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.
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/.