Finding good fiction—a new place to look

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What is the difference between a book that libraries and bookstores shelve as “Young Adult” fiction, and one that goes into regular fiction?

This is a question that has occurred to me before. In the process of giving away kids’ books at the food pantry (described in a previous post) I also end up reading my stock which includes picture books, board books for infants, “chapter books”, and “YA” books. Most are ex-library, so Young Adult (defined as ages 13 – 18) books come bearing yellow “YA” tape markers on the spine. Some are as absorbing and satisfying as I could wish, and a few seem to defy their labels. “Yes, it’s a great book for a teenager, but also for adults,” I find myself thinking.

The most recent such experience was from a science fiction YA book by an author whose adult science fiction book I had just read. Searching for more of his work in the library I found the YA novel and checked it out. The author is Paolo Bacigalupi, and the books were The Windup Girl (2009, adult sf) and Ship Breaker (2010, YA). Mr. Bacigalupi is very hot in sf (see note 1), more than I realized; I think I read a story of his in Analog or Asimov’s, and off I went looking for more. That’s one of the good reasons for subscribing to fiction magazines, having new authors (or unfamiliar established authors) brought right to your door. And supporting the incubators of new writers, that’s important too.

Anyway, while his adult book is very good, I have to say that I enjoyed the YA novel just as much, and the writing, characterization, and plot were not inferior to the adult book.

So what does make the difference, why does one get a yellow YA label and the other not? Certainly it is not quality of writing.

Of course such formal classifications are not rigid, there is some overlap. They’re largely conveniences for marketing, and for the convenience of library patrons. Adults and teens do have some differences in taste, though, and those who stick on the labels must have some criteria. I listed some differences that I could think of:

YA fiction often includes
• a youthful protagonist
• the protagonist’s age as a defining factor: things are possible or not possible, things happen or do not happen, because the main character lacks the status, experience, privileges, that go with adulthood
• a “coming of age” story, either via a single event or a a longer period of growth; protagonist learns things that move her or him toward adulthood which may result in expansion of what’s possible for the character
• discovery of lessons or truths (appropriate to the culture): the value of the individual even if different from peers or expectations is a common one in our culture, along with the importance of loyalty, bravery, kindness; need for the young protagonist to strike out on his or her own, make difficult choices and make mistakes; learn that appearances are deceiving; find that one can sometimes master the unfamiliar, the formidable, through courage, persistence, hard work.
• following from the last two elements, there is often a moral structure to the book, making it clear that some choices are better than others and that choices bring consequences. I’m referring to a moral structure organic to the plot and characterizations, not something overt. (Preachy-ness turns off kids just as it does most adults, so it’s not going to be tolerated by most editors.) For myself, this added depth is high on my criteria for judging fiction, and a lot of adult fiction fails to deliver it.
• a less complex, more linear, plot than much—but not by any means all—adult fiction
• shorter length than many adult novels, although the Harry Potter series showed how even younger kids will read 700-page books if the book is good enough. And the extraordinary buzz among peers helped keep the enthusiasm up.

YA fiction almost never includes
• explicit sex
• graphic violence, pleasure from violence
• insanity or “perversity”
• the protagonist’s entire life history, birth to old age. Generally the book ends with adulthood or before.
• lengthy passages of description
• complex narrative devices such as multiple points of view
• politics or religion (except in denominational literature for youth)

You see that I didn’t make any of these rules absolute, though the first three under each heading probably come close. (The absolutism of the negatives—sex, violence, insanity—would be mostly for marketing purposes, not because books with these aspects wouldn’t appeal to teenagers!) The entire body of fiction published in a year is best viewed as a spectrum, with outright children’s books at one end, shading into YA fiction, then a range of books that can be enjoyed by adult or YA readers, shading into more and more adult fare.

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Unlike this graphic, the distribution isn’t uniform, but would follow a reverse bell curve with a dip in the middle representing a relatively small fraction of published books which would be enjoyed by both teens and adults.

What’s the point of all this?

Aside from my personal urge to define and clarify, there’s the significant news for serious adult readers that the YA shelves hold some books well worth reading. When YA recommendation lists include Treasure Island, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings, it’s clear that the YA label can cover a lot of ground. All of these works were published before labelling came along, so we think of them as adult books. But now, a book like Ship Breaker may get a yellow tape label as a marketing decision because someone thinks it will sell more copies that way, not because it’s judged too simple or not interesting for older readers.

How do we find these books, other than by word of mouth and chance?

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has a website with lists of its awardwinners and recommendations. Lists include an annual Teens’ Top Ten determined by teenagers’ votes, Great Graphic Novels for Teens, Outstanding Books for the College Bound, and Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults. (Since I am such a promoter or reading by kids, I have to mention another list, for adults concerned about a teen who doesn’t read, called Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.) On the lists of award-winning authors there appear some familiar names such as Ursula Le Guin and Orson Scott Card, but more to the point there are lots of authors I’ve never heard of, and the net makes it easy to find out more about their books, maybe read a few pages on Amazon, and see if they’re at my library.

Easier yet, stop by the teen section of your library and sample some new fiction right there.

Give it a try, and I predict you’ll be rewarded with good books you’d otherwise have missed. And you’ll have more to talk about with the teenagers in your life!

Note 1: In fact, I see that The Windup Girl has won the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Awards for best sf novel and is a 2010 Hugo Award nominee, in the same category. Winning all three is the Triple Crown of science fiction. Bacigalupi has also received one of the awards named for science fiction masters, the Theodore Sturgeon Award. It also won the 2010 Compton Crook Award for best first novel. If I were Paolo, I’d be hunching my head into my shoulders anticipating some blow from fate after all this acclaim.

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Joost Swarte’s Summer Reading issue cover for The Walrus, “Canada’s Best Magazine”.

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