Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Do We Need a Definition for YA Literature?

When I read Meg's post this morning, I was reminded of a concern that arises quite frequently for me when I read 'YA' literature. Megs described a book that was so full of violence and abuse that she couldn't imagine recommending it to anyone younger than at least 16.

As a mother of 3, I can't help but take issue at such books being labelled YA. My own son, now nearly 23, was a precocious reader, and when he was in his tweens and early teens I had no idea what he was reading, except that it was found in the YA section of the library, thereby guaranteeing its 'suitability'.

However, when he was in his late teens he told me that, though he had