adult”

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R.T. Smith’s most recent post got me thinking about various books that are considered Young Adult fiction and the controversy that surrounds them.  Often there seems to be a gray area between books that are considered appropriate for children and young adults and those that are geared more for adults.

Every Christmas I return home mentally exhausted from the last few stressful weeks of the semester, which were primarily spent in the library writing papers and studying for exams.  Thus, it has become a sort of holiday tradition that I dedicate a large portion of my break to relaxing and reading “fun” books.  Usually I pick these so called “fun” books based on my eleven year-old brother’s knowledgable reccommendations of books that he read and enjoyed.  For instance, last Christmas I read the entirety of Rick Riordan’s popular series Percy Jackson & the Olympians.  The Percy Jackson books describe a fantastical world where Greek gods still exist and it clearly falls in the YA category.  However, this Christmas I deviated from tradition and chose a book that my brother had not yet read.  My mother asked me to read the first book in Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young adult trilogy, The Hunger Games, in order to determine if it was appropriate for my little brother.  The Hunger Games  is a fictional portrayl of a post-apocalyptic country called Panem, which exists where the countries of North America are located today.  Every year in Panem, one girl and one boy from each of the 12 districts are selected by a lottery system to compete in a televised battle, in which only one child can survive.  Although the writing in The Hunger Games is simple and straightforward, the content is a completely different beast.  The story involves complex political, social, and ethical issues and also centers around children being forced to kill other children.  I read and enjoyed The Hunger Games, but I concluded that my impressionable younger brother was not mature enough to read it.      

What is your take on The Hunger Games and other young adult fiction?  Are there other novels that fall into this gray area?  What about the Harry Potter series, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or The Giver: where do these books fall in the spectrum?

About Lauren Starnes

Senior at Washington and Lee University. Originally from Chattanooga, TN. Majoring in English.

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8 Responses to When “Young Adult” is too “Adult”

  1. Rod Smith says:

    I read Huck Finn’s narrative when I was about ten and again in high school. Even under the guidance of an English teacher, I was oblivious to the nuances and cultural context of the book until I read it again as an adult. I would, however, nominate The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a book for younger readers.

    Francine Prose has written that To Kill a Mockingbird is a book for children — sappy and without the density of implication of an adult work. I’ve never been able to buy into her argument. It seems that we turn a careful eye (or ear) whenever someone not an adult narrates a novel.

    • Tim McAleenan says:

      Hey Professor. I have a trivia question for you. Harper Lee started writing a second novel after To Kill A Mockingbird, and then decided against publishing it, do you know what it was called?

      Answer spelled backwards:
      eht gnol eybdoog

  2. bellomyc12 says:

    Something I keep finding about the books and movies I loved as a kid is that there was way more thematic depth to them than I ever realized as a twelve year old. I remember reading The Giver in 6th grade and absolutely loving it. It has remained one of my favorite books, but I went from thinking of it as a book about a cool, science-fiction-esque alternate world, and a boy’s coming of age that has an emotional ending. The end had this profound affect on me even as an eleven year old, even when I didn’t quite know why. Each time I reread the book in years to come it made me think even further about the power of knowledge, about the social commentary Lowry was making.

    I feel a little the same way about Harry Potter, who I feel I grew up with. There’s something to be said about a series that doesn’t lose it’s appeal even as you go from eleven to nineteen years old.

    I wonder if the books we love so much as children have such a strong affect on us because we recognize at some level that there is so much more to them than the surface story we have just enjoyed.

  3. Dory Blackey says:

    How about Dr. Suess? I, as many of us did, enjoyed these books ad nauseum growing up. Not much thought was given to what grander lessons we were learning as we read (memorized) these stories, or as they were read to us. It wasn’t until years later in an AP Government class my senior year of high school that I gave them a second thought. That day’s assignment was to choose any page of a Dr. Suess storybook and do a close reading identifying political messages. I had absolutely no problem pounding out a two page response to fours lines from Green Eggs and Ham. If you haven’t, revisit a Dr. Suess book, you will find layers of social and political messages hidden within. Always interesting, especially in an election year- you never know, you may discover just where your political convictions were conceived!

