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>My Heart Leaps Up

>I had such a nice little moment on the subway this morning, seeing a boy, maybe fourteen or so, engrossed in a beaten-up hardcover library copy of The Hunt for Red October. While I always hope to like Tom Clancy more than I do, I envied that kid his big summer book. And I hope for everybody’s sake it wasn’t part of his assigned summer-reading list!

Over on her blog Original Content, Gail Gauthier has been wondering why Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys was named a Best Book for Young Adults by ALA. In this era of the burgeoning ranks of YA fiction, it’s easy to forget that the main mission of YA librarians used to be to bring teen readers into the world of adult books. Obviously, when pioneers such as Margaret Edwards were working, YA fiction was far more limited in both range and numbers, so librarians had no choice but to bring young readers out of the box. But now I worry (and Horn Book YA columnist Patty Campbell and I have been arguing this one for years) that the surfeit of YA lit–if you believe there is one, and I do–keeps librarians from moving kids along. And when I hear that we should be thinking of YA as including people into their twenties I get apoplectic. Push ’em out of the nest, already.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >I remember the thrill of starting on adult books in middle school, of floating back and forth between the children’s department in the basement and the high ceilinged adult rooms. I’m in my twenties, and when I read YA novels I can identify with characters…but they make me feel old.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >Why worry about pushing them out of the nest? I trust them to jump in their own time.

    Don’t high school (and some middle school) English classes require adult lit? If so, even kids who read only YA lit for pleasure are sampling adult lit all along as well. (Assuming they do their school reading. But even if they don’t, they hear about it in class and it counts as some kind of exposure.)

    Both YA lit and adult lit should be available, and readers should be free to go back and forth, or move ahead linearly, as they desire.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >Oops, I thought there would be another screen for signing my name. I’m Rebecca — wouldn’t want to cause any kerfuffles by commenting anonymously. 🙂

  4. Holly Hein says:

    >As a teenager I was embarrassed to be seen in the YA section at the library, because I thought those books were all about Teen Angst and I wanted to be an adult. Now I am 36 and still read a lot of YA, often between adult novels. I can now freely admit to my barely diminished, perpetual teen angst, and the themes and form haven’t lost their appeal.

    YA as a genre has so much to offer to a general adult audience– shorter novels, often lyrical and filled with emotion, and protagonists with a lot of energy but not a lot of power in the adult world– that maybe there should be a Reverse Alex award.

  5. jadelennox says:
  6. >Isn’t it a little odd for someone who’s made a career out of reading children’s books to be exhorting others out of the nest?

    But I would’ve killed for one of those helpful librarians you’re writing about; I so badly needed help finding adult books. Of course, YA really stunk in those days.

  7. >”moving kids along…” R, that suggests a hierarchy in literature, which implies some kind of judgment, that the farther along, the better. Does that mean that an adult who reads a YA novel is regressing to the nest? What about when the “YA” designation is purely artifical, due only to the serendipitous landing of a manuscript on the desk of a “YA” editor? My job is not to move kids along but to feed them what they want when they want it. How lucky we all are to have so many great books being cross marketed in so many ways.

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think of “moving kids along” in the sense of preparing them for the joys of unsafe reading. Children’s literature–of which I think YA is a subgenre–is a protected literature. The nature of that protection changes with the times, of course, but the literature is always beholden to adult stewardship. Like children themselves. Rather than trying to make “YA versions” of everything, rather than trying to simply create more books about teenagers for teenagers, why can’t we (by which I mean librarians) do more to bring teens into the wider, anything-goes world of adult reading? Reading teens read both YA and adult books (and children’s books as well) and I’m all for that. But a YA librarian whose taste and/or knowledge of books ends with YA literature cannot completely do her job. (And to address Wendy’s point more specifically, I’d go crazy if children’s literature was all I read. And any grownup who reads nothing else needs to, uh, grow up.;-)

  9. JeanneB says:

    >Doesn’t this argument speak to our bigger confusion about when one grows up? When (some) Americans can marry before they’re allowed to drive, or go to war before they’re allowed to drink, is it any surprise that librarians (and others) don’t always know what books to recommend?

    Of course, I myself was reading Leon Uris and Herman Wouk at 14, and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >Either all reading is unsafe or no reading is unsafe. Unsafe by genre or age grouping is silly.

  11. Anonymous says:

    >Think more clearly about what you really mean here. It isn’t that adult reading is less safe, it’s that so much YA stuff was created for an artificial market and was written for money and is crap and of no help to anyone. It isn’t truthful. Teenagers are at the most vulnerable possible age, dancing on the head of a pin, and to manufacture false wisdom for them or mire them in a false sense of who they are is dangerously cynical. Better they should enter the world of cheap adult fiction which was at least designed to entertain without false motives. In this sense, there is nothing more unsafe than teen fiction. But, of course, all reading is inherently unsafe. That’s why people burn and ban books. Unsafe, Roger? You? You don’t believe this.

