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Removing the YA Label: A Proposal, a Fantasy

What, indeed, would happen if the “young adult” label suddenly…vanished?

By Beth Kephart

Not long ago, a high school looking for a book to read school-wide weighed the benefits of choosing a historical young adult novel with local appeal against a proven contemporary adult title and went, in the end, with the adult title, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Castle, it was later pointed out to me, had proven cross-category appeal. It had, in other words, transcended its label as an adult memoir to become a book deemed appropriate for all.

Beth Kephart

It wasn’t disappointment that I experienced in the wake of this exchange (the other book, as I suspect you’re suspecting, was one of my own) so much as a reaffirmation of something I have long suspected to be true: there is no underestimating the power of a book’s crossover appeal. Crossover appeal may, indeed, be that little extra something-something that grounds a book as a classic.

Think of the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games trilogy, The Book Thief, most things John Green and Between Shades of Gray — all released in the U.S. for adolescents and all quickly adopted as dog-eared, thumb-printed favorites by sixty-plus attorneys, Presbyterian book clubs, middle-aged mothers, newspaper reporters and academics (and those are just the people I know).

Think, conversely, of The House on Mango Street, The Beet Queen, Housekeeping, Girl With a Pearl Earring, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Out Stealing Horses, When the Emperor Was Divine, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Girl, Interrupted, and Year of Wonders. Each emerged from the “adult” division of their respective publishing houses and then proceeded to knock down fences — galvanizing young readers as well as older ones and becoming permanent fixtures on required high school reading lists.

Crossover books. Classic books. Aren’t they, at the very least, kissing cousins? And aren’t they also the books whose labels have been systematically sidestepped or blatantly ignored, whose labels, in the end, made no perceivable difference, save for the various honors and awards for which the books qualified? This conspicuous refusal to stay within the reading lines has represented, I think we can all agree, excellent good news for the books themselves, and excellent good news for readers.

What, then, does all this suggest about a label’s utility? What, indeed, would happen if the “young adult” label suddenly (in fantastical, whimsical, utterly surreal fashion) vanished? Certainly the YA label is not “protecting” teens from scandalous reads (however readers choose to define scandalous these days); it’s not the equivalent, in other words, of a PG rating. And certainly the YA label doesn’t tell us much of anything about the story we’re about to encounter, or about its relative artistry. “YA” tells us only that a teen or teens is involved. But so what, really, because at the end of the day, that’s the case for many an adult novel, too.

Perhaps banishing the YA label would change the way we evaluated books, or even celebrated them. Perhaps it would free us to articulate new categories — pure or purely beautiful, funny or sarcastic, level-headed or unhinged, big-hearted or tight-fisted, bold or derivative, grounded in fact or imagined into being. Perhaps we would hear fewer people murmur, “It’s really good, for a YA novel,” or, “It moves pretty quickly, for an adult tale,” or, “Hey, I think I’ll write a YA novel, because writing YA has got to be a whole lot easier than writing for adults.”

(Word to the wise: it is not, or, at least, it shouldn’t be.)

I recognize that I’m being naïve. I know that labels help commerce, labels help committees, labels help books find their way onto shelves. But I can’t stop myself from wondering, every now and then, if all this either/or-ing does book lovers, and those who write for them, any redemptive good. We want more classics.  We’re eager for them.

We need books that we can all believe in.

Beth Kephart’s fourteenth book, Small Damages, is due out from Philomel on July 19.  She blogs about literature and life at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/.

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  1. Posted July 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m with you. I can’t think of a term I dislike more than Young Adult.

  2. Posted July 18, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I think of Young Adult much like I do a PG-13 rating at the movies. It gives a general feel for the content of the book. The boundaries aren’t fixed; they’re mushy. Which is fine. There will always be cross-pollination, but I think we would lose something if we got rid of the YA label.

  3. Susie
    Posted July 18, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I think, historically, it has been used as a means to guide the bookseller and librarian, parent or teacher ‘gatekeeper’ as to where the book fits in the scheme of things. I’m not necessarily supporting that argument, just pointing out that it isn’t an arbitrary decision; in most cases.

  4. Posted July 20, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I like the YA label. I think it says to the teen, ‘ You will like this book, even if you don’t like reading. It’s been written with you and your interests in mind’.

  5. Kelly McMahan
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I came to the world of the YA novels when I chose books-on-tape to be my treadmill walking motivation. Listening to adult books-on- tape was often excruciating; the writing was so trite and the stories so ordinary. I found that YA novels had amazingly beautiful language. It was obvious that the authors took great care in word choice and imagery. I value a story which drives me to constantly ask myself, “What’s going to happen next?” and words so simply combined as to be perfect descriptions. I then started reading (versus listening) to books by these YA novel authors. This gets me to the point that I agree with Beth Kephart that the Young Adult label stops people reading “those kid books”. I am so grateful the YA label didn’t stop me.

  6. Posted July 29, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    It’s weird that I agree with you completely because my first novel, published 30 years ago by Dial Books for Young Readers, was a young adult early in the days of young adult novels. I’m sure I received the opportunity to publish because editors were eager for material.

    Yet I DO agree with you — many adults love young adults, and vice versa can/should be true. We can stick with other genre definitions, in order to lead the reader (“mystery,” “suspense,” “thriller,” “literary,” etc., ). If you sell more books, doesn’t this benefit everyone?

  7. Posted July 29, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I completely agree. The YA dreadnaught is a prime example of the over labeling epidemic authors face.

    The novel I’m polishing is about a group of college age people, so the protagonists are not young enough to be “YA” and not fully into adulthood. There is a parallel universe, but most of the story takes place in our world. Magic…well a bit, but it isn’t the overriding mover in the tale. The myriad of labels becomes mindboggling. They are at the age where love really grabs them so… New Adult Paranormal Urban Fantasy Romance? Wait, no, urban fantasy is overwhelmingly about female heroes, mine is a guy…, and there’s no throbbing this’s or quivering that’s so there goes the romance…maybe…

    It sure would be nice to just call it a Fantasy.

  8. Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    As someone who is tired of people telling me that my master’s degree in children’s (including YA) literature must be “so easy and fun,” I have to agree, though since I’m also getting a degree in library science, I worry about what Diane mentioned, which is that teens are already so disrespected and underserved that taking away something that says “This is for you, about you, written in a way that doesn’t insult or undermine you” is a bad thing. So I just can’t decide.

  9. Sue
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    I think that the time I read the most – devoured books, in fact – was when I was a teenager. And in those days there were no ‘teen’ or ‘YA’ books. One just transitioned from childhood to adulthood, via Rudyard Kipling, L.M Montgomery, Nevil Shute, Hammond Innes, Louisa May Alcott and Georgette Heyer, along with Victoria Holt, and even (eventually) Sidney Sheldon! There must have been more, but this is not that long ago…

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