NPR, prestige, and women in YA

I already subjected my delightful boyfriend to this rant the other day but I thought that I would share it with all of you! Sharing is nice, isn’t it?

It all started the other morning at work while I was checking my email and my YA blogs when I came across this post about the much talked about top 100 YA novels compiled by NPR, from Karen Jensen at Teen Librarian’s Toolbox, one of my go-to sites for programming ideas. I really appreciate all of Karen’s advocacy work for her teen patrons and the field of YA literature. Her program ideas are also amazing, easy to implement, and right on point with teen trends. So, if you haven’t heard about this list by NPR, go take a look and come back.

Back? Good. I don’t want to write about Karen’s post because I think she makes really great points about what YA is – not just “early teen” books since most librarians define it as books for people 12 to 18 – but about the articles she references in her post. The first is an article about how it’s CRAZY how many women write YA and are successful at it, and yet YA isn’t really that great.  This quote sums up the whole article, I think:

“While teen titles may never reach the upper echelons of critical adulation bestowed on the latest Jonathan Franzen novel, the phenomenal popularity makes it increasingly difficult to marginalize the genre.”

Firstly,  YA isn’t actually a genre. Sci-fi is a genre, so is mystery, and chick-lit. All of those genres are present in YA because it’s a reading level designation like children’s books or adult books. Somehow people have been able to acknowledge that there are quality children’s books and quality grownup books, why is it so hard to accept that some teen books might be good, too?

Secondly, it seems like you’re having no problem marginalizing the genre! Amazing. Also, if you talk about the great female storytellers, but then talk about how teen books will never be critically received, thus indicating that they are not so great, then that’s not really much of a complement to those lovely ladies, is it? As a matter of fact, lots of those books that ‘count’ as YA – because they have teen characters, are written from a teen point of view, and are about a character’s “coming-of-age,” are critical darlings and a staple of middle and high school summer reading lists.

The second article addresses the same problem of critical reception in a different way: prestige. The author says so many women write YA because it’s a “prestige-free-zone.” Apparently, women don’t care about kicking ass or being successful or accepted by a critical community. No one told me.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that there is a lot of discussion – at least on the Internet – about YA literature. But it would be nice if it were a bit less patronizing. Teens deserve great literature just as much as any other age group. Why is it so astounding that this would be true? Or that women might be writing it? Or that it can even be prestigious?

One more little note before I go: maybe a lot of teen titles won’t get the critical adoration of a Franzen novel, but neither will a lot of other adult books. Just as there are good books in every reading level, there are also unimaginative, rote, boring, and poorly written books for all reading levels, too. Bad books are pretty equal opportunity offenders.

Currently reading: Witchlanders by Lena Coakley, a sort of mediocre YA fantasy. It has interesting ideas but they aren’t developed very well. (I wish I was reading a really amazing YA book right now, so I could prove to you how quality they are, but it’s just not the case at the moment.) And I’m listening to Endurace by Alfred Lansing about Shackleton’s Antarctic voyage. I read it in high school, but thought it needed a re-read. Happy reading, all.

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3 thoughts on “NPR, prestige, and women in YA

  1. connectshore says:

    So, I read once that boys check out a lot more non-fiction books than girls. Could it be that around teenager-hood boys make that switch en-masse (aside from the sports related) and leave the girls behind to the massive amounts of teen novels devoted to romance and vampirism, followed closely behind by eating disorders and other coming of age issues?

    Are there more ladies in the YA field because of this, I’m wondering? What else might drive this do you think?

    -Beth

    • That’s a good point, Beth. I do think the fiction/non-fiction divide probably has some to do with it. I think another factor that I didn’t talk about was the publishing side of the story. Often books are written without any sort of difference in audience in mind, such as either for adults or teens, and publishers think that teen books can be an easy sell. Or they think they can make a bunch of money if their book gets picked up for a movie like the Hunger Games or Twilight. Maybe women don’t care so much into what age bracket their books get published. I’m not sure what it’s all about.

      I do know a lot of male authors (well, I wish I knew them personally!) who write for teens and only really want to write for teens. I can think of John Green, Walter Dean Meyers, Barry Lyga, and Chris Crutcher off the top of my head. And most of these guys write from a male perspective, too, which is great for YA. Or maybe it’s just that paranormal romance/vampires/werewolves is HUGE right now and it’s mostly women who write paranormal romance. Maybe if it was adventure or hard sci-fi or something where there are more male authors who write that, it would skew the other way. Publishing/reading trends are super weird.

  2. Sara says:

    I was wondering if the bias comes at the time of publishing. You sort of hinted at it above in your comment. If a book comes in to a publisher at an “unspecified” age, is it more likely to be pushed into YA if it is written by a woman? The bias thinking being that woman could write successfully for a teen audience, but not for an adult audience. That job belongs to a man, of course!

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