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>Kurt Vonnegut

>has died, and Monica Edinger offers a brief tribute to his impact on her “arty and alienated” group of high school chums. I never “got” Vonnegut the way many of my friends did, but I can certainly appreciate the way he pushed at the boundaries of science fiction to make us rethink it and literature in general in more expansive terms.

I wrote an article for SLJ a hundred years ago about “cult novels,” books that may or may not have had a wide audience but still seemed to speak to the kind of coteries Monica and I were both part of. They were books that made you and your friends feel like part of a special elect. Atlas Shrugged, Dune and The Lord of the Rings were big in that way; Monica also mentions Richard Brautigan, someone I remember Not Getting at all but I also knew he was Cool and therefore I should keep quiet. Who is speaking that way to teens today? Neil Gaiman is one I can think of, and I’m sure there is a whole canon of graphic novelists I just don’t know. I could also see M.T. Anderson getting that kind of readership but wonder if being published as a YA writer hurts more than it helps. Part of the appeal of cult writers is that you discover them without the apparent aid of adults (but bless the librarians who put them in our way), and the fact that a YA novel says, de facto, this is for you, can work both for and against a book’s appeal.

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:

    >YA novels by their very classification imply that these are books you will grow out of. Vonnegut’s books were something, if you were lucky, you would grow into.

  2. Elaine Magliaro says:


    MotherReader has a fine tribute to Vonnegut at her blog, too.

  3. >I wondered about this very thing when I read Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist — which I think would speak powerfully to some teens, and not necessarily those who are YA or library regulars, but which might well also skeeve them out by virtue of its being addressed to them by adults.

  4. >”YA novels by their very classification imply that these are books you will grow out of.”

    I’ll have to disagree with Anonymous on this one. I think labels like “Juvenile” and “Middle Grade” and “YA” are meant more as lower boundaries than as close-ended classifications.

    A “YA” label mostly tells us what the lowest age is for which the book will have any appeal and/or be understood and/or be appropriate. There is nothing that says older readers can’t enjoy it, too.

    As for “growing out” of them, I think you’re talking to the wrong audience here.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >I address this question in an essay that will be in the next Horn Book; the short version is that YA books, as a publishing category, are more closely aligned with children’s books than adult because they are “for” an audience defined by its youth, and the institutional guidance of young people by adults is still very much in play in their publication.

  6. >Chuck Palahniuk is the new Kurt Vonnegut. IMHO.

    As for categorizing, I completely agree. If you put a bunch of books on a table, mixing YA and Adult, teens will just take the ones they want. Labeling is something *we* do and it does deter.

    Now if YA collections were filled with what teens really want instead of prelabelled things (the aforementioned Palahniuk, adult bios, anime and manga, including that rated 16+) they would actually serve our teens better, but adults would have heart attacks. So we know that teens age out of our YA collections in their early teens and go to adults, yet continue to have them. (Manga has done more to bring them back then anything I’ve seen.)

  7. Anonymous says:

    >Well, I will say this again. I think that classifiying books as YA has more to say about how we view this age than the books. I think it’s fair to make a distinction between children and adults but to make such a one between adults and young adults debases them and I think its cynical in the extreme to create a separate classification of books for them. It’s this society’s infantilization of this age.

  8. Andy Laties says:

    >Vonnegut on virtuality (appropriate perhaps to a post-mortem discussion): “‘Mr. Trout,’ I said from the unlighted interior of the car, ‘you have nothing to fear. I bring you tidings of great joy.’ He was slow to get his breath back, so he wasn’t much of a conversationalist at first. ‘Are—are you—from the—the Arts Festival?’ he said. His eyes rolled and rolled. ‘I am from the Everything Festival,’ I replied. ‘The what?’ he said….‘Mr. Trout,’ I said, ‘I am a novelist, and I created you for use in my books.’ ‘Pardon me?’ he said. ‘I’m your Creator,’ I said. ‘You’re in the middle of a book right now—close to the end of it actually.’ ‘Um,’ he said….‘I am approaching my fifti-eth birthday, Mr. Trout,’ I said. ‘I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.’”—Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Delacorte, 1973): 298, 299, 301.

  9. Monica Edinger says:

    >”Who is speaking that way to teens today?”

    Orson Scott Card.

    George R. R. Martin.

    Stephen King (still).

    J.K. Rowling. (Even with her popularity I think she still counts as a cult writer for teens of the sort Vonnegut was for my group. The kids I was teaching in 4th when the first book came out are now high school seniors.)

  10. Monica Edinger says:

    >Here’s another — Terry Pratchett.

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