Are Classics Still Relevant For Young Readers?

The short answer, for me, is a resounding yes.  But this is my blog, so I’m not going to limit myself to a short answer!

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I participated in a twitter discussion about this question the other day. At the time, the question was specifically around teens and whether they should be encouraged to read classic fiction. But I think that my answer to the question applies to adults and children as well. While I’m sure there are exceptions to this (I suppose you could try to find something so dated that it has no relevant application to today. But why bother with that?) I find that most classics are considered classics because they have an emotional resonance that goes beyond their historical and geographic setting.

51dxbewzuil-_ac_us218_One example used in the discussion was Anne of Green Gables, which, if you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you’ll know is a favorite of mine. I’ll use it as an example, but what I say is applicable of other books as well. On the surface Anne’s experience doesn’t look like that of most contemporary children or teens. She lives on an island in Canada in the early years of the 20th century. What could that have to say to a contemporary LGBT reader? Or a Latinx teen in 2019? Well, for one thing, she’s a foster child trying to create a home for herself.  That desire for home isn’t limited to foster children. There are plenty of kids who don’t find the acceptance and support that they need in their family homes and seek it elsewhere. Really, what Anne is trying to find is love, acceptance, friendship, and family. Contemporary readers of all backgrounds can cheer her on as she creates that environment for herself and builds the family she seeks.

But surely today’s teens are from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Classics tend to reflect a limited demographic, you might argue. To that, I say absolutely. Historically the voices of certain demographics have been privileged to the exclusion of others. Unfortunately that is still true today to some extent, though there is, thankfully, more of an effort to include diverse voices contemporary literature. That’s one of the reasons that  I don’t think that people should be encouraged to read only classics. I think that it’s important that contemporary fiction reflects and represents our diverse society. I would encourage anyone to read widely from a variety of authors. Some of those authors may come from similar backgrounds to the reader. Others may come from very different backgrounds.

51viyzpfqtl-_ac_us218_I think that reading in this way shows us what is universal. It can allow us to empathize and make connections on that basis. A teen from a marginalized background might think s/he has nothing in common with a character from Little Women or Tom Sawyer or The Secret Garden. But while their experience of the world may be vastly different, chances are they’ve felt loneliness, grief, frustration or the drive to create a better future for themselves.

81j9qbimjjl._ac_ul436_Likewise, someone from a privileged background might think that reading contemporary fiction that highlights marginalized voices and issues of privilege doesn’t offer anything relevant. But again, that’s not true.  Novels like The Hate U Give and The Poet X deal with the African American and Latinx experience respectively. But a white teen might still relate to the way that the heroine of The Poet X, Xiomara, deals with body shaming, parental pressure, and lack of autonomy. A white teen  reader of The Hate U Give might never have felt fear in the presence of police when they know they’ve done nothing wrong. But that same kid might still be able to relate to the pressure that the heroine faces from her family and friends, to her torn loyalties. Those commonalities can create a bridge. If a character that’s different from a reader still rings true the reader can begin to open his/her mind to someone else’s experience.

Sometimes we need to point out those commonalities. But I think that kids see them for themselves more often than we realize. The problem is that often kids and teens are told that certain books aren’t “for” them. Instead of doing that, lets give young readers (or all readers!) the context to enjoy fiction that depicts someone else’s experience. Because we all experience the world differently. But if we can teach empathy we can make that world much better for everyone.

Is This Book For Me? Reading Outside Your Demo

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The Adult Reading YA Controversy

It’s no secret that people who aren’t teens read books marketed as YA. According to a 2012 Publishers Weekly study, 55% of YA books are bought by adults. Yes, they could be buying books for their kids. But the largest group of YA buyers, 28% of those buyers are between the ages of 30 and 44. Is it possible for a thirty-something to have a teenage child? Yes. Is it likely? Not according to recent data which shows that in the US the average age of a first-time mother is 26. Around other parts of the YA buying world, it’s closer to 30. Meaning that people in the 30-44-year-old range are more likely to have a young child than a teen.

So let’s assume that adults are buying YA for themselves and reading it. Is that good? Should they be embarrassed? Opinions differ. In 2014, Ruth Graham wrote for Slate that “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” Her reasoning for this opinion is ” It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.”  That’s a big assumption to make. Unless the author of the books writes a forward demanding readers do just that, it’s not possible to be sure that that was the intention. Do some adults read these books from the perspective of a teenager? Perhaps. Do some read it from the perspective of someone who was in that frame of mind once but isn’t any longer? That’s equally likely. I imagine that for most people it’s a combination of the two. I usually fall somewhere along that spectrum, but in different places depending on the book.

