Are There “Shared Characteristics” in YA Novels?

Young adult book fans have been pointing out for ages that YA is an age category (it’s books aimed at readers roughly 12-19), not a genre. There are books of every genre within the YA category – fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, contemporary, nonfiction, etc. – but YA is not itself a genre any more than “adult books” is a genre. I’ve been arguing this myself for years, and yet…I do think there are “shared characteristics” among many YA books (not all, of course), and “shared characteristics” are, uh, one of the things that help define a genre.

So, are there characteristics that seem to say a book is a young adult book rather than an adult novel? There’s a lot of room for debate and, again, a lot of room for exceptions. But here are some things I’ve noticed that seem to tie many YA books together as a group.

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The Teenage Protagonist

This one is obvious. THE defining characteristic of a YA book is that it has teen protagonists. There are books with teen characters that are not YA books, but I can’t think of a YA book that doesn’t have a teen protagonist. (Interestingly, there are middle grade books that don’t have kid protagonists, but the teen protagonist thing seems like a hard and set rule for YA.)

The Prose Style

Prose style does vary, of course, and there are YA authors with distinct writing voices. However, there is definitely a shared prose style among many YA books. One of my friends is positive it’s the influence of Sarah J. Maas, and an inordinate amount of recent YA novels sound as if they were written by authors inspired by her– whether their own books are fantasy novels or not. Whatever it is, I can sense it a mile off. When I was teaching, I even asked one of my students if she read a lot of YA books based on the way she’d written her own personal narrative! (The answer was yes.)

The Clearly Stated Morals

This is a big one, and it’s something that a lot of YA readers actually demand. YA books deal with many complex, difficult, and sometimes dark topics, but what sets them apart from adult books is that they usually parse the issue out for readers and tell them what to think about the issue. If a character says something sexist, it’s called out as wrong and another character explains why. In adult books, however, a character might just make a sexist statement, and it’s up to the reader to decide what to think and how to respond; the narrator or another character might never comment on it or directly state that it’s wrong.

The Optimism

This is one of the things I love about YA (and also MG) books. There’s often a sense of optimism or hope for the future in YA books. No jaded protagonists. No nihilism. Even when things get tough, there seems to be so much future ahead for the character; one believes things might turn out okay after all.

The Way Death and Violence Are Handled

This is tied into the optimism. I admit YA has gotten pretty dark recently, so perhaps this point is changing, but largely YA is not interested in over-the-top graphic violence or in tons of death. That is, a lot of people may die in a YA book, but the way the deaths are presented is different from the way they might be in an adult novel. Usually the deaths are made to feel meaningful; the reader is to feel the impact and mourn for the characters, or if there’s a battle and tons of people die, the reader is to feel the impact of the magnitude of death. In some adult novels, people just die. It might be quick and meaningless, a trail of random deaths following the protagonist that reveal the brutality and meaningless of life. I haven’t seen that in a YA book yet.

Discuss!

What characteristics do you think are common in YA books that set them apart from adult books?

And shout-out to Ashley’s post #YAIsNotAGenre for giving me some inspiration for this post.

Briana

Should Books Acknowledge Their Own Plot Holes?

Last year while reading, I came across a couple books that acknowledged something that occurred in the book was illogical and left a gaping hole in the plot…then shrugged it off and moved along with the story with either a poor explanation or no explanation at all. I suppose the authors (and editors) felt the acknowledgment of the issues was a sufficient means of addressing them, better either than ignoring the plot holes or correcting them, but personally I was dissatisfied. I’ve written before about valuing logic in the books I read, and a nod to the fact that there was a lapse in logic, without actually fixing it, didn’t feel like enough for me.

In one of the books, the plot hole came when the protagonist decided to have a steamy sex scene with a guy she was not actually on good terms with (in fact, they were on terrible terms, and not in some sort of joking fake-enemies way). Pages after the scene, she herself reflects on the fact that it was really weird she decided to get intimate with a guy she hated so much, and then…nothing. The book moved on, and I was left wondering what on earth I’d just read. Was there a need for that sex scene? Is there a quota for romance novels, and it just had to occur??? Is some explanation going to be offered in the sequel? I have no idea, but I would have been happier if the protagonist had just remained righteously angry and not slept with the guy. In this case, just eliminating the scene would have kept the book running smoothly.

In another book, the plot hole was rather major; in fact, most of the plot hinges on the unlikely event and illogical explanation for it, which likely explains why the author didn’t fix it. In brief, much of the plot hinges on the character not knowing something that she should have easily been able to find out. In fact, she is researching the very subject…but never comes across the relevant information. Some characters note it is odd she didn’t find the (not really that rare) information and then carry on, plot hole noted and ignored. I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes because this simply does not make sense.

