Great discussion in the comments thread yesterday (that I wasn’t able to participate in because I’ve been running around, trying to get stuff ready for our first ever Christmas Chez Diana). There must have been something in the air, because Jen Hayley was talking about the very same thing on her blog, and then later, I had a conversation with a YA writing friend who admitted that she didn’t want to say the words “young adult” when talking about her book because she was worried it might turn off potential readers. She said that some adults have dismissed her books out of hand when they hear they are “YA.”
I wonder if some of this can be tied to the whole myth of the “reading level.” I am constantly hearing proud parents declaring that their 10 year old reads “at a ninth grade level” and bemoaning the fact that books about 15 year olds are too mature in subject matter to match the “reading level” their children should be engaging in. I’m no educator, but I heard this whole reading level thing is actually describing the ease in which the average ninth grader would read the same material. It’s about phonics, not about books.
These people who are adults now (and dismissive of YA) were told growing up, exactly how old the books they were reading were through the calculation of some voodoo syllable-per-sentence mathematics that really had nothing to do with the book’s actual meat. When I was in middle and high school, we’d brag that we weren’t reading teen books, but adult books. The same group of friends who flocked to see TOY STORY on opening night were shocked that I, the English teacher’s pet, was still re-reading Narnia. They’d go to see SCREAM but would scoff at my Christopher Pike novels (they might, under duress, admit they read Stephen King). Entertainment designed for children or teens was totally appropriate, even cool — unless it was books. Having been trained to look on the back all our lives and press our “reading level” — books couldn’t be for fun. They needed to have bragging rights attached.
I think this attitude has abated somewhat in the face of the worldwide phenomenon that was the Harry Potter novels. I remember seeing fifty-something businessmen with Pentagon employment tags carrying their latest HP around the Metro a few years back. But at the same time time, I lost count of the number of articles saying that reading a chick lit book was rotting your brain. The New York Times was so
distressed perplexed by the endless presences of Harry Potter on the bestseller lists that they made a whole new list just for kidlit. The prevailing opinion about books is that they are not supposed ot be fun. They are not supposed to be entertainment. They are supposed to be high art. No one talks down to you if you unwind after a long day by watching Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, or Lost. But if you read a chick lit or a romance or a science fiction novel, you’re clearly low-brow. Stupid. Pathetic.
And you wonder why adult publishing is in grave peril.
Children’s publishing is doing better, perhaps, because kids have not yet been trained to think of reading as something they only do under duress so they can sound erudite at cocktail parties. “Oh, of course I read Proust!” (I don’t know why I’m picking on poor Proust. I’ve never read him. For all I know, I may find his books to be fascinating page-turners.) Kids meet in school yards and talk about how much they love Dumbledore. In kids publishing, it’s okay to be both highbrow and still tell a good yarn. Look at the Prinz winners and the National Book Award Children’s recipients.
One more note: in the comment thread yesterday, katayoun asked why books need to be split into all these different genres. It’s really a marketing concern. If you walked into a bookstore and you saw a huge wall marked “fiction” it might overwhelm you. But you read one book, and you like it. Say it’s a romance. You go to the romance section, where you figure there may be other books like that book, and you’ll like those. Ditto for fantasy. Or books for teens. Or mysteries. or so on and so forth.
And now, the winner of THE HUNGER GAMES is: Tez Miller. (Tez, hon, you are so getting this slow-boat-to-Australia method. I am researching my Amazon options as we speak. Serves me right for including the overseas folk).
Today’s giveaway is Maureen Johnson’s SUITE SCARLETT. Leave a comment here to enter.