  4. Catherine Skitsko says:

    One of the first books that I can remember my mom reading to me was
    The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. The Chronicles of Perdain were like drugs to me. I could stay up all night listening to them. When my sister got too tired and wanted to stop I’d secretly read them by flashlight in my room, only to listen to it all over again the next night when my mom picked back up where she thought we had left off. I think of those novels whenever I hear people complain about how the magical elements and deaths in Harry Potter are detrimental to children. Personally, even at that young age, I was never offended by these things, in fact I think they helped my imagination immensely. I read for the story, not the various meanings behind it. That’s not to say that I approve of children reading graphic murder novels, but death is a part of life and I do not believe that a little exposure to that will do much harm.

  5. Andrea Siso says:

    When I was in the sixth grade, my class read “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which continues to be one of my favorite novels. At the time, I felt connected to the story primarily because of the purity of the narrative voice, which allowed the literature to feel tangible and accessible to my eleven-year-old self. I’ve reread Lee’s classic recently. Its significance deepened for me; I was no longer a child empathizing with another child–I was eighteen, asking myself whether I had lost all my childhood innocence.
    It is unique to find novels that can “grow up” with readers–literature that is layered enough to have a distinct meaning each time it is read. Of course, the “Princess Diaries” series that I was a big fan of in the sixth grade doesn’t actually fall into this category. Cabot’s sticky phrasing and fluffy storylines have lost their allure. So perhaps YA literature with adult themes (like “Mockingbird”) are the more important novels to be read and reread as we grow older.

  6. Caitlin Doyle says:

    I often find myself irked by the “Young Adult” section in bookstores. I understand that it has a practical purpose–mothers and fathers need to be able to weed out the murder-and-sex-in-Malibu novels and I’ll concede that it would be a tad tricky if a twelve-year-old got her hands on Lolita (not that she would understand it). Even so, that “YA” tag seems almost insulting–what highbrow snob gets to decide that a book is “immature” enough for young adults? And what does it say about us that we only want our young people reading about a sanitized reality?

    I think that we need to give a little more credit to our youth. The themes examined in the Hunger Games are by no means too complicated for a thirteen-year-old mind to dissect. Among others, Collins explores themes like the ethical obligation of resisting a totalitarian regime, the potential consequences of an overemphasis on appearances, the morality of killing in self-defense and the pervading strength of human connection. Yes, the story has a very violent basis, but Collins is not gratuitous in her rendering of uncomfortable subjects. The reader is able to use her story as a way to explore these complex issues in a comprehensive and personal manner that would be almost impossible outside of the setting of a fictional story.

    Isn’t this exactly what we want kids to be doing? In the transition from “young adult” to just plain “adult,” each of these kids is developing (consciously or not) his or her own sense of morality. As they reach their teens, kids are having to incorporate the realities of the adult world into their understanding of right and wrong. I, for one, would rather young adults be exposed to adult themes through the medium of the book rather than through video games, the internet and TV.

    • R.T. Smith says:

      This may be a bit of a shocker, but the publishing industry invented this category, and many writers are striving for the youth market with every wizard wand and adolescent heartache they can muster. A YA editor will be hoping to find certain hot-button subjects emphasized and other verbotten language, plot lines, activities conspicuous by their absence, and books will be revised according to a set of criteria (which I would love to get my hands on).

      I know of one writer now making a bundle targeting this market, but the first book he scored on in this genre he actually intended for an audience of adults, who showed negligible interest.

      Did you know that YA Fiction is now an academic field, a course taught in colleges, especially to education majors and minors? If we can identify and discuss books for children as separate from SANCTUARY and TENDER IS THE NIGHT, the specialization in a middle genre was sure to follow.

      I haven’t read a book aimed at this audience in many years, but I suspect that publishers, writers, booksellers and some readers are working together to certify this as a legitimate category so that they can market like crazy. Even the NYTBR published a YA Bestseller List.

      I guess the category also serves as an attempt to protect youngsters from Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence . . . whom they will inevitably find.

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