And the brief acknowledgment that it doesn’t make sense reads like the kind of half-hearted revisions I would sometimes make when professors pointed out gaps in my research papers in college. Maybe they would write feedback on a draft like, “What about the possibility the character didn’t do this out of charity but rather out of jealousy?” and then I’d “revise” my paper by writing two sentences starting with, “Some readers might think the character did this out of jealousy, but that’s not true because of [really brief reason]” instead of fully revising the paper to engage with the jealousy argument in-depth. My professors generally didn’t go for it, and I don’t go for it either as a reader.

Mostly I find it frustrating when authors acknowledge their own plot holes and then leave them because it indicates they know about the hole but think I, as the reader, won’t really care. Apparently the hole is egregious enough to note, to tell the reader, “Yes, I did in fact notice this problem! I didn’t completely overlook it!” But for some reason it’s not important enough to fix. They assume I, as the reader, will be too swept away by the rest of the story to truly care. There might be a gaping hole, but I can be trusted to buy the book and like it well enough anyway.

What are your thoughts? I think, in an ideal world, we’d all say that authors should fix the plot holes. But if they don’t, should they acknowledge them? Or gloss over them and hope no one notices?

Briana

The Richness of Tolkien’s Female Characters: Eowyn

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!


J. R. R. Tolkien has received much criticism over the years both for the lack of female characters in The Lord of the Rings and for their characterization. Some readers, for instance, may feel that even though The Lord of the Rings does include a handful of interesting women from Goldberry to Galadriel to Eowyn to Lobelia, they do not get enough page time or, if they do, they do not quite meet modern feminist standards. However, Tolkien’s women are varied, rich, and intriguing, just like his male characters. The difficulty? Readers generally do not get the story from their perspectives, and so do not have more direct information about their internal lives and motivations. Lobelia’s story, for example, is told in retrospect from a secondary character; readers do not get to follow her in her footsteps, as they do with Sam as he approaches Mordor on his own. Without this direct focus, it is easier to dismiss Lobelia, her character, and her actions.

However, if readers take the time to look more deeply into The Lord of the Rings, as well as Tolkien’s other writings on Middle-earth, the richness of his female characters becomes more apparent. Even though they may be few in number, Tolkien’s women are often powerful movers of events, their intelligence, wisdom, and courage on par with or even exceeding that of their male counterparts. This series of posts will take a look at a few of Tolkien’s female characters and explore their character development, and what it can tell us about Tolkien’s vision for Middle-earth.

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Eowyn is possibly Tolkien’s most famous female character, and one of the ones most beloved by fans. While Tolkien’s other female characters may be criticized for being flat, boring, or simply not feminist, Eowyn escapes much of this censure with her decision to disguise herself as a man and fight on the battlefield. In the process, she achieves much honor and glory by slaying the Witch-king, with the aid of Merry. Still, some readers still find it disappointing that Eowyn later renounces her desire for glory and death in battle and instead retires with Faramir to restore Ithilien. Surely deciding to heal things instead of chop them up with swords is anti-feminist?

To understand Eowyn’s character arc, however, readers must understand how it fits in with the entirety of Tolkien’s perspective on war. Although The Lord of the Rings contains many battle scenes, often with stirring war songs and inspirational feats of courage, Tolkien balances this idealistic vision of war with a more sombre understanding of the costs of fighting. One suspects that, as a soldier himself in WWI, Tolkien understood better than most how a glorious vision of battle and an admiration for deeds of daring could co-exist with the realization that war itself is still a horrible thing. And, so, The Lord of the Rings provides two important moments where Tolkien reveals a more realistic vision of the effects of war. This is the lesson that Eowyn must learn in order to mature and complete her character arc–that war means death and destruction, and the glory of war does not outweigh that harm.

The first moment to draw readers’ attention away from the glory of war occurs in Ithilien, when Sam sees fighting up close for the first time, and witnesses the death of a Southron man in battle. Tolkien writes:

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really have rather stayed there in peace…”

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

Up to this point in The Lord of the Rings, the effects of fighting have not received much attention. Usually the heroes are set upon by their enemies first, and they draw their swords and their bows in order to defend themselves. Readers cheer the heroes on–because they are the heroes–and delight in their battlefield deeds because they illustrate the superiority of the good side. The enemies, until now, have been merely blank slates for the heroes to perform their heroics upon.

Sam, however, has not grown up in a warlike city, nor has he been trained in arms or to see the enemy as simply an obstacle to overcome. And so, Sam so can see the humanity of his enemy who has fallen before him. He possesses vision Eowyn does not. Eowyn imagines battle as merely an opportunity for her to gain fame and then death. She does not consider the people who must die in order for her to achieve her goals, nor does she concern herself with where they came from or if they are really her enemy (or simply mislead by Sauron) or whether they have families who might miss them. Eowyn’s thoughts are, indeed, largely for herself–a short-sightedness she will need to overcome in order to mature.

The second moment that reveals Tolkien’s thoughts on war comes from Faramir, who tells Frodo:

“War must be while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.”

