Just what is YA?

Children’s Book Week – June 12-16

When books were just books

When I was growing up, there was no such thing as “young adult” as a marketing niche.

In my house, there were just books. Never was I told that any of those books were not for me. I was reading fully “grown-up” literature when I was 7. I read my mother’s Pearl Buck collection before I was 10 and I didn’t have any difficulty with any of it.

Children who are encouraged to read and permitted to read will find their own level. They might well enjoy today’s “age-appropriate” middle grade or YA offerings, But then, if the books are good enough, so will many people who have long since left their teens behind. A good story can be read by anybody who loves to read, from age 12 to 92, without any artificial age boundaries in there.

And I’m using 12 as a beginning with a distinct sense that it is fungible. There are precocious readers who can read this stuff much younger, as I did, The relationship between a book and its reader is always very individual and specific and quite often unpredictable.

Age distinctions are a recent development, and since their arrival we have had kidlit fragment into picture books for VERY young readers, chapter books, middle grade, YA, New Adult.

People are constantly asking where are the lines? And that is a good question because it simply isn’t true that a young protagonist is all that it takes for a book to be YA. You could look at “Lolita” through that lens and because it has a young girl center stage – she’s even the title – you might throw a wholly undeserved YA label on it.

For a long time Harry Potter was pretty much THE YA genre. Everyone knew about Harry. And a generation grew up having picked up the first book when they were Harry’s age and then aged concurrently with it, adding their years just as Harry did his.

But the Harry Potter books and movies are very much a ladder and the first one feels almost simplistic. The subsequent books are much darker, much more complicated while still rated YA. Young readers are expected to cope with a very broad range of material, and this is often underestimated when it comes to “children’s literature”. Children can understand so very much – especially if you root it in familiar tropes.

My first YA series

Worldweavers coversThe first series I wrote for a YA audience was Worldweavers (“Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage”, “Dawn of Magic”) It was born out of a YA panel at the 2002 Fantasy Worldcon, where Jane Yolen, the grande dame of children’s lit, said at one point that she didn’t like the way the Potter books treated their girls. I lost the rest of the panel completely because that was all it took for Thea Winthrop to step out of the shadows and introduce herself to me.

Her story had all the tropes. Thea went to a school known as the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent, a place for the weird and geekish in her magical world. Thea was a Double Seventh, the seventh child of two seventh children, and her magical gifts were expected to be profound. Instead, she grew up as the Girl Who Couldn’t Do Magic.

It wasn’t that she was bad at magic in her magical world – she could not do it at all. To her, it was like she was standing behind a glass wall, unable to reach or touch or practice it. The reason behind that initial paralysis drove the whole series.

I peopled my book with three different kinds of creatures.

There are humans, much like us who can’t do magic. And there are those who can. And some of the magic users were rather famous in our own world, like Nikola Tesla, known widely as the Wizard of the West during his life and, when he appears in my books, the only quad-Elemental mage in human history.

The second group group of creatures are those I wholly invented, like my Alphiri. They look like Tolkien’s elves but have the grasping souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi and a built-in conviction that everything is for sale.

The third group of creatures are drawn from the American mythos – creatures like Grandmother Spider, and Tawaha the Sun God, and Coyote the Trickster.

I wove a story around them all – a story which revolved around one thing: about Thea’s coming of age, and into her own.

In fact, she becomes powerful indeed – becomes something quite unique (no spoilers; you’ll have to read the books to find out what.) But this doesn’t happen overnight, or easily. There are things she has to be willing to sacrifice on her road to the apex of her existence. She has to be willing to offer things she cherishes deeply, in order to save a friend. And then in order to save her world, she has to make tough choices that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of these books, my little girl is a little girl no longer. She is a grown, fully developed human being.

That is not to say she has become perfect – but that is not the point of a YA book. It is not to tell a young reader that one has to be flawless in order to survive. It is to assure them that flaws are inevitable, even necessary, but that it is possible to transcend them, or incorporate them into one’s being, and grow through that process.

Thea Winthrop is an amazing character who was a gift to work with. She is fourteen when we first meet her, and she is the perfect insecure teenager, one who disappoints her parents and knows it and is made miserable by it. She doesn’t quite know how to make it right. This is familiar territory to many young readers, who don’t live in a world of magic but who have, in their time, known that look of disappointment on their elders’ faces and have quailed at it. They will be standing right there next to Thea when she has her experiences. They understand – and they will be waiting for her to deal with that burden, to see how she does it, to see if they can learn something about how to deal with their own.

