A few days ago I came across an article entitled Beyond Relevance to Literary Merit: Young Adult Literature as “Literature”. In it, the authors argued that YA literature should be accepted as legitimate “literature,” especially by high school teachers. They state:
We have found, both in our teaching and in our personal reading, that a considerable body of young adult literature can withstand the test of close literary scrutiny. We consequently argue that the next move is to engage those who might otherwise question young adult literature’s literary merit in what Peter Elbow describes as a “believing game”, thereby helping them become more receptive to the possibility that young adult literature is not only about subjects and themes that are relevant to adolescent readers, but that its treatment of those subjects and themes reflects a level of sophistication that invites serious interrogation on the part of readers eager for a marriage of intellectual and affective engagement.
They go on to note a few examples that suggest that our definition of literature and what has literary merit is not clearly defined and often simply based on the fact that a certain book is canonical (and taught), while another is not. The test one professor conducted asking literature students to identify whether quotes were from adult books or YA is pretty telling:
They freely admit that when they identify an excerpt as coming from a young adult text, it is usually a guess based on inferred clues about a character’s age or circumstances…What is important to note, however, is that they rarely make a selection based on style—that is, they do not argue that one excerpt is more simplistic in its portrayal of character, setting, or perspective.
As someone who has read, and loved, a great many YA novels, I’m often disappointed by the lack of respect they receive. They tend to be dismissed based almost solely on the fact that they are written for a teenage audience, without regard for any other facet. It’s true that there are some terrible YA novels out there, just as there are terrible adult novels. It’s also true that some of these terrible novels become inexplicably popular, again as with adult novels. But, while fiction written for adults isn’t dismissed simply because there are a few books out there that shouldn’t have made it past the query stage, YA fiction isn’t offered the same treatment.
I’ve heard it said that YA novels simply do not lend themselves to analysis and that’s why they aren’t taught or used in schools more. I would argue that perhaps the reader isn’t looking deeply enough in the text to see the possibilities. Many YA novels contain the same themes that canonical literature do and can be more relatable for the students. In Salon’s recent article asking readers which books they would ban from schools, the author suggests that some of the literature taught in schools isn’t effective because students can’t fully comprehend the context surrounding them. Whereas they can easily recognize Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother as commentary on Post-9/11 America and oppressive government, understanding A Tale of Two Cities and how it relates to the French aristocracy’s oppression of the peasants pre-revolution can be difficult for many students. This isn’t to say that canonical literature shouldn’t be taught, but why only teach it? Why not teach Doctorow and Dickens together? Or Maureen Johnson’s Devilish with Faust? Or Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games with Greek and Roman mythology?
Anyway, check out the original article for a really great argument in favor of teaching YA, as well as some good reading suggestions.