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>Heady reading

>An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer takes a different spin on the topic of YA’s reading adult books, that is, adults reading YA books (thanks to Bookslut for the tip). God knows they will find some good reading, but I wonder if it’s damning with faint praise to say, as B&N bookseller Lisa Santamaria does, that adults may want “something a little more entertaining or fluffy, so they come to the kids’ section, only to find out that these books are not necessarily fluffy at all. Like Harry Potter – it makes you think.” If it were up to me, I’d replace Harry Potter in that sentence with . . . –I was going to give an example from any number of candidates, but then I was stymied by the possibly half-baked notion that YA literature is on the whole more interested in making us feel than think. Some do both (Aidan Chambers’ novels come to mind) but so many more aim for our emotional investment in a character and situation, rather than (or also) occasioning readers to ask questions about themselves and their beliefs. Shall we compile a list, or am I overreaching?

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. Anonymous says:

    >The confusion comes from thinking that the grey area is a book classification when the grey area is really figuring out when someone becomes an adult. In some cultures teens are having babies. In other centuries. Bye bye childhood. It probably has more to do with our culture and the no man’s land we place teens in. But how different are twenty year olds from teens, twenty year olds from thirties? Gelled adults at thirties requiring a different library section? What are the maturation of thoughts and emotions we can really pin on the post 18 year olds? Aren’t many there before, some never? Should we have sections of the library called Smart People and Stupid People. The more I think of this the more I like it. Get rid of the YA section and put a few new ones in. Smart People. Stupid People. Emotional Basketcase section. Transcendantly Evolved. Not Ready for Prime Time. Wise Beyond Their Years. Forward Thinkers. Backward Thinkers. Drools in Their Sleep. Poets at Heart. Philistines. Horrid. Shallow. Deep.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >And for you, Roger, two new sections:
    People Who Would Rather Think
    People Who Would Rather Feel
    and for me
    People Who Can Do Both AND Scratch Their Stomachs

    Arrange all existing YA books and adult books no longer by age but by category.

  3. >I guess I see YA books as wanting readers to evolve as thinkers and as feelers. By drawing readers into an empathetic relationship with characters who are as unlike the reader as like him or her, and who are in emotional or physical situations relevant to teens, teen readers are put in a position to think about the consequences of choices, about the complexities of feelings, and about other important stuff that lies out there in the zone of proximal development. The good fluffy stuff, like *Angus, Thongs, [etc.],* pushes the reader to reflect and grow via a vicarious experience with their own potential for drama, doesn’t it? I would think that the feelings generated–or lulled–by the bad fluffy stuff are something more like anxieties or media-generated desires. (Teen-aged angst-ridden poetry is perhaps just about feeling, but that’s not YA lit; that’s lit by YAs.) Does that make sense?

  4. >I worked in the kids’ section at Borders for over five years, and I don’t think your notion is half-baked; there’s certainly enough fluff in those two or three YA shelves to spin a whole helluva lot of cotton candy. But the literature that is thoughtful seems to be finding an eager audience. Or perhaps I’m being too optimistic? An obvious and popular example might be Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, but more recently, even Carl Hiaasen and Blue Baillett have tackled subjects like environmentalism and architecture. Great literature, probably not, but thought-provoking? Sure. And from my little corner in Chicago, people seem open to those books, and to the idea of thinking.

    Then again, there was the time a woman came into Borders shortly before Christmas looking for a gift for her 11 year old nephew. Trying to get a sense for what he might be interested in, I asked her about some popular series. Had he read Harry Potter? Redwall? I described Redwall briefly to her, and she said, “Oh no. He’s not allowed to read books with talking animals. His daddy’s a minister.” That kid might not have been allowed to feel or to think…

  5. >I love anonymous up there… I’m reading some zusak. and scratching my stomach.

  6. >I’d begin such a list with Allan Wolf’s masterful New Found Land, a novel in verse that makes something at once cerebral and affecting of the journey of the Corps of Discovery. Wolf’s crafty use of alternating voices and perspectives is provocative, and poses some terrific questions about the costs of adversity, the comfort of myopia, the nature of belonging, and the mystery of beauty.
    It missed an audience, and I wonder to what degree its particularly “thoughtful” concept is responsible…

  7. >”Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy…Great literature, probably not, but thought-provoking? Sure.”

    Eh? I’m worried by any definition of ‘Great Literature’ that classes His Dark Materials as ‘probably not’.

  8. >Ooops, I guess my sentence structure wasn’t all that clear, was it? The “maybe not great literature” comment refered to Hiaasen and Baillett–both of whom I think are great authors, by the way, I’d just hesitate before classing them with people like Pullman. Who most definitely writes great literature!

  9. >That’s what I was hoping – in which case, I wholeheartedly agree with your post.

