Last year, in defense of his sci-fi/fantasy habit, our very own Steven Lloyd Wilson wrote this about genre fiction:
The endless piles of genre fiction are the key to happiness. They’re the key to picking out the things that actually make you happy in this world instead of the things that you’re told are good for you. Ninety percent of everything you read is going to be crap one way or the other, so make sure it’s the crap that makes you smile, and don’t apologize for it.Any one of you mystery fiends, sci-fi nerds or bodice-ripper addicts can appreciate Steven’s sentiment. We can all accept that there is a massive amount of crap to be had in our genre of choice. It’s all part of the fandom. I’m not as lenient as Steven is on the worst of genre fiction. I’ll fling a badly-written book across the room after two or three chapters. Life is too short and my to-read pile too big for me to finish everything. But I can appreciate what Steven has to say about the worst of a genre enabling you to zero in on the good stuff. And that the contrast between the two allows you to articulate why you love what you love.
But what I’m here to defend today isn’t really even a genre. That’s part of the problem. When it comes to children’s books, the sorting doesn’t go by type of story. It goes by age group. And once we’re past the early readers and into chapter books the divisions are as follows: Elementary, Middle Readers and Young Adult (or Teen) fiction. So every kind of story you could want is bashed in there. From serious to frivolous, divided only by perceived “maturity.” Some larger stores, with space to spare and time to specify, will section Teen books into subgenres until you have this, the most unholy of book sections: Teen Paranormal Romance.
And even stores that don’t have the Teen section portioned out might as well call their YA shelves “Teen Paranormal Romance” or ” Post-Apocalyptic Adventure” because I’ll be damned if the shelves aren’t crowded with Twilight and Hunger Games knock-offs. Round the corner and you’ll encounter inky black covers with lurid red and purple writing as far as the eye can see. Because that’s one of the most insidious aspects of the Teen Fiction market. The publishers prey on impressionable young readers with a disposable income and sell them knock-off after knock-off rather than investing in creative, new, enthralling stories. Even worse than the preponderance of sh*tty knock-offs of a sh*tty,breathless story (not sorry, Twi-hards), is the way in which the Teen Fiction marketing geniuses get their greedy, sticky little hands all over good books. Nay! Great books. Exhibit A:
Is there nothing sacred? I’ve talked about this before. These covers make me physically ill. And, quite honestly, you can take your argument of ‘“whatever gets them to read” and kindly shove it up your defensive bum. You’re part of the problem. So that’s what YA does wrong. It’s understandable that, like a Hollywood hit machine churning out sequels long after the fire of the original has died out, the struggling publishing industry would want in invest in a sure thing. But here’s where I object. Unlike a summer blockbuster, a book can be absolutely vital to the emotional education of a child. To knitting together their moral fiber. And when said fiber is knit with stalker fiction posing as Romeo And Juliet, well, you bet I object.
So here’s what YA does right. YA is an amazing place for female-centric genre fiction. No, sit limply down, Bella, I’m not talking about you. Katniss Everdeen? Yeah, I’ll allow it. I’m pretty sure Katniss is somewhere on the autism spectrum, but that doesn’t preclude badassery. Katsa and Bitterblue of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling books? Yes. Maddie and Verity of Code Name Verity? F*ck yes. Maggie Stiefvater’s Puck and Blue? A world of yes. And if you inch a little younger you’ll find a trove among the works of Philip Pullman, Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley. Smart, fearsome young ladies who know their own minds and have a weapon of choice. Sadly, the “adult” sci-fi/fantasy section has some catching up to do. Sometimes, I imagine, it must get quite lonely for Arya and Brienne over there with only a a handful of cool female characters to keep them company.
But it’s not just genre fiction that’s winning the hearts of discerning grown-ups who find themselves in the Teen section. John Green has been doing phenomenal work for years. The Fault In Our Stars is only the latest and the best he has to offer. Or there’s Frank Portman’s King Dork, an unforgettably funny and downright hilarious coming of age novel. And, finally, my favorite YA book of the year. The most potent love potion I’ve chugged in a long time. Eleanor And Park. Here have a sip:
Oh suck it so hard, Bella and Edward. These sensible teens are where it’s at. So don’t judge every grown-up you meet with a YA book in their hand. They might be reading something as emotionally troubling as Between Shades Of Gray or The Book Thief. Books that plumb harrowing depths your average adult best-seller can’t even begin to reach. Don’t write us off. It’s not all witches and clockwork princes, fallen angels and werepires. So what if it sometimes is? We’re still worlds away from this.