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

Here, Tolkien simultaneously acknowledges the attractiveness of war–the sharpness of the sword and the glory of the soldier–along with the devastation they may cause. War is, for Faramir, a necessary evil, something to be done only in defense because it defends something truly valuable: wisdom, knowledge, and beauty.

This is a telling moment because Faramir stands in direct contrast to his brother Boromir and his father Denethor, as well as the current state of the city of Minas Tirith, which has come to value feats of arms over lore and wisdom. By contrasting Faramir with Boromir, Tolkien illustrates that the desire for glory can be intertwined with a lust for power, which will ultimately prove destructive both for the individual and for his cause. If Boromir had taken the Ring to achieve greatness and save his city, Minas Tirith would have ultimately fallen to yet another corrupt ruler, or to Sauron, who would have overpowered a weaker Ringbearer. It is only because Faramir is able to see the bigger picture, the whole point of fighting, that he is able to reject the lure of the Ring in order to preserve peace for years to come. Faramir chooses a city full of wisdom and beauty over a warlike state renowned for its soldiers because he understands that war and glory are not good in and of themselves.

Eowyn’s personal journey is, interestingly, one that ultimately leads her to Faramir’s conclusions. And, so, readers should not be quick to assume that her rejection of arms is a sign of weakness or an anti-feminist statement on the part of Tolkien. Tolkien is, in fact, very interested in showing men as healers, as well: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known,” says Ioreth (RotK). Both Aragorn and Faramir become healers of the realm of Gondor, just as Sam goes to work healing the wounds of the Shire. Healing, for Tolkien, is a sign of strength and wisdom, and it is possible that readers’ own dismissal of healing as “women’s work” can make them so uncomfortable to see Eowyn say, “I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren” (RotK). But, for Tolkien, this moment is the moment of Eowyn’s maturity, when she recognizes that life and growth are more valuable than death.

Eowyn’s personal journey is indeed very nuanced, though it can be overlooked since much of it comes in scattered hints and fragments, and readers must use their imagination to recreate the circumstances of Eowyn’s life until the moment when she confronts the Witch-king. What readers do know is that Eowyn has felt trapped at home, watching her uncle the king deteriorate into impotency under the influence of Wormtongue. While her brother, as a man, could escape, she was always left behind, and she, too, fell under the sway of Wormtongue’s poisonous words. “But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?” asks Gandalf (RotK). He suggests she began to believe Wormtongue’s lies that Rohan was bereft of dignity.

Eowyn felt that the nobility of her house was fading and that she was doomed to stay at home and watch, until all the men at last died in glory, leaving her and the women and children to die in the homes they left behind. The women were, she felt bitterly, undervalued by the men who simply took them for granted, expecting them to keep house for them whenever they bothered to come home. And she felt increasingly certain that housekeeping would be unnecessary in the dark days to come, when Rohan would be overrun with enemies. To Aragorn, Eowyn says: “All your words are but to say: you are a woman and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more” (RotK). For her, since death seemed certain, death in battle, with honor, was the way she wanted to go. But men denied her even that.

Eowyn’s understanding of war is thus shown to be rather limited. Since she has never been on the battlefield, but likely only heard the songs and stories of those who have returned, she imagines war to be incredibly glorious, and does not consider its more horrible effects. To go to war and die in battle is her one escape from a life of ignobility, and so she does not concern herself much with how war might affect her country or her family, much less her enemy. Indeed, she does not even have the excuse of wanting to protect Rohan; her love of war is all about gaining honor for herself. She goes so far as to forsake her duty to lead the Rohirrim in the absence of the king in order to join the king in the field.

This childlike enthusiasm for battle, as well as a desire to get out of Rohan, is also what first attracts Eowyn to Aragorn. He represents masterful deeds of arms on the battlefield. He has the love and respect of men as a result. Furthermore, if she could marry him, Eowyn would be able to escape Meduseld and the life of uselessness and neglect she has experienced there. She would have a new start, though, as a woman in a patriarchal society, she still understands that she will need to marry a man in order to get it.

Through Eowyn, Tolkien demonstrates that he thought extensively of what it might feel like to be a woman left home, waiting, while all the men go to war. Eowyn, though certainly individual in her response to this waiting, also comes to represent a glimpse of life on the homefront. She gives voice to the powerlessness felt by those left behind, as well as the anger, bitterness, and resentment women might come to feel when they realize that they are doing their part for their country, but that they receive no recognition for it, no remembrance in song or story when the warriors come home. The men, busy with their work, actually seem to forget about the women, and what their sacrifices might look and feel like. Eowyn, however, refuses to be content with this lot, and, after being rejected by the men around her, takes her destiny into her own hands and sneaks off to battle.

