Monday, June 18, 2018

Young Adult Books are Not Children’s Books

As much as I love to quibble about definitions, I’m already long winded, and it’s beside the point. Are teenagers children? What ages are young adult books aimed towards? I once even read a Facebook post by an indie author claiming that young adult books weren’t named for the age of the audience, but the characters’, just after reading the first Game of Thrones book.  When it comes to genres and marketing, there’s not exactly official rules as to what constitutes as what.

If you don’t know me or my current predicament, one of my current struggles is the question whether or not I am a young adult writer.

I did a great deal of my writing as a teenager, highly influenced by young adult books and my own mind. To this day there are tropes, themes, and styles that naturally appeal to me. However, as I’ve said many times before, I never liked being talked down to, and often felt my teenage books didn’t push their plots or stakes or intellectual challenges far enough for my liking.

I’ve met with agents in casual settings along with writers and a few editors and have been told, upon explaining my uncertainty as to where my books fall in genre land, that yes, my voice has a higher level of sophistication than what you’d expect for a young adult novel.

I braced against pitching my work as young adult as well due to the constant insistence that my readers need my work dumbed down for them. I’ve been told numerous times, “I understood it, I just don’t think anyone else will.” For a wide variety of reasons, I find this criticism to be inaccurately dismissive, but still just as frustrating. I don’t try to be confusing, but I don’t have any intention on being condescending either.

While driving my things from Wyoming to New York City, I finally finished up my A Wise Man’s Fear audio book. The sequel to Patrick Rothfuss’s widely praised novel, The Name of the Wind, the adult fantasy novel has some excellent writing in the ignorable, noninvasive sense.

Many people advise authors to fixate on immersion over prose, and writing a scene that paints the world without distracting the audience to the words themselves takes colossal skill while looking like it was effortless. Despite my assertion that not all books benefit from this immersive style, I cannot praise Rothfuss’s ability enough.

After it was over, my mother and I sought out another audio book out in the boonies of Nebraska. We were offered one by our friendly Walmart, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. This wasn’t the first time I’d compared Rothfuss with a young adult writer, and it became a lot harder to ignore the myriad of criticisms I’ve heard about the young adult genre period and the masses’ presumption about authors of young adult books lacking in skill.

At the time, I was still recovering from my break up at the beginning of the summer, though each day the weight lifted off of me as I begin to forget the good and bad and start getting excited for the future. In any case, I can attest that my disinterest in the last few young adult books I’d read has at least a little to do with my inability to romanticize romance and all of the negative associations reminding me of how small and disappointed I felt throughout the last two years. Also, due to my stress and depression, I struggled to enjoy anything period, all to give credit to the three young adult authors who I found lacking in the last three months.

But Peculiar Children irritated me in clear, cut ways the other two did not.

I went in expecting to enjoy it, but had to stop the tape several times to rant.

I suppose my biggest criticism I have towards any book—and perhaps why it irritates me so much when someone tells me to, and I quote, “Dumb down my work”—is when the author doesn’t trust the reader.

The first half of the book is waiting for the protagonist to catch up with the audience. We know, for a lot of reasons, from the beginning that the “peculiars” are really, yes, actually magical and his grandfather telling him the stories is not insane. The protagonist, of course, doesn’t know that for certain, and goes out on an adventure to prove their existence (or at least find some closure.) The story takes a great deal of time until he actually comes across the home, and it’s truly not that interesting. Mostly because you know magic is real as there would be nowhere to go with the story if it wasn’t, and because the book followed a pretty common young adult formula in multiple ways. In fact, while I argue a good book does not have to be original, the ideas the author presented weren’t especially wondrous, the style not especially personable, the plot not particularly tense, the theme not particularly meaningful, and the characters not particularly memorable.

In fact, Jake the protagonist is thoroughly unlikable and fairly dense. Unbelievably stupid in some parts. I would say that the author portrayed a teenager genuinely in attitude and desires, but not a teenager anyone would want to be around. As for his—and everyone else’s conclusions—he seemed really slow on the uptake, such as when he suddenly had the epiphany that he could use his phone as a flashlight! The way the author described his excitement at the idea was laughable. It wasn’t the only time either that I was waiting for the character to catch up to me, and, as I said, reading half a book on him trying to prove something you already know is true is incredibly boring.

The narration didn’t help either, and I have to wonder if the character’s stupidity had to do with the slow, measured way the actor spoke. I was highly disappointed with his reading after hearing the immersive voice acting in A Wiseman’s Fear. All of the characters sounded the same—boy and girl alike—he paused at strange places, spoke incredibly slowly, and enunciated things like a librarian reading a picture book to five-year-olds might. In fact, I think a great deal of the condescension and the character’s denseness came from the reader’s tone of voice over the writer’s.

I think the strange pauses was actually a successful attempt to cold read, the actor catching up with his thoughts. You could hear the theatrical direction in the way he spoke; raising your voice at the end of a sentence instead of letting it drop off is a common actor’s note. But this made it seem like Jake was asking questions a great deal of the time, like he was shocked almost, when really his conclusions should’ve been obvious. MY grandfather, who grew up in the home for peculiar children might be a peculiar?! Oh, he was, “like me?” Well, I’m going to promptly forget about that intentionally obtuse answer so I can spend two pages figuring out the cliche and simplistic principles of time travel.


The voice actor hadn’t practiced, didn’t know what was going to come next, and that was actually sort of impressive, but it didn’t do the stories any favors. Mostly though, him getting really excited over inane things, exaggerating and instilling a gasp into his voice to really punctuate his words and energy, was trying too hard to be entertaining and ignoring the fact that this book—filled with swear words and teenage characters—was meant for people 15-20, not kindergarteners.

In fact, as I complained, my mother said, “Well, this is a book for children…”

No, it isn’t. Why do people keep saying that?

I will admit, people give children little credit anyway. They’re much smarter than we think they are, much more capable, and take in more than we know. But besides that, teenagers aren’t children—not exactly. Sure, I’ve worked with sixteen-year-olds, I’ve seen the difference between 18 and 23, and I realize that writing a book to keep the interest of a teenager isn’t always going to be the same as someone who just hit thirty—in fact, that’s what some of this post is about. I am getting older, and perhaps the focus of my interest is now different. Perhaps I’ve read too many similar books by this point and am looking for something new. Perhaps my negativity is still getting to me more than I thought. Perhaps I think too much like a writer predicted it from a meta standpoint. Perhaps I’m too no-nonsense these days. Perhaps it is a thousand times better with the pictures. All possibilities.

But young adult books are not “children’s books.”

They do not need to be dumbed down to get ornery little idiots to pay attention. Adults don’t need to be ashamed for reading them in public. Writers aren’t off the hook just because kids are more accepting and less grumpy. I think the author missed the mark because he had some pretty interesting ideas shoved into the background in favor of showcasing the stereotype of EVERYTEEN PORTALS INTO MAGICAL SCHOOL. Why not tell the grandfather’s story: a polish boy fleeing from the Nazis and stumbling into a school for “peculiar” children? That seems far more interesting than rich Florida teen goes on vacation to enter into magical world.

I often ask myself why I feel a pull against young adult novels when it is the first part of the bookstore I head to. Is it because of snobbery? I hope not. But if I’m going to write what I want, then the insistence that I must overexplain things, that I write about the Everyteen in Modernopolis meeting Manic Pixie Dream Monster, and have adults feel shame for being interested, it makes me think I don’t belong in that world anymore.

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