The Giver by Lois Lowry. Just Ella by Margaret Haddix. Spying on Miss Muller by Eve Bunting. Pawns by Willow Davis Roberts. All of these books were published in the 1990s, and all were considered young adult reads. Today, however, I wonder if we would not market them as middle grade. And I wonder what changed. Did YA simply blossom, creating a more mature section for older teens, while books like The Giver began to occupy a nebulous space between MG and YA? Did children become more mature? Or are the mature audiences reading YA dictating the maturity of the content?
I won’t pretend that YA wasn’t always kind of edgy. Even in the past, it dealt with things like sex and violence. Teenagers wondering about their bodies, about boys, who were worrying about their first kiss, wanting to experiment–it was all there, even in the 1990s books I have mentioned. But, somehow, these books still feel a little more innocent to me, for two reasons.
First of all, I don’t think YA books of the past necessarily ended up with the characters having sex, though I fully expect that to happen in 99.9% of the contemporary YA books I read today. In Pawns (1998), for instance, the main character has a crush on the boy next door. Maybe they hold hands, if anything. In Spying on Miss Muller (1995), a kiss is the most exciting action the protagonist gets, though she hints that more might come later. (But I still got the sense she wasn’t thinking “all the way” just yet.) In Gail Carson Levine’s The Wish (2000), I only remember kissing, as well, though perhaps my memory is poor. In fact, if my memory is not poor, I think kissing was the old sex. That was the defining moment for the teen characters of the past, the one where they knew they were “in love,” the climatic moment they were aiming for. In YA today, however, a kiss is nothing. Maybe it’s a prelude to sex, but it’s not going to be the end scene.
Secondly, I don’t remember YA books being as explicit as they are today. In Spying on Miss Muller, for example, much of the sexual activity is only hinted at or written in “coded” language. If readers know what sex is, they’ll know what the characters are talking about. If they don’t, they’ll either have to piece it together or just remain ignorant. I remember this being the case for many books. The sex was there. It just typically wasn’t described. Now, a steamy sex scene is pretty much expected, so much so that readers are now wondering if Sarah J. Maas’s books didn’t go a little too far for the teen section. (I haven’t read them, so I won’t comment on that.)
But it is not only the sex that has gotten more explicit; YA books seem more violent than before, darker, grittier. For instance, people are killed in The Giver–I will not pretend that the book is not dark and disturbing. But somehow it still seems different from a book like Six of Crows. Set in the Barrel district where thieves con pigeons out of money at the gambling halls and offer them their choice of woman at the brothels, the book and its sequel constantly dwell in vice and violent. Both are marvelous books, ones that shed light on issues like human trafficking. But they also feel like books that blur the boundary between YA and adult fantasy. People are constantly being killed and maimed in grotesque ways, ways that make violence seem creative and exciting, a game that only the most skilled can win. This is a far cry for the horror readers are supposed to feel at the killing depicted in The Giver.
Much has been written on whether YA books are really being written and marketed for teens, or if they are being written and marketed for the adults who are buying them. I won’t go into that discussion today. However, I think it is interesting to note that the boundaries seem to have changed. Even though I see a lot of bloggers hesitant to read MG because they think it’s “childish,” I would argue that upper MG is actually YA and that YA books are increasingly becoming adult–at least according to old standards. Upper MG often has danger, violence, death, drug use, gangs, and even a little romance. It’s hardly “childish.” It’s just that these topics are not usually written in an explicit manner. For a MG couple, holding hands might be the “big moment”–just as it was for a few teen heroines back in the 1980s and 1990s. At least, that was true. Now I’m seeing books like Hillary Homzie’s Pumpkin Spice Secrets hit the shelves (part of the Swirl novels) and, though I haven’t read the series, the blurbs read to me a little like Hallmark Channel rom coms with middle school characters. I expect we’ll see MG books maturing even more as time goes on. Meanwhile, teen books are also becoming increasingly dark and increasingly explicit as MG books move into their old territory.
I won’t say that this trend is necessarily good or bad. I expect that, regardless of what label we give to books, readers will continue to find what they want to read and to self-censor. If a teen reader or a middle school reader doesn’t want to read an explicit scene or a graphically violent scene, chances are they will stop and find something with which they are more comfortable. Still, I think we should challenge and reconsider the labels we give to books. For instance, if a MG book is moving into YA territory, why are so many readers ashamed to be seen with MG? Why couldn’t high school readers still enjoy MG books if they don’t want to read anything explicit? Is the writing level truly that different in many cases? After all, “MG” and “YA” are simply marketing labels that reflect the demographic publishers imagine will buy the book. They do not necessarily reflect on the sophistication of the content or the writing.
Also, we should consider what the labels mean since educators, librarians, and parents often use them for shorthand. Right now they tend to assume that anything in the YA section is “teen appropriate.” But teen readers are often considered sixth grade to twelfth. Is an eleven-year-old ready to find an explicit scene? Can educators and parents feel confident handing any YA book to any teen reader just based on the age designation, if the age designation is shifting in ways we haven’t fully addressed? (After all, even the best of teachers or librarians can’t have read or heard of EVERY book that is published.) What happens when a librarian blithely recommends a new YA book that got good reviews, only to have an enraged parent arrive, yelling that her thirteen-year-old wasn’t ready to read about date rape or self harm or something else that was dealt with in “too much” detail?
Perhaps over time YA will settle into a more mature place and everyone will acknowledge that YA is now far edgier than it used to be, and that MG has moved into the place YA used to occupy. When that happens, I expect parents and educators won’t be as shocked as they are now. And perhaps middle school readers and even high school readers will feel more confident being seen with MG books, rather than only with YA. They’ll know what to expect. In the meantime, it’s worth admitting to ourselves that the boundaries seem to have moved and that we might need to reconsider how we are perceiving and recommending books.
What do you think? Does YA seem more mature to you than it used to be?