Eowyn’s destruction of the Witch-king is undoubtedly one of the highlights of The Lord of the Rings, a satisfying moment where a woman shows that she can what no man was able to do. For this act of bravery, Eowyn surely received the honor she always craved and most likely was praised in song in Meduseld for many years after. But this is not the end of her story because, as we have seen, Tolkien does not let the glory and excitement of battle overshadow the recognition that war is ultimately terrible. Eowyn is wounded, nearly unto death. And, when she awakens, she finds that her glorious deed is still not enough for her to want to live. Not if she cannot have the love of Aragorn.

Eowyn’s stay in the Houses of Healing is an important moment for her because it is there that she undertakes the journey of self-revelation that allows her to see that life is still worth living. Unrequited love may sting, but Faramir helps Eowyn to see that there is still much for her to do, and to be. It is notable that Eowyn ends up falling in love with Faramir, because he represents the opposite of all she has hitherto valued: Faramir prizes peace, and wisdom, and beauty over the glory and deeds of war. Faramir longs to heal Ithilien and to bring growth back to lands that Sauron had destroyed. Previously, all this would have no doubt seemed silly to Eowyn, who longs for glory more than she longs for usefulness, and for death more than she longs for a seemingly unremarkable life. But Eowyn has reached a place where she can understand that healing is worthwhile, even if it is a task that goes unpraised.

Eowyn’s journey gives readers not only a deeply realized female character, but also a representation of Tolkien’s views on war. She moves from seeing battle as merely the possibility for great deeds and undying fame to realizing that war destroys, and that healing is worthier than destruction. Eowyn’s most note-worthy deed might be the slaying of the Witch-king. But perhaps her most difficult action is admitting that she was wrong, and choosing a life without glory, but one with meaning.

Should High School Readers be Assigned Classics Originally Written for Adults?

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Should high school readers be assigned classic books that were originally written for an adult audience?

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Should High School Readers Be Assigned Classics Originally Written for Adults

Classics in the classroom are controversial for a variety of reasons, not least because of the belief some readers hold that classics are just too inherently difficult for anyone to want to read, let alone students. The complexity of the texts and the unfamiliarity of the language is good reason, many argue, for teachers to stop assigning classics altogether. Often unacknowledged in the conversations around reading material, however, is the fact that a large number of students have not acquired the reading skills deemed necessary for their grade level. This means that it is not simply classics that might be too difficult for students to read, but a large number of more recent titles, as well. If teachers were to assign modern adult books to students, many would likely still struggle for the same reasons they struggle to read classics.

Every four years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests U. S. students in grade 12 to see where their reading levels are at. Students may score in four ranges: Below NAEP Basic, NAEP Basic, NAEP Proficient, and NAEP Advanced. A Basic score indicates that students have partial mastery of the material, Proficient means they have a solid mastery, and Advanced means they have exceptional mastery. One would hope, then, that most students would at least score on the Proficient level. The 2019 results, however, (the most recent available) show that 30% of 12th graders scored Below Basic, 33% scored at the Basic Level, 31% tested as Proficient, and 6% tested as Advanced. In other words, 63% of 12 graders, about two-thirds, have not mastered all the literary skills they ought.

Students may, at a Basic level, be able to “identify elements of meaning and form,” “make inferences, develop interpretations, make connections between texts, and draw conclusions, and “provide some support for analysis.” But they have not yet mastered “locating and integrating information using sophisticated analyses of the meaning and form of the text” or “providing specific text support for inferences, interpretative statements, and comparisons within and across texts.” 30% of 12th graders have not mastered even the Basic skills. Is it any wonder, then, that they find reading a classic book difficult? They might find reading and interpreting any book difficult.

Some have suggested that teachers replace classics with YA books. The argument made is usually that this will be more “relevant” and “relatable” to students. However, one might also consider that YA books are usually written more simply than adult books, making them easier for struggling readers to access and interpret. Yes, of course, YA books often deal with difficult content–anything from teenage pregnancy to death to the nature of humanity. However, the way YA books are written is actually usually more simplistic than adult books. Typically, sentences are easier to understand and any “message” or “theme” is spelled out for the reader. In fact, spelling out the message is so common in YA, that readers now get upset if an author does not do this, and instead expects readers to interpret something like, “This character said something sexist so he is the villain” rather than explicitly writing, “Bob is a sexist jerk who is imposing the patriarchy upon us by suggesting that we adhere to ideal body image standards, and we intend to stop him because he is wrong.” Because YA books now typically spell out any thematic messages, they actually may require less interpretive work from the reader, making it easier for struggling students to understand the main point of the story and write a paper about it.

This is not to say, of course, that students should not be expected to improve or that we should ultimately lower standards and never expect readers to be able to do the bulk of interpretive work on their own. However, there is a fine line between challenging students and making something so difficult that they simply give up. Every teacher will have to determine where their students are at academically, and what books it makes sense to connect them with. Some classics might actually work well for students who have difficulty interpreting texts and making connections because they do provide clear-cut examples of techniquess like symbolism (think The Great Gatsby) or have the characters reflect out loud on important themes. In other cases, however, YA books might be a more reasonable school assignment.