I wrote a book and series about choices and about growing up DIFFERENT and how to handle it all, even when you have to do it with fear, or with reluctance, or with only just enough grace to scrape by. And also with joy – the joy of discovery of one’s real identity, one’s real potential. The joy of friendship. The joy of learning, and of growing wise. And also the bitterness of betrayal, and the agony of failure, and what sometimes feels the almost unbearable burden of survival against the odds. It’s about proving something, both to oneself and to others.

In some ways, that journey is the best of “children’s literature” – the coming of age stories – and there are many out there, from Susan Cooper, to Madeleine L’Engle, to C S Lewis, to J K Rowling and the Potterverse. And I’m not talking about just fantasy. There are plenty of authors over there in the REAL “real” world who tell stories that could well have happened in our own real lives. But is something like “Stand by Me” or “The Outsiders” truly limited to a YA audience? Can the people who might already have passed the finish line of the “coming of age” race and are acknowledged as fully adult not be allowed to look back and remember the road they travelled to get there, in the worlds of “children’s literature”?

It’s all about the story

The best of children’s literature is basically a good story which can be enjoyed by a reader of any age. In the end, what it boils down to is whether your young reader can stand beside a character in a story, stand beside them and support them, at the same time stand beside them and learn from them what is possible, what is permitted and what is unthinkable – and why.

“Children’s literature” is formative, introducing the young to the realms of Story where they will either flourish and thrive or where they will founder – and foundering is easy enough, if the readers in question are bullied or forced into books. A fostered love of reading is essential when it comes to staying in love with the written word.

In my books, that translates into a certain complexity of story. Thea’s tale is layered and complicated, just like any “real” growing up would have been. I paint relationships there – very different ones – relationships where she is very much the acolyte, relationships where she is the adversary, and relationships where she is loved and cherished.

They are all necessary for the story to get woven together. They form as complex a backdrop as any “real” life might, and the reason they are necessary and the reason they work are the same – they sparkle with recognition, with tiny glittering pieces which a reader might pause and take a closer look at and find something very familiar in them, perhaps a reflection of themselves.

When we are adults, we assume that we understand the world we live in and are able to deal with what it throws at us because we are familiar with the context of it all. In “Children’s literature” the protagonist is just starting to come to terms with a world – that is often baffling and sometimes frightening.

That is what makes the Worldweavers books the “youngest” books I have ever written, not because of a simplistic measure like the age of their protagonist but because this isn’t about a journey finished and now remembered, being, instead, about the journey AS IT HAPPENS, counting the steps it takes to cross a room, a river, or a world. The young readers of such books are sharing that journey themselves, in real time, and that is why a good “kid” book is going to appeal to them – they will recognize themselves in the protagonist and that protagonist’s position in the story they’re reading.

In the space of a few short days devoted to a Children’s Literature Week, it is impossible to cover all the books that matter in this context – but what is important is simply this: that there are certain books which are The Beginning, the origin station for a lifelong journey into the world of the word. And that is to be celebrated.

My second YA series is The Were Chronicles – but that’s for another time.

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Quote of the Day

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you have been.” ~ Novelist Madeleine L’Engle

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Encounter with Coyote

In Dawn of Magic, the last book in my Worldweaver series, Coyote comes into full flower. (I’m working the final proofs now.)

When I set out to write the Worldweavers books, I wanted to write a story which was an American YA fantasy, to ground the stories that I would write firmly in the New World. I began by exploring themes in the Native American mythos.

Avatars of the gods and spirits from that mythological sphere became characters in my stories. Grandmother Spider, who plays an important role in the creation of the world in the rich mythology of the American South West, became a mentor for my young protagonist

And since every light has to have a shadow, the Trickster God, Coyote, ambled onto the stage with a hat-tilt and a wicked grin aimed in my direction.

Initially, he was something of a simple stereotype, a literary equivalent of a simple pencil sketch. He was there to fill the hole in the narrative which required a touch of malice, a touch of trickery, a touch of the dark side. But then, the Trickster in my novels slowly Tricked me into becoming…well, a real boy. He developed tics and mannerisms and habits. He always wore cowboy boots which were always dusty, he was given to flippancy.