  12. Anonymous says:

    >The best children’s lit is for everyone. And the best adult lit doesn’t even worry about that, it just is. But so much of YA lit seems to limit teens to what the adult thinks should be their selves which is as the adult writer perceives their problems which in the words of Anne of Green Gables gives no “scope to the imagination.” Or as she says to Marilla, “Oh, Marilla, what you miss!”

  13. >Roger…I wouldn’t limit your comments about reading a larger scope of literature to just librarians. I think that goes for publishers,editors, and YA writers too. I’m pretty amazed when colleagues say they read only children’s lit…no time for anything else. There must be time, or we end up missing the wider landscape.

  14. >Since I grew up in the Cretaceous, I was around when–in the 1960s–YA literature as a genre was born. I called it “training wheels lit” then and, alas, much of it still is.

    Great YA books are simply great books. (And sometimes I even write them.) But as someone who read Tolstoy and Doestoyevsky alongside Uris and T.H. White as a young teen–and still read as oddly, having a mystery and a Jane Austen with me for the train ride down to London this weekend–I may be on the wrong end of the spectrum.

    I am very much on Roger’s kick-em-out-of-the-nest side here.


  15. >I’m all for teens reading adult books and librarians leading them to good ones. But I firmly believe that everyone reads seeking connection with someone like themselves. Teens who make the jump to classics and adult books because they’ve been lead to believe that YA is beneath them somehow miss the opportunity to “commune” with characters like themselves who are experiencing lives similar to theirs. Good YA should open teens’ eyes to their own lives just as good adult fiction will open their eyes to the greater world. That’s why YA should be more than an artificial market and more than false wisdom created by adults who are trying to limit teens in some way.

  16. >Oops. I should have said “because they’ve been led to believe that YA is beneath them…”

  17. Roger Sutton says:

    >I guess I agree with everybody. I’m using the word “unsafe” in a completely positive way, just to be clear. And I think it would be useful to think of examples of unsafe–unprotected–books for the young, but I don’t think there are many. Children’s/YA book publishing, and the reviewing, bookselling, teaching, and librarianship that go along with it, have many layers of protection that go into the books and along with the books (although I am taken by Anon.’s suggestion that the false promises YA lit sometimes delivers makes it the most unsafe kind of literature of all).

  18. Frankie says:

    >As a former therapist turned school librarian, I find YA literature covers many of the emotional topics many adults have never moved away from. YA literature doesn’t seem safe to me at all. It is edgy and provocative these days. Meg Rosoff’s “How I Live Now” is in no way “safe”.

  19. Anonymous says:

    >The question with YA books is whether the point is to denote books that are too old for children or to keep YA’s from reading books that are too old for them. Of course I understood that unsafe was meant as a good thing. But there are unsafe children’s and YA books. Most books that move people are inherently unsafe. Earthquake earthquake. Anyway, any teen who can’t find his own way to the adult section without help should be made to eat his ipod.

  20. Anonymous says:

    >Besides, YA, ShmiA, there are really only two types of books for anyone; the books I enjoyed reading and the books I didn’t.

  21. shahairyzad says:

    >I think you’ve thrown whole barrels of apples and oranges (not to mention peaches–eaten and uneaten) together here, Roger. What are you defining as “safe” and “unsafe”? Are “safe” books the ones with easy resolutions? I think I could come up with 2 or 3 thousand adult titles that fit that definition pretty well. And I could come up with a lot (though certainly not thousands) of young adult titles that don’t offer easy resolutions.

    Or are you refering to subject matter when you talk about safe/unsafe? There are lots of adult titles that never mention sex, have no violence in them, don’t deal with the intricacies of human relationships, and don’t bother with politics or religion. And there are plenty of YA titles that do deal with those things (sometimes better than the adult titles).

    So what is it you’re trying to convey here with your “safe/unsafe” and “kick them out of the nest” talk? There is no nest. There are just regions of fluff and comfort which people can bounce in and out of at will. And while I would concede that the percentage of YA titles with some degree of fluff and comfort to them is high, it’s probably not much higher than in adult titles (especially once you factor in all the genre fiction).

    Honestly, this sounds more like the rumblings of your inner curmudgeon than a well-thought out position, Roger.