So should we keep assigning books written for adults to teens? Maybe. Many teen boys actually already read adult books because YA is primarily written by women about girls, and these books do not resonate with them as much. So teens are capable of reading these more difficult texts. On the other hand, we have the statistics showing that many teens are struggling academically. Every school, every class, and every student is going to be different. Some may find that classic books are challenging, but manageable. Others may find that different texts are more appropriate for their needs.

5 Things I Hate Seeing in Books

I love reading, and I like a lot of books, but here are five things that drive me nuts when I encounter them in a novel!

1

Narrator/Author withholding Information to Create “Suspense”

This is so tiresome. A character will refer for 150 pages to “the incident” without actually telling the reader what they are talking about, generally in a bid to keep readers turning the pages so they can finally discover what “the incident” is. The character will say how they haven’t been the same since the incident, or they haven’t gone back to the ice cream store since the incident, or they haven’t spoken to their best friend since the incident. The incident is the explanation for all interesting things in the character’s life and colors all their thoughts, actions, and decisions, but they can’t tell the reader what that incident was. The worst part — generally it’s not that interesting of a reveal anyway, once the protagonist gets around to it.

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Illogical World Building

This is a huge pet peeve of mind that I know a lot of readers do not share at all, based on how many books that have world building that makes NO SENSE end up quite popular and are even praised for their world building.

Often the praise comes because the world building is “so original,” but I’m here to tell you that if no one wrote a book before where a single country is ruled by twenty-five monarchs each from one to twenty-five years in age, each of whom is solely in charge of a different segment of the country, so the laws on one street don’t apply to a street one mile over, and the laws a baby makes by spitting up milk onto the proposed bills she likes best are equally as revered as the laws made by adults…that is not because this is such wonderfully creatively world building sprung from a uniquely imaginative mind. It is because it is completely illogical, and any real country with this supposed “government” would fall apart in weeks, probably taken over by a military coup.

Freaky Twins – A Sideshow More than Actual Characters

I wrote about this issue at length in this post about why I hate so many twins in books, but the gist is that SO MANY authors still act as if twins are a weird phenomenon instead of actual people. This happens enough in real life — if you know any twins, you can ask them how many people act as if they’re one unit in two bodies instead of two different people, or how many people don’t bother to figure out their names, or how many people act like they’re supernatural and ask if they’re telepathic or whatever. Literature is almost worse. Authors also act as if their twins are interchangeable, or mystic, and they finish each other’s sentences and either have the exact same personality or GASP polar opposite personalities. Please, stop. Twins are just people, and, like most siblings, most of them will have some interests and hobbies in common with each other and some that are not.

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Flowery Descriptions that Don’t Seem to Actually Mean Anything

I am a big fan of “lyrical” writing. I love classics, and I don’t think “convoluted” or “complex” sentences are a problem. In fact, I often prefer them and find them much more interesting than bland, straightforward writing that can sound the same from book to book, author to author. However, I am NOT a fan of when authors seem to be trying to be “lyrical” and end up with bizarre descriptions that don’t seem to actually describe anything, or even to mean anything, if the reader takes time to think about them rather than skimming past.

It’s hard to come up with an example off the top of my head (so perhaps I should give credit to writers who do this often, for having some type of skill), but imagine someone writing a description like this: “The opulent raindrops lustered on the verdant leaves, shimmering and shaking like bees waltzing across their honeycombs before a storm.” Uh, what? What is an “opulent” raindrop? Is “luster” definitely a verb? And what is a waltzing bee? Do bees act differently before a storm? And how does comparing a raindrop to a dancing bee convey anything useful to me??? I have so many questions!

The Fight that Breaks up the Love Interests to “Build Drama”

Can we…not do this? I understand that some authors think that having a romantic couple get together and just…stay together is boring, and adding some fights and a quick “break up” will add some conflict to their story, but I hate that couples just being together and being in love is considered “boring” at all. I’m sure most people in healthy relationships would not say their relationship is “boring” because they actually like each other! Add drama to the plot some other way. Or have the couple fight but not literally end their relationship over the fight.

Worse, this trope is so common it’s predictable and, therefore, not even that “exciting.” I dread reading some books because I know eventually the author has to pretend to break up the couple just to put them back together by the end, and it seems unnecessary and is often extremely forced (in the vein of, Well, yes, I could explain to you why I have your dead mother’s necklace and it would make sense and prove I am not a thief, but I am offended you are asking, so I’m just not going to give you my reasonable explanation to solve this fight. So there! We have now broken up!). Sigh.

What are some things you dislike seeing in books?

Briana

Should We Start Calling “YA Books” “Teen Books” Again?

Should We Call "YA Books" "Teen Books" Again?