Graham also asserts that  “mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all” OK. Is that to say that teens can’t find satisfaction in ambiguity? Or that YA only features “likable” characters? I’d say no. Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, for example, is told from the perspective of an accused rapist. The main character is not a textbook villain though. He doesn’t understand that what he did actually qualifies as rape. I imagine most readers of the book condemn his actions and believe that he should face consequences for them. Yet some might feel sympathy for a teenage boy, caught up in a situation he doesn’t completely understand. That doesn’t condone what he did at all. It simply complicates the reader’s feelings about what happens in the book. Different readers might close the book and have different opinions about what consequences the character should face. Or look at a more classic example. In The Outsiders, one character has a tragic ending that is framed as the lesser of two evils. The other survives and offers a vision of his life that involves making the right decision. Is this an optimistic ending? Pessimistic? It depends on which the reader feels a stronger emotional connection to.

After Graham’s article came out, a lot of YA readers and writers refuted it. In doing so many tackled that question of what “literature” is. But I am more curious right now about what categories such as “children”, “middle grade”, “YA”, and New Adult” actually mean.

Author Kate Axelrod wrote an essay about her novel, intended for adults, being marketed as YA. The Law of Loving Others is a novel about the toll that mental illness takes on a family. Because it featured a teen protagonist, most editors wanted to market it as YA. Axelrod resisted but eventually decided to sell the book to Penguin’s Razorbill imprint. The novel was eventually published in 2015 and didn’t attract much critical attention. That translated to lackluster sales. According to most readers and reviewers, the book wasn’t really a YA novel. It was an adult novel featuring teen characters. Adults who didn’t gravitate toward YA weren’t interested. Why?

And what makes something “not YA”? After all, there are many books that are successfully marketed to a YA audience that deal with dark, complicated themes including mental illness, suicide, violence, racism, drugs, and abuse. Look at the success of novels like 13 Reasons Why or The Hate U Give. These have achieved a crossover success with both adult and teen readers. Why were they able to do so, while Axelrod’s novel wasn’t? I could see JD Salinger or Harper Lee being told that The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird needed to be marketed as YA, using the same logic.

Also, why wasn’t Axelrod’s novel able to be marketed as adult fiction? A lot of contemporary adult fiction features teenage protagonists. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep was successfully marketed to an adult audience in spite of the fact that it was a coming of age story that took place at a New England prep school. Donna Tartt is consistently referred to as a writer of adult, literary fiction. However, her debut, The Secret History was set in college, and featured characters that were students. Her follow up, The Little Friend, features a twelve-year-old protagonist, and her Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch follows the main character from the age of thirteen through his early adulthood.

What’s the takeaway? Should we ignore all of these categories completely? Would that help people find books that resonate with them, or would it simply overwhelm them? People like to classify and categorize. It serves several purposes. Without these categories, choices can be too much. Imagine walking into a bookstore that was just organized by authors name. Fiction, nonfiction, children’s books etc were all jumbled up. A lot of people might just get frustrated and walk out. These categories also help draw in readers. Someone who reads a middle-grade book that s/he just loves may be more likely to seek out other books marketed to that audience, regardless of their age.

Is Children Reading YA A Problem?

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It’s also tricky when considering younger readers because not all content is appropriate for children of all ages. Childhood is a period of significant growth and development. The changes that one undergoes between the ages of 8 and 18 are enormous, whereas someone who is 50 may still be much the same ten years later. As a result it’s hard to tell what’s appropriate for whom.

Even within YA, there is a lot of variation. Traditionally, YA is aimed at a 13-18-year-old readership. While an 18-year-old might be ready for something like Judy Blume’s Forever, it might not be appropriate for every 13 year old. Having a single category that covers an age range in which a lot of maturing happens is tricky.

Or look at Middle Grade which is aimed at an 8-12-year-old readership. An 8-year-old might be a bit young for some darker/scarier MG books like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or The Girl Who Could Fly,  but a 12-year-old might find that same content exciting, suspenseful and compelling.

There’s no easy way for parents and educators to know if a certain book is appropriate for a certain child. Especially since no two children are alike. One 12 year old might be ready for YA while another one might be comfortably reading MG. For that reason, I think it’s essential that parents and teachers know their children and have at least some familiarity with the books in question.

Do you agree? Disagree? Do you like reading books that are “for” a demographic into which you don’t fit?