Are YA Books Maturing Too Fast?

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?

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Are Libraries Going Extinct?

To me, the question “Are libraries going extinct” is actually a very silly question.  All I have to do is walk into my public library and I can see that the computers are filled with students doing homework and adults searching for jobs.  Songs and laughter are coming from the story time room.  There is a line at the front desk and returned books are piling up on the counter, the workers being too busy at the moment to check them in.  Still, it’s worth looking at the numbers to settle this debate once and for all.

My local library publishes an annual report breaking down its sources of revenue, its expenses, its circulation numbers, and more.  I imagine that most, if not all, public libraries have such a report that they also make available to the public.  A quick glance at the 2016 report shows me that about 60% of my city’s residents actively hold a card (meaning they renewed it within the past year).  To me, that  number is not shabby, especially considering that some families only use one card for every member.  Over half the city has been to the library in the past  year!

Of course, my library might not be representative of the library usage of the U.S. as a whole.  But the Pew Research Center collects statistics on library usage and attitudes towards libraries every year.  In 2016, they found that 46% of adults had been to the library in the past year and that Millenials (53%) were more likely than any other generation to have been to the library.  Of those 16 and under, 48% had used the library or a bookmobile in the past year.  Though the numbers do not pass the halfway mark, they are hardly indicators that libraries are facing imminent closure.

Still, I won’t deny that I would like to see these numbers climb higher.  After all, libraries provide so much more than books these days and they are especially important in providing access to the Internet and other resources that many take for granted.  (In 2016, 35% of people with an income under $30,000 used the library computers or Internet–a resource many of us can’t imagine living without.)  In thinking about libraries, we have to remember that they are there to serve the community and promote equity.  If people are not using them, perhaps we have to find more effective ways of explaining and promoting the resources they provide.  I have met far too many children AND adults who come to the library believing that they have to pay to borrow materials or even possess a card to walk in the door!

Policy makers and those who control the tax dollars for libraries should also remember this:  Although only 46% of adults may have been to the library in 2016, a large number of library users are there because they cannot afford books, music, DVDs, Internet, or laptops on their own.  They are there because they cannot complete their schoolwork, apply to jobs, learn a language or a job-related skill, get their pay stubs, or connect through social media in any other way.  These people need the library, even if the policy makers don’t.  The Pew Research Center provides more pertinent data:

When using tech resources at the library, most people do research for school or work (61% of library tech users did in the previous 12 months), followed by checking email or sending texts (53%). A share also get health information (38%) and 26% have taken online classes or completed a certification.

Closing the library would put all these patrons at an even greater disadvantage. How would they earn good grades, apply to colleges, apply for health care, or get a job without the Internet?  The reality in today’s world is that they probably could not, at least not as easily or effectively.  And each struggle would make the next one harder.  Poor grades in high school from not being able to do research would mean fewer colleges to choose from.  No Internet to research colleges and financial aid would give someone even fewer opportunities.  Going to a college without the major one wants or to one not highly ranked in the person’s field would then potentially limit their job opportunities.  Ending library access would create a cycle from which it would be increasingly difficult to escape.  And yet some maintain that libraries are no longer needed.

I don’t think the numbers indicate that “no one” uses libraries anymore.  However, even if the numbers were lower, I would not advocate closing libraries but, rather, rethinking them and marketing them more effectively.  They are there to provide services to the community, to promote equity and access.  Their value is ultimately one that can’t be explained only in numbers.

Life Doesn’t End After the Wedding (Book Discussion)

Discussion Post

Have you ever noticed that the point of a romance (I’m not referring to the genre, which I don’t read and don’t wish to read, but any romance in a book) seems to be get the characters engaged?  (Or, these days, maybe just into bed together.)  But after that first “milestone” moment–the kiss, the sex, the engagement ring–suddenly the book ends.  Or, if it does not, drama must ensue to break the characters apart before they can truly find their “happily ever after.”  The message seems to be that the goal of any relationship is to reach that particular moment, the one where the characters know they have “made it.”  Afterwards, there is nothing much to talk about.

I have two problems with this kind of narrative.  The first is the idea that a relationship has an end goal.  Once you’ve reach a particular point in your romance, you apparently do not have to work at it anymore.  It’s that “happily ever after,” the one where everything flows smoothly because you have defeated the villains trying to keep you apart or revealed your true identities to each other or worked past your jealousies or misunderstandings or (in the case of a love triangle) finally realized that you really love the boy next door and not the handsome jerk.  Mission accomplished.  You sail peacefully into marriage and never have any worries or troubles again.