Once upon a time, the publishing industry referred to books written for teens (ages 12-18) as “teen books.” One could go the section labelled “Teen” in the local bookstore or be referred to the “teen section” at the public library. Then, a shift happened and “teen books” were renamed “young adult” or “YA” books.

Why exactly, I am not sure. Perhaps it was because more adults were beginning to read these books and they did not want to be seen reading books “for teens.” Maybe publishers saw a chance to expand the market for these books and make more money.

This renaming and the shift it represented has created a dilemma for readers where YA books, supposedly for teens, are often really written for adults. Adult readers might even complain when a YA book is not “relatable” or is “too young.” Actual teens, however, are sometimes feeling left out, especially the younger ones, who may have to go the middle grade section of the library or the children’s room in the bookstore to find a protagonist who is 13, or a book that will not feel too mature for them. The question now is, “Are there really books for teens anymore?” And, if there are, how does one find them?

Additionally, the rebranding of teen books has left some parents and grandparents confused about what books they should be handing to the teens in their lives. The label “young adult” can make it seem like these books are for, well, young adults–people in their 20s–while the abbreviation “YA” can be meaningless to people who do not read widely, do not read YA, or do not follow the publishing industry. It may seem unthinkable to avid readers, but there are plenty of people who are unfamiliar with publishing categories and who, when in a bookstore or a library, will generally ask for books based on a child’s age or grade (ex. “Where are the books for toddlers?”) instead of asking to be referred to a specific section (ex. “Where are the picture books?”). Calling YA books “teen books” instead would add more clarity to the book selection process for people who are not already intimately familiar with the publishing world.

Going back to the “teen” label may feel awkward to the adults who enjoy reading YA and who are comfortable using a catchy abbreviation that obscures (somewhat) the fact that they are reading books theoretically written for youth. However, it would highly benefit teens themselves, the ostensible target audience that YA books have arguably been overlooking for years. It would remind authors, publishers, and readers that teen books are for teens, perhaps increasing the number written about younger teens as well as the number written about issues teens (and not adults) are more likely to find relevant or interesting. It would also help those individuals who want to find a book for the teen in their lives, but are not sure where to look, by making it easier and more comfortable for them to access relevant and appropriate titles.

Calling teen books “YA” makes them more attractive to an adult audience already facing criticism for enjoying books written for teens. It is therefore useful as a marketing label for publishers wanting to sell more books, since they can now capture both a teen and an adult audience. However, it is not a useful label for teens themselves. And, since the books are supposed to be for teens, should not the needs of teens come first? It is time to retire the “young adult” label and start writing teen fiction again–for teens.

The Key to a Good Villain Origin Story (Discussion)

Every once in a while, I read a review on a villain origin story (think Heartless by Marissa Meyer or The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins) where the reviewer complains that the protagonist is “unlikable,” a fatal flaw for many readers of YA who wish to admire and, even better, relate to their protagonists. The point that some of these reviews seem to be missing, however, is that villain origin stories are about….villains. And while the point of an origin story is that the character is not fully a villain yet, the key to writing a convincing explanation of how a villain comes to be is showing the character as human: someone who has good characteristics but also the flaws that will lead them to turn to evil.

Most villain origin stories seem to depict the villain in their youth, which means the character needs to have some of the innocence and optimism and whimsy of a child or teen, regardless of whether they are growing up in privilege or in difficult circumstances that one would imagine would squash a rosy view of the world. Young people are resilient, so it makes sense that even a young villain might be kind or cheerful or humorous or have dreams of making a better world. These are the qualities that show the reader that the villain is human; they are not all bad, they were not born evil, and perhaps things could have been different for them.

However, the potential villain also needs flaws– and specifically they need the flaws that are going to turn them into a villain. When readers complain a pre-villain character is unlikable, perhaps they are imagining that the only thing needed to turn the character into a villain is a catalyzing event: their father is murdered and they want to take revenge, some mean girl at school ruined their reputation so they never graduated and got the degree they needed to get the job they wanted and their life was ruined, someone “stole” their lover, they were abused as a child, they witnessed some horrific event, etc. But the event isn’t enough. The character’s flaws are what help determine how they respond to the catalyzing event, what determine whether they choose to become a villain or a hero (or, you know, just an average person history would have forgotten about).

Was the character always proud? Did they learn from their parents not to show any love or affection? Were they so privileged they never had any compassion for the suffering of others? Were they always competitive and needed to be the best at everything? Or were they insecure and desired to hide that? These are the reasons the character might be “unlikable,” but they’re necessary to show how the character ultimately becomes a villain, when their flaws overcome the better aspects of their personalities.

The trick, of course, is balancing the good and the bad. An origin story is just that: a story before the character is truly a villain. they have the potential to become a villain, but at this moment in time, they also have the potential to become someone else.

Briana

Should Individuals Stop Referring to Their Book Exchanges as “Libraries?”