CoyoteFor reasons initially known only to himself, he appeared to be working in cahoots with the enemy. And yet Grandmother Spider tells my protagonist, “Coyote will always be on your side.” And it is the joy and richness of this character that both of those are true, and true at once, and they don’t necessarily cancel one another out. Coyote is a Schrodinger’s cat of a character, both good and evil inside that box and you don’t know which until you actually open it up and look. (And often even then you are not sure. He is Coyote, after all.)

My version of Coyote became something larger and deeper, something that forced me to color outside the lines and to ask harder questions and to glimpse all sorts of shadows into which my insights threw only the dimmest of lights, just enough light to know that there was more shadow beyond its reach than I would ever be able to understand or really do justice to within the scope of my story.

In Dawn of Magic, Coyote CAME ALIVE. The book is Thea Winthrop’s apotheosis, where she faces her greatest fears and has to stand firm in the face of them; this is the story of the redemption of Nikola Tesla, and his transformation into something that even I had not seen truly coming.

And above all this is the story of Coyote, the Trickster, the creature who cares deeply about everything even while he pretends not to give a fig for anything at all, who trusts instinct and not reason and gives his whole existence up to the power of that truth, whose role in creation is to test the mettle of men and to bring out the best and the brightest in them when times to try their souls are thrust upon them but who does this work with equal measure of playful malice and unplumbed depths of empathy and love.

This is the Coyote I came to know, and my own life is the richer for it.

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Are you a bibliophile?
How many 2OK. Sure you love books, but are you a REAL bibliophile? How Well-Rounded Is Your Personal Book Collection? Buzzfeed wants to know.

Theyr’e talking real printed and bound paper pages here. How many of the 81 (yes, 81) following types of books do you own?

I got 70 out of 81. I fell down when it came to manga… 🙂
How manyTest your bibliophile status HERE

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7 Reasons You Should Never Date Someone Who Doesn’t Read Books
Non-readerAs a person who was basically raised by books, Emma Lord writes, she cannot help but balk at dating non-readers.

I understand the sentiment. When I first started talking to a man online, I sent him one of my favorite books. He claims that I made it clear that if he didn’t like it, there would be no hope of a beautiful friendship. (He passed the test; he loved the book and he’s now my husband.)

Emma Lord, who is still single, says in Bustle, “I’m not sticking my nose up in the air at dating contenders because they haven’t read Proust or written a 17-page paper on some other dead guy…there is a book genre out there for everyone, and people who aren’t reading books are deliberately ignoring them and their brains are suffering for it.”

Read her reasons HERE

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15 YA Writers on Their Favorite Book for Adults

I wasn’t one of the YA authors asked, but I would have offered several books, including the one I sent as a test to my future husband, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by the British writer Louis de Bernières. I’ll tell you about some of my other favorites another time.

Writing for Flavorwire, Elisabeth Donnelly  asked some of our favorite contemporary young adult authors about their favorite books for grown-ups. The results, which feature responses that are both sly and serious, range from coming-of-age stories to science fiction adventures.

For example,

Favorite adultAndrew Smith: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

One of my favorite adult literary novels of all time is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. With rich prose and striking characters, the novel tells an inventive and enchanting story about the search for all things lost. It’s one of the very few novels I will read again and again.

Andrew Smith‘s books include Grasshopper Jungle and The Alex Crow, due in March.

 

 

Read the rest HERE

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Telephones in literature – quiz

It’s 100 years since Alexander Graham Bell inaugurated the US transcontinental telephone service, Greg Clowes writes at The Guardian. And to celebrate the occasion, he examined some memorable calls in literature. Can you get the right numbers for these questions?
TelephoneThe telephone – ‘a supernatural instrument’ according to one French writer. But who?

Take the quiz HERE

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THIS ‘n THAT

Chilling First Amendment Implications of a journalist’s five-year prison sentence

Read the article HERE
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Scarves growing on trees. To be harvested by those most in need of them. There are moments that people and their wacky and wonderful ideas really make me happy.
scarvesHundreds of hats and scarves have been spotted in cities that are experiencing freezing temps this winter. The message attached to one scarf says: “I am not lost! If you are stuck out in the cold please take this to keep warm!”

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Quote of the Day
QUOTE John Gardner~~~~~
Alma Alexander      My books      Email me 

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