My second issue is that these trends perpetuate the idea that marriage and commitment are not exciting or romantic.  The true “swoon-worthy” moments are those that occur when you are still not sure if you like someone or if they like you back.  They occur in grand gestures like when he rescues you from the lecherous rogue who has kidnapped you from your carriage.  In short, romance only encompasses the crush stage when you have butterflies and doubts and can’t sleep at night because you’re always thinking of that handsome someone.  Not sleeping at night because the baby is awake isn’t romance anymore.  It’s the start of a novel where the protagonist will likely turn into a jaded divorcee.

But I have always loved stories where my favorite characters get married–and we then see the marriage.  Books like Little Women where Meg has domestic troubles and has to learn to listen to and appreciate her husband.  Books like the Anne of Green Gables series where Anne Shirley suddenly wonders if her husband loves her anymore.  And where she is a mother to her own children and has to guide them through their own little troubles and budding romances.  I love seeing where life takes characters after the marriage–because marriage is not boring at all, but another great adventure.  One where your favorite protagonist can now face challenges with the support of the person you just knew they were always meant to be with.

Of course, these types of romances, the ones after the marriage, often occur in series.  (And, I gather from the comments, in adult fiction–where authors can assume readers might be married themselves.  I stick to YA and MG, so don’t see married couples as often.)  This gives the author the ability to develop a relationship over time.  But series seem more popular than ever as they are easier to market than stand-alones.  So why don’t we see more married characters in children’s books?  Why don’t we get to see that the engagement is not the end of everything, but just another part on a never-ending journey?

What are some of your favorite books where the protagonist is married?

Wanting Realism in Fantasy

I have written a lot on this blog about how I would like to see realistic elements in fantasy, particularly when it comes to politics.  Inevitably, I receive comments indicating that readers are upset that I apparently don’t understand that fantasy is, well, fantasyBut I have never criticized fantasy for containing dragons or ogres or magic.  I have never indicated that I think fantasy is somehow lesser than contemporary fiction or that I mistakenly believe that fantasy cannot be real in a very fundamental sense–revealing truths to readers, providing them with relatable characters, or speaking to their own experiences or feelings.  Indeed, it would be strange for me to criticize fantasy for being fantastic–it’s my favorite genre.

When I ask that fantasy be realistic or believable, I am merely asking two things: that the internal logic be consistent and that the normal rules of logic apply to the situations presented.  The first demand is fairly straightforward.  It means that, if the rules of  magic in the Land of Magic Is Awesome dictate that wizards cannot bespell plants, I don’t want to see a wizard bespell a plant later along with an explanation that makes no sense.  “But is a cactus really a plant?” probably isn’t going to cut it for me if I’m thinking, “Yeah, couldn’t come up with any other way to get the wizard out of that situation without breaking the rules of magic, could you?”  Because a cactus is a plant and some fancy work with words cannot convince me otherwise.

The second demand is open to a little more interpretation.  It means I want characters to make decisions that make sense.  For instance, I don’t really buy into the premise of Gail Carson Levine’s The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre because none of it makes sense.  In this book, the Latki rule over the Bamarre, whom they consider inferior.  The Bamarre want to return to a wasteland of monsters in order to be free–despite the fact that no one has been able to survive there since the monsters took over and despite the fact that the Bamarre, as servants, aren’t trained in warfare and do not own weapons.  They should not last a week if they go to that land.  But no one doubts that this plan is the greatest plan ever.  That’s unrealistic.  And it has nothing to do with the dragons.

Or take The Orphan Queen and its sequel The Mirror King by Jodi Meadows.  It features a princess taken from her own land to live in the Indigo Kingdom.  The politics boggle the mind.   The prince of the Indigo Kingdom publicly defends and supports a known murderess who endangered the entire kingdom–because he’s obviously in love with her, even though his feelings are officially supposed to be engaged elsewhere.  His public policy is all built around listening to and supporting this known criminal at the expense of the interests of his own country.  If this book were realistic, the prince would face public backlash.  His advisors would caution him.  He might face protests or an outright rebellion.  But none of that happens.  It’s not a realistic book.  And it’s not because the book contains magic.  The politics in this book would be unbelievable and unrealistic even if the book were set in a real-world country in the modern day.  Because most citizens don’t take it kindly when public officials protect their personal interests at the expense of the country.