A recent kerfuffle on Twitter highlighted the tensions that can swirl around “community libraries,” those house-like repositories of books that people typically place in their yards, hoping friends and neighbors will take a book and maybe even leave one, thereby sharing a love of literature with each other. Most people probably know these structures as “Little Free Libraries,” though this name is actually a registered trademark and, to be considered the steward of an official Little Free Library (LFL), individuals need to register with the organization and purchase a charter sign. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of LFLs, however, people have taken to calling these structures “libraries.” And now others are calling them out on it.

Various objections have been raised to the use of the word “library” concerning these structures. Some seem to think that, to be a true library, one must offer computers, programming, and other public services to the community. Others seem to fear that LFLs (or “book swaps” as they might argue) are a threat to government-funded initiatives to provide equal access, and that they will ultimately be used as a replacement for the public library. Others just seem to be upset that someone might think they are now a “librarian” when they haven’t got an MLIS, meaning that they apparently are not fit to curate or share books for and with their neighbors.

These objections may initially seem ridiculous. So someone wanted to put a book exchange in their yard and share their love of reading with the neighbors. Most people would call that generous! However, some valid objections to the purpose, framing, and implementation of Little Free Libraries (the organization itself) have been raised in the past, and these concerns are probably what the annoyed people of Twitter are thinking about when they chastise individuals for referring to their “book swaps” as “libraries.”

I have written more extensively about the critiques of Little Free Libraries in the past. To summarize, however, the organization seems to suggest that its main purpose is to promote literacy and water “book deserts,” areas where people have no access to libraries or bookstores. However, the 2017 article “Little Free Libraries®: Interrogating the Impact of the Branded Book Exchange” by Jane Schmidt and Jordan Hale in the Journal of Radical Librarianship, indicates that most LFLs are located in more affluent neighborhoods with access to the libraries. (Not surprising when one considers the cost of building and maintaining an LFL.) And the organization was measuring its success by number of structures built, and not actually providing data on whether literacy rates were improving as a result of LFLs.

Other concerns raised by Schmidt and Hale were that LFLs could not adequately meet the needs of a community, since they are largely not being curated by knowledgeable persons to provide timely, relevant, and diverse reads. Rather, most LFLs just allow people to leave whatever they want (which could be old, mildewy volumes dug up from their attics). Additionally, there is a fear that LFLs will be an excuse for governments to stop funding public libraries. This may seem absurd, but Scmidt and Hale note that one Texas town did actually slash library funding and built LFLs instead. So people who protest that one should not call their “book swap” a “library” do have real reasons to be concerned about how these “community libraries” are being perceived and used.

Ultimately, however, the real issue here seems not to be what a person calls the box of books in their front yard. After all, a “library” may mean the building, or the collections in the building, or even one’s personal collection of books. The people walking down the street understand that the “community library” or the LFL is referring to the “collection of books” in the structure next to them and that it is not equivalent to or a replacement for the public library, that place with thousands more items that they can browse and even request specifically.

The real issue is that Little Free Library (the organization) has been promoting itself as a way to promote literacy among people with little access to books, a sort of extension of public libraries, when the data available suggests that this is not the case. However, this is a concern people should probably take up with Little Free Library itself, and the government officials who are swayed enough by its claims to slash public library funding. The woman down the street who built her “community library” likely is not claiming to be raising literacy rates, watering book deserts, or helping to provide equal access. That woman probably just likes books and wants to share them with her neighbors. Which is perfectly fine. She is allowed to swap books with the people on her street if she wants to. And if she calls her “book swap” a “library,” they all understand what she means.

Yelling at individuals about the terms they use to refer to a collection of books is ultimately misdirected anger. Real change must come from educating the people in power about the work public libraries do and why it matters. Until government officials understand this, it does not matter what people call their book swaps. Some public officials are looking for any excuse to cut library funding, and they will use a “book swap” as readily as a LFL. So let us extend kindness to other book lovers on the internet, and focus our energy on defending libraries in our communities, at local board meetings, towards the people who truly wield the power to save or destroy our public services.

What Do You Think about Prequels or Sequels of Classic Works Written by Someone Who Is Not the Original Author?

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

What is your opinion of prequels or sequels written for classic works that are out of copyright (i.e. not written by the original author)? Should authors be able to use other writers’ characters and plots for their “own” stories? Are there any classic prequels or sequels you recommend?

Star Divider
Should Authors Write Sequels and Prequels to Classic Books

I admit I have always felt wary of prequels or sequels that are not written by the original author. Even the best-intentioned writer can fail to capture the spirit of the original, making their new installment a risky venture. Over the years, I have generally declined to read prequels or sequels that other writers have offered because the few I have read so often disappointed me. Even so, however, I am not opposed to writers creating books that bring their favorite characters into new adventures. After all, part of the joy of reading is that the story an author wrote can become one’s own. Writers who choose to add on to beloved books are simply continuing the story in a way that, to them, seems fitting.