  22. Roger Sutton says:

    >Sha . . . , I’m referring to neither. I’m talking about children’s/YA literature as a literature written across a border–from adult to the young–that is maintained by an entire phalanx of gatekeepers: publishers, reviewers, librarians, booksellers, teachers, and parents. These interested parties make rules, on at least the alleged behalf of young people, about both aesthetics and propriety. These rules will be constantly argued among the parties, but each side is concerned with the same thing: is this book good for children? It’s not a bad question, but it’s one that comes far more essentially into play with books for the young than it does books for adults.

  23. >I was going to ask whether you thought YA was inherently “safe” or whether it was just that anything that wasn’t “safe” wasn’t classified as YA, but I guess you’ve answered that question.

    I do see your point and mostly I agree – but is it really counterproductive to have plenty of good YA books available? Do you see the problem as teens having so much available they don’t need to move on, or as the adult gatekeepers being so busy dealing with YA literature, they’re not doing their jobs movin’ ’em along?

  24. Anonymous says:

    >Gatekeeper is a very frightening term when it comes to books. What happened to the whole Naomi Wolff revelation with the danger of gatekeeping? Are we back to square one? In the great immortal words of someone or other, leave them alone.

  25. MotherReader says:

    >Why do we need to rush teens along? These teens have their whole adult lives ahead of them to enjoy adult literature. Say a life expectancy of 78, giving them 60 years of fine reading. They will only be reading YA for maybe five or six years. So let them. Think how many picture books are made for the first five years of life – and not just the good ones the library carry, but the cheap, commercial, TV-based ones you’d pick up a the bookstore – and tell me again how we have a surplus of YA books. Teens are still interested in teens like them. When they are fifteen and can’t drive, they have no interest in our adult world, with our cars, and our careers, and our internal conflicts. Their top concern is if everybody else feels as awkward and mixed-up as they do. YA books give them a way to get through this confusing time and identify with the characters.

  26. Anonymous says:

    >Motherreader, this is enormously patronizing. There’s only a short period when children crawl but attaching weights to their legs and insisting they keep crawling and enjoy the feel of the floor on their sweet little kneecaps is perhaps not the way to go.

  27. Roger Sutton says:

    >Well, MotherReader, that’s Patty Campbell’s argument. I’m not suggesting that we need to prod kids away from YA, just that we also provide guidance and access to adult books, too. And that we don’t prop up the genre in a way that suggests that teens shouldn’t go beyond it. The Printz Award is an example of this, where only books specifically published with a stated grade level falling between 7 and 12 (or age level between 12 and 18) are eligible, thus limiting the choice to books published by juvenile publishing imprints (since they are the only ones who assign grade or age levels to books). Which leaves out most science fiction and graphic novels, two genres of immense appeal to lots of teens. I submit that the Printz Award is a case of serving the interests of publishers over those of teen readers.

  28. shahairyzad says:

    >Thanks for the clarification. I retract my clicheed “mixing apples with oranges” accusation. However, I’m not sure that the problem is as great as you make it out to be. The Printz Award rewards a certain segment of the book world. So what? Why is that any worse than the Caldecott being only for children’s picture books or the Andre Norton Award being only for sci-fi books? Are you suggesting that all book awards that have entry requirements only serve the interests of the publishers? And if so, does that mean the book world was richer and freer before there were any awards?

    The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that there are a lot of books out there, some good, some bad, and most teens are free to choose what they want to read. It would be nice if they challenged themselves at an early age and jumped out of the nest at just the right moment. But speaking as someone who, by the age of 20, still had not read anything more “adult” than Lord of the Rings, and then went on to get a Masters in English and publish many books, short stories and poems, I don’t think the situation is as dire as you make it out to be. Kids grow up. They change. They try new things. Eventually they become adults overly worried about the best way to make kids grow up. Plus ca change…

  29. rindamybyers says:

    >The ten-year-old boy I “boy-sit” on occasion (who is not unusually precocious or that keen on books in general) walked in one afternoon wtih a new hardback copy of the “Da Vinci Code,” under one arm–not unusual EXCEPT he had bought the book himelf with his own limited funds! Had already started reading it.

    It did start a discussion between the two of us about the book, so that part was good. I don’t know what to think exactly about this incident. I do think a lot of chidlren and teens find their way anyway to the adult shelves because of curiosity or interests they have or else they find a lot of what is on the shelves “for them” to be perhaps boring or uninteresting. I don’t know. Perhaps we need to study the readers a bit more for some answers instead of having so much debating over what we are offering them to read. What do they really want or need to read and are we always so sure that we always know the answers to that, as adults?

    One thing was very clear to me out of this incident: How much children need to dialogue and talk with adults willing to listen to them about what they read. This boy wanted badly to talk about this book with me. Interesting.