Fantasy worlds can be just that–fantastic–but they still need to based on logic in order to be truly believable.  Having a character cheat another character out of everything they own and having the cheated character go, “Huh, whatever,” instead of being mad or seeking revenge or struggling with forgiveness (normal human reactions) should not be acceptable just because “it’s fantasy” and “I need to suspend disbelief.”* Suspension of disbelief is not a free pass for poor writing but rather a gift a reader gives to a world that is different from their own, but still logical.  Suspension of disbelief means that I accept that I am in a world where genii grant wishes or rabbits can talk or trees grow violins.  It does not mean that I pretend I no longer have a brain and cannot recognize poor characterization, faulty premises, or ridiculous politics when I see them.

The best fantasy is realistic fantasy.  And we should not cheat ourselves of quality fantasy by excusing poor writing with an erroneous definition of “suspension of disbelief.”  I want to see more realistic fantasy because only realistic fantasy allows me to suspend disbelief enough to fully immerse myself in another world.

*Please note that I understand that it is conceivable that a very specific character might really possess this level of ambivalence.  The example given assumes that the author did not write such an unusual character but simply failed to give the character a reaction that the average person would have and that the average reader would find convincing in the context of the story.

10 Bookish Pet Peeves

 

Friends Who Stop Trusting Each Other

Your friendship doesn’t seem that strong if you can suddenly turn against your best friend of years because someone else informed you they “must have changed” because of some life experience.  Why don’t you go talk to them to find out yourself before jumping to hurtful conclusions?

Pretending the “Bad Boy” Is a Viable Love Interest

Let’s get this straight.  The murderous vampire is not a real love interest.  He is not worth our time.  Once he solves his issues, our protagonist can consider him.  But it’s not her job to try to save him and to suffer when she inevitably can’t.

Couples Who Break Up for No Reason

It seems that marriage is so awfully boring that almost none of our protagonists can be saddled with such a fate.  If, by some miracle, they get together before the end of the series, it is a truth universally acknowledged that they must break up over fake drama so we can have the pleasure of seeing them getting back together again before the end.

Nonsensical Politics

The Scourge, The Orphan Queen, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, Castle of Shadows…  they all have convoluted plots based on premises that don’t make sense.  I want motives to be realistic and politics to be logical.  Otherwise I can’t be fully immersed in the world.  I’m just confused.

Random Plot Twists for the Sake of Drama

Plot twists should make sense, not come out of the blue.  They may be unexpected but readers should be able to look back and see the clues they missed.  Suddenly changing a character’s entire personality just to surprise the readers is poor writing.

Foolish Characters the Narrator Assures Us Are Super Smart

Characters can certainly be foolish or just not overly bright.  I just don’t want to be constantly informed by the narrator that someone who repeatedly does silly things is actually a genius.

Lord of the Rings Knock-Offs

Tolkien did it first and he did it best.  When I see orcs and Tolkien-esque Elves walking around in someone else’s world, I inevitably compare them and the other author inevitably loses because Tolkien’s characters don’t feel organic in someone else’s world.

Fake Medieval Language

Adding “eth” to the end of every word doesn’t make it medieval.

Everyone Ends Up in Bed Together

Some couples do decide to wait, but it seems like these characters are only portrayed when they are being ridiculed.  I’d like to see some more inclusive stories that take waiting for marriage seriously and really consider it from the perspective of the people who do it.  Especially in historical fiction.  I’m sure many people broke the rules of society, but it seems like historical characters never really think about the weight of doing so, whether it’s the potential for ruining one’s prospects (or their love’s reputation), or potentially getting pregnant.  They tend to jump into bed cavalierly as if they can’t imagine any potential negative consequences.  And yet I find it hard to believe that the average 19th-century woman wouldn’t take a little pause or at least come up with a better scheme for doing it undetected.

Anachronistic Characters

I suppose these characters are supposed to appeal to modern sensibilities, but it’s rather weird to read a series of historical characters who all talk and think like they’re from the 21st century.  How can it be that they are ALL so enlightened and forward-thinking?  Odder yet, most of them never seem to suffer any consequences for being so far ahead of their time….

What are some of your bookish pet peeves?

6 Blogging “Failures” at Pages Unbound

We have had our fair share of success at Pages Unbound.  This is our seventh year of blogging and, somehow, we have managed to grow our audience and make connections with tons of fabulous readers and bloggers.  Still, not everything goes as expected when you’re running a book blog.  This post is to celebrate all those times we (meaning, mostly I, Krysta) thought we had wonderful ideas–only to realize that no one else understood how wonderful they were!  So, next time your post seems to flop, remember that we have all experienced that same sense of confused disappointment!

