Nailing Down A Definition

We begin the semester in this class talking about the challenges in defining the terms in this field: What exactly is a young adult? And what counts as literature? And how are these terms influenced by the culture they exist in and the contexts in which they’re used? The difficulty in defining some of these terms is what led to me asking you to collaborate on the keyword wiki, which I think is off to a great start.

As further evidence of how tricky these terms can be, I offer this piece from NPR into evidence. A couple of years ago, some of the writers at NPR conducted a survey of listeners/readers, asking them to identify the best young adult novels (or “teen novels” in the parlance they chose). Here are the top ten from this list:

  1. The Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling)
  2. The Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins)
  3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  4. The Fault in our Stars (John Green)
  5. The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien)
  6. The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger)
  7. The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)
  8. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
  9. Looking for Alaska (John Green)
  10. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

What is interesting about this list, to me, is the great contrasts that this list reveals in terms of defining just what we mean by YA literature: Fault in Our Stars and Farenheit 451? The first I think clearly falls into most definitions of young adult literature but the second is more questionable. When we define YA lit, are we talking about anything that teens read (whether they do so voluntarily or not)? Or are we talking about books written for teens, about teens, and read by teens (because they want to)?

I don’t mean to suggest here that there aren’t teens who read and enjoy books like Fahrenheit 451 or To Kill A Mockingbird on their own without anyone compelling them to do so–and some who are compelled to read these books for school do actually enjoy them. However, I would suggest that many teens would not choose Bradbury or Lee for leisure reading but would pick up John Green in a heartbeat. This comment, of course, requires me to consider the role of leisure or choice in determining what qualifies as YA literature, which leads us to consider the role of “teen choice” lists versus lists of “best books” for teens authored by adults.

Further evidence of the messiness of the whole debate comes in the comments to the original list as well as in this reply from the editors of the list about their process, a response that probably generates as many questions as it answers. If you peruse the comments on both of these pages, you’ll see what I mean. For instance, a valid question is raised about the absence of Ender’s Game from the top 100 list, which the judges excluded due to its depictions of violence; The Hunger Games series is at the top of the list, though, and its violence is arguably as disturbing as the violence in Card’s novel. (Which brings us to yet another facet of the debate surroundings YA lit, the issue of appropriateness of content.)

I share with you my definition of YA lit in class (it’s literature written specifically for young adults and marketed towards young adults), but realize that this is only an operational definition, for the purposes of our exploration in this class. I don’t claim that it’s a comprehensive or complete definition by any stretch. The challenges of defining what YA literature is (and who reads it) are part of what makes this field so interesting.

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