Watching another writer tackle a book or a world that one has become deeply invested in can, of course, feel troubling, if not downright traumatic. What sacrilege to attempt to reach the creative heights of Author X–and then fail! Fans of many different works have often taken the opportunity to discourage prequels, sequels, and adaptations of any sort, lest new works somehow adulterate the experience of the original. But here’s the thing: no one has to read any prequel, sequel, or adaptation, if they do not want to.

The mere existence of prequels and sequels to classic works that are written by various authors does not bother me, because I do not have to engage with them. And, if I do choose to read one, and I do not like it, I can simply choose to ignore its existence from that point on. The experience of reading a subpar book does not have to ruin the original for me. Indeed, very likely it would only encourage me to reread the original, so I could experience its magic once again.

And there is something very moving about the idea that each book is a story that can continue on, if we so choose. There is something marvelous about watching a work one thought they knew so well come alive in a different way, through someone else’s eyes. Not every prequel or sequel may prove satisfying, and yet, the idea that a book can continue to live and grow is satisfying. And, every so often, there is that chance that a new writer’s vision may be one readers fall in love with, as well.

Not having read many continuations of classic works, I have none to recommend. But that does not mean I think they ought to be discouraged. Creativity comes in many forms. Very often it is inspired by the creativity of one who came before. So I think writers should continue to write the books that inspire them, even if those books are ones based on someone else’s work. Readers may not love them all, but that is okay. Readers do not like every classic written, either.

Are Spreadsheets the Secret to Successful Blogging?

Over the past year or two, spreadsheets seem to have become increasingly common in the book blogosphere. Bloggers routinely share scheduling habits with their followers, explaining how creating a spreadsheet keeps them organized and on task. Some bloggers may even offer their spreadsheets for others to use, as well. The complexity of some these spreadsheets can be staggering, with bloggers recording everything from season of the year to genre to age range, then determining how to arrange it all. Whatever keeps a person organized is probably a good idea! But does every blogger need to keep a spreadsheet to be successful?

The proliferation of spreadsheets can sometimes make it seem like there is only one “right” way to blog. And the sheer complexity of these spreadsheets can make them seem authoritative. Surely anything that has 15 columns and a sophisticated color-coding scheme must be the secret to successful blogging! However, I think it is important to remember that, ultimately, there is no one correct way to blog, to write, or to schedule. Everyone’s personality, habits, and style are going to be different, and what works for one person may not work for another.

One helpful way to look at this may be to recall how writing is taught in schools. Usually, teachers inform their students that the writing process consists of brainstorming, creating an outline, writing a first draft, revising the draft extensively, and then editing/proofreading. The process laid out tends to be very linear, and to suggest that all effective writers go through the same steps in the same order. But do they?

My writing process, in fact, looked very different in school. Most often, I would simply think about a topic for days or weeks, perhaps jotting down quotes or snippets of ideas on a piece of paper. Then, I would sit down and write out the whole paper, revising, not at the end of the draft, but as I wrote the draft. I do not believe I ever did a major revision of a draft because I had already done that work previously. I never did a mind map or anything else students are taught to do in order to brainstorm. And, if I was required to turn in an outline for credit, I would simply make one up, or I would create what is called a reverse outline, relying on the full draft I had already written. I suspect a good many students also create their own, effective writing processes that are nothing like the process they have been told they “ought” to do.

I think blog scheduling is very similar to this. There may be good organization ideas or “rules” out there that make sense and provide a good starting place. But they are not rigid. Just because one person likes to color-code books by genre does not mean everyone needs to do the same. My own scheduling process, in fact, tends to be very loose, and it is something I store in my head rather than in a spreadsheet. For example, I know that my co-blogger posts reviews on Mondays and I post reviews on Thursdays. Either of us can post a review on Saturday. Friday is reserved for our Classic Remarks memes. The rest of the dates are flexible, though I like to post discussions on Tuesdays since so many other people tend to post memes on that day, and I think it makes our content stand out. I also keep in mind seasonal trends, remembering to schedule reviews of spooky books in October, lists of romance reads for Valentine’s Day, and so on. The organization is simple enough that I can memorize it without spending time creating a spreadsheet, filling it out, and color coding it. Personally, I would rather spend time blogging than fussing over a spreadsheet.

The current popularity of blogging spreadsheets suggests that they are a tool many people find useful. And that is excellent! However, bloggers who are unsure about starting a spreadsheet or who do not feel enthusiastic about it need not worry. Just because something is trendy does not mean it is the the only way to do something. Everyone has their own unique blogging style–and that includes scheduling. Starting a spreadsheet may be worth a try, if a person is looking for more structure in their scheduling or a more effective way of scheduling than they currently have. But if scheduling without a spreadsheet works, then it works! In the end, there is no real “secret” to blogging success, just different approaches that may all achieve the same goal.

What do you think? Have you tried keeping a spreadsheet? Why or why not? If you have, did you find it useful?