Your Entertainment Outlook

For awhile, we thought it would be fun to post updates on upcoming books, TV shows, and films.  We even announced fun news like the time a new stink bug was named after a Tolkien character.  We did this sporadically for awhile and then every week.  But almost no one read or commented on these posts, so after three months of weekly updates, we stopped.  And no one ever complained.

Wizarding School Adventure

In July 2015, we set up a Wizarding School Adventure where participants could go school shopping, get Sorted, attend classes, and more.  It got a fair amount of comments, but I was expecting massive views.  Since we didn’t get them, I scrapped the next adventure I had been setting up.  It would have been weeks of planning for little interaction.

Read-Alongs

We have hosted three read-alongs here, including one for L. M. Montgomery, one for C. S. Lewis, and one for Tolkien (along with Stephanie at Chasm of Books).  We were lucky if three people participated.  I guess bloggers have so much to do, a read-along can sometimes seem like additional stress!

L. M. Montgomery Reviews

There are tons of L. M. Montgomery fans in the book blogosphere, so every time I write a Montgomery review, I gear myself up for some joyful fangirling.  However, I have come to realize that Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea get all the fangirling.  My favorite girl Pat?  Not so much, unfortunately.  However, if you’re looking to expand beyond Anne, we have recommendations based on your Hogwarts House!

Flow Charts

I started experimenting in 2017 with more visuals, so I created a few flow charts to recommend books to readers.  The Tolkien one was pretty popular and so was the L. M. Montgomery one.  However, the Halloween flow chart was pretty much the opposite of popular and the C. S. Lewis flow chart only got three commenters.  I’m still trying to figure out if the less popular ones are failing because of the author/theme or because they’re not intricate enough.

“5 Great Things ABout Project Gutenberg”

I thought a post about how to obtain free books legally would be massively popular.  To my surprise, it hardly got any clicks!  I mused that perhaps people aren’t familiar with Project Gutenberg and so won’t read a post about it.  Maybe it sounds boring if you aren’t aware that there are free books involved.  At any rate, this is just another example of how something I thought would be a guaranteed success instead silently disappeared.

What’s in a Title? (Blogging Discussion)

When Briana published a post titled “5 Great Things About Project Gutenberg,” last December I joked, “You should have called it, ‘GET FREE BOOKS!!!!'”  I was kind of serious.  Even though everyone loves free books and Project Gutenberg is a great resource to get access to them legally, the post did not receive as much attention as I thought it would.  “Possibly,” I mused, “bloggers who have not heard of Project Gutenberg aren’t clicking on the post because they don’t know what it is and therefore don’t care.  But presumably they would care if they did know.  After all, it’s free books!”

The challenge of giving appropriate and catchy titles to posts is one I struggle with every time I write a discussion.  Titles are not my strong point and I tend to prefer titles that describe exactly what the post is about.  If I see a “click bait” title in my reader, I almost never click on it.  Partly because I don’t care to click on a post if it’s going to be about something I’m not interested in because then I would feel annoyed and tricked.  Partly out of principle.  I do not like titles that make me feel tricked.

Even so, I have to admit that what I think are interesting posts don’t often get that much traffic.  And I can’t help but wonder if it’s partly the title.  I see plenty of bloggers being far more creative than I am with mine: see “How to Write an Engaging Discussion Post,” and “Why I’m Not Interested in Requesting ARCs” for examples of my very straightforward titling practices.  I wonder if bloggers continue to use “click bait” titles because they have noticed that these posts get more traffic than other titles.

However, I have another reason for trying to make my titles as straightforward as possible.  It seems almost inevitable that each discussion post will get comments from bloggers who clearly did nothing but read the title–and assume they know from the title what I wrote I typically handle this by repeatedly pointing out on comment after comment that, no, I didn’t write what they think I wrote.  Sometimes I even excerpt a quote from the post as evidence that I actually said the exact opposite.  But at least twice I have in desperation changed the title of the post–and immediately afterwards the comments assuming I said the opposite of what I really said stopped.

Currently I have no plans to change my straightforward titling practices.  Even so, I routinely struggle to write titles that are clear, concise, and interesting all at once.  I want to be able to reach audiences who actually care about the topics I am discussing and want to learn more or engaged in dialogue.  But I also want to do this in a way that ensures I am not overwhelmed by comments from people who obviously didn’t read a word I wrote.  So…I want to be catchy but not…too catchy?  Or catchy but not confusing?  The struggle is ongoing, and I suspect that it might never end.

How do you decide on titles for your posts?