  10. >I wonder if people have just found YA books and discovered they get something out of them. As a person who teaches a graduate level children’s lit class,I find a lot of adults in the class, “discover” the YA books and tend toward the same reading they do with adult books. In other words adults who read to feel in adult books in my class tend to focus on how the books made them feel. Adults who liked to think focused on that part of the YA book. I can also get very different reactions from the same book, like The Dark Light by Mette Newth or Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals. And the people who like fluff will find it anywhere. And given that I have yet to meet an adult without some unresolved issues from their childhood and adolescence, I actually think YA books are a great place for people gain other perspectives on old hurts and stuck places or even just find a fun and peaceful haven for a while. These books also can become a bridge for people to talk across the generations in safer ways (as we know from book clubs) and many of the students in my classes are parents who get their children engaged in some of the books as well.

    When I visit the bookstores, I don’t necessarily find much difference between the YA and adult sections in terms of content. In both cases there is a lot more fluff on the shelf and finding good books is harder.

    I have noticed in some multi-age bookstores what I think is a new trend: placing YA literature closer to the Adult literature and not next to the children’s sections. At least I get a little more exercise…..

  11. rindamybyers says:

    >I like books that make me do both, think and feel, and do them both intensely. I will read fluffstuff, mainly late at night to put myself to sleep in spite of my aching feet, but those rare “feel and think” books are the sort you read and re-read forever.

    It’s an old classic and not probably classfied YA (oh, how tight and narrow and stiff our little box categories are!), but I’ve always thought “To Kill A Mockingbird” had everything, makes you feel, makes you think, and all, all, so gloriously WITHOUT A SINGLE WASTED WORD! That’s what I like…no wasted words.

  12. Andy Laties says:

    >Bookstore owners are free to classify books anyway they want. At least, we Indie bookstore operators are free in this way. I’ve been finding that the newly issued 1965 Crockett Johnson title MAGIC BEACH sells much better in my Picture Books For Grown-Ups section than in the main Picture Books section. I’d say that if quite a few books which publishers classify as YA and which chain bookstores merchandise exclusively in the YA section were infiltrated into mainstream Fiction sections, adults would buy them without ever noticing their formal category classification. (It might take a strong, opinionated, intelligent individualistic handselling bookseller to make that sale, however.)

  13. Roger Sutton says:

    >Andy brings up a related point–does the bookseller (or librarian) make the sale, or does the classification? I like a personable bookseller/librarian, but I hate a bookstore or library I can’t navigate without their help.

  14. >I’m sure this has come up, but I just checked Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys out of my library’s YA section, only to read it and discover it was not particularly written for a YA audience (though it is, of course a coming-of-age story, and I’m sure many YAs would love it). It also, I’m pretty sure, won some sort of YA book award. Does anyone know how it happened?

  15. >Meant to add, Roger, that I do love your blog. Been reading it for months now.

  16. Roger Sutton says:

    >Anansi Boys won an Alex Award from ALA–it’s an award (a list on ten, I think) for adult books the judges feel have particular appeal for young adults.

  17. >Well that makes sense. but I’m wondering about the YA library binding. Was it a deliberate decision? I found Secret Life of Bees to be much more solidly YA than this Anansi Boys, yet it “stuck” as an adult book.

  18. crissachappell says:

    >I only wish that YA books had their own section…in all bookstores…rather than the children’s room.

  19. >A YA book that comes to mind — just released — that does more than tug at the heart is The Unresolved by T.K. Welsh. Horn Book said, “Using the convention of a spirit unable to rest until its death is avenged, Welsh spins a decidedly unconventional ghost story about New York’s General Slocum steamboat disaster of 1904. Fifteen-year-old Mallory Meer is one of some 1,300 pleasure-goers, mostly German Lutherans on a church outing, on the Slocum; another passenger is Dustin Brauer, the sixteen-year-old Jewish boy she fancies. A quick kiss down below deck is followed by a fire sparked by a carelessly dropped cigarette, which leads to the burning or drowning of over one thousand passengers and the foundering of the ship. Mallory herself speaks to the reader from death, her spirit flitting from the official inquest into the disaster to the informal, parallel inquest held in Kleindeustchland, or Little Germany, which seeks to hold Dustin responsible. It’s a highly effective device, to have Mallory looking over the shoulders—and in some cases, inhabiting the bodies—of the personalities involved. Welsh presents the details of the disaster without flinching and explores both the pain and the self-serving motivations of all concerned. Set against a backdrop that includes the rise of labor and pervasive anti-Semitism, it’s a tightly wound novel of conflicting interests and emotions that keep Mallory haunting long after the inquests are concluded.” On the anniversary of 9-11, it’s good to see YA books deal with catastrophic events in such a compelling manner. Plus, this book helps teens understand the world of the immigrant at the turn of the century. The kids at my library are eating it up.

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