  30. rindawriter says:

    >P.S. I’m past my 50th and still LOVE reading picturebooks so am I a regressed adult of some sort? But then, I read adult books as a child. Still wondering though when the children will kick me out of “their” spot in the library…so far, so good…just a few curious stares…

  31. Roger Sutton says:

    >I hijacked this thread with my usual rant about the Printz Award but just One More Thing. Did you all know that the Newbery and Caldecott explicitly allow for giving the award to a book published for a adults if it is in fact a children’s book nevertheless? The one instance I know of where the loophole was used was to give a Newbery Honor to Allan Eckert’s Incident at Hawk’s Hill. I’ll be interested to see how the Caldecott committee is going to deal with graphic novels . . .

    And my favorite anecdote about Mike Printz, and then I’ll stop. We were on the Best Books committee together 25 years ago, and Mike was resolutely against putting Elizabeth Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver on the list. I asked him if he thought it was too young, but he said, “No, it’s just that I’ve worked with boys too long to have a book with that title in my library.”

  32. >Just a note: the Andre Norton award is for sf and fantasy, not just scifi (a term all righteous science fiction writers abhor by the way, sort of like “juvies”).

    Am enjoying this discussion enormously.


  33. Andy Laties says:

    >On the subject of gatekeeping: I ran children’s bookstores in Chicago for 15 years, during which my sister was a children’s book editor in New York. I always thought it was hilarious that the New York children’s publishing establishment was so solicitous of and dependent on the library book reviewing establishment in Chicago (American Library Association, BCCB, etc.).

    In the 30s, the New York writer A.J. Liebling famously insulted Chicago by calling it the “Second City” in a hilarious, put-down article. Chicagoans adopted the phrase as their own — calling themselves The Second City — as a sort of signal of defiant civic pride — but there’s a burning envy and resentment and defensiveness deep inside many Chicagoans on the subject of New York’s so-called superiority. Born-and-bred Chicagoans can be very easily goaded into ranting about how New York has nothing on Chicago (“The Sears Tower is bigger, and anyway we INVENTED the skyscraper.” etc. etc.)

    The Chicago-based American Library Association’s gatekeeping success vis-a-vis the New York children’s publishing establishment can be understood in this light.

    When I moved to Chicago, the West-Virginia-born super of a building where I was apartment-hunting said this to me: “People will tell you Chicago is a hard town, and it’s true that if you carry a chip on your shoulder someone will knock it off. But if you walk around with a smile on your face you’ll find it’s just a big country town.”
    It is THIS image that Chicagoans labor under and struggle to deny: that in truth, Chicago is Hicksville (which is pretty much what A.J. Liebling was accusing it of). SO — NOW — could it be that the Children’s Book Reviewing Gatekeeping Establishment Of Chicago, in its relationship to the Children’s Book Publishing Establishment Of New York is an enactment of Traditionalist Midwestern Old-Fashioned Values struggling to control, tamp down, restrain, temper the Ultra-Hip, Hoity-Toity, Super-Egotistical New York Values?

    And, can Young Adult Literature — a “gatekept” genre — be seen in its relationship to “Grown-up” books as an analogue AND outgrowth of the Chicago Trying To Control And One-Up New York tension?


  34. >I find the Chicago gatekeeper/New York publishing post very interesting.I’d always thought of New York as the gatekeeper as far as publishing is concerned and always wondered if that puts a metropolitan spin on what the rest of the country reads. As in does the New York publishing world know what’s going on anywhere else? It’s interesting to know that, at least as far as children’s books are concerned, someone else is involved.

  35. Andy Laties says:

    >It’s also thanks to the energetically activist assortment of American Library Association agenda items — which keep librarians’ voices loudly heard by children’s book publishers — that children’s books — taken in the aggregate — do not go out of print as rapidly as books for grown-ups. When a children’s book makes it onto the right booklists, it can go on for decades.

    A French librarian once told me that she envied our American system of school libraries, and was amazed that every public library has a large children’s section. This apparently is not at all to be taken for granted worldwide. The children’s publishing phenomenon in the U.S. 20th century (and 21st) isn’t an accident. The librarians — organized — actually drew forth all these children’s books. They represented outspoken, opinionated demand, with cash (or, tax dollars) in hand. Businesspeople follow the market.

  36. Anonymous says:

    >I’m completely puzzled about where books like THE BOOK THIEF fit into this discussion. It was published as adult in Australia and as YA in the US. So what is it? Who is reading it exactly? Is the mommy bird shoving (regurgitated if you really want to beat this analogy to death:) it down the throats of those little birdies-in-the-nest or are they flying eagerly out to get it?

  37. >That last was moi, Monica. Sorry.

  38. Roger Sutton says:

    >I find The Book Thief very heavy sledding, but I’m in a definite minority here at the HB on that. If it were published as an adult, book, though, I wouldn’t feel obligated to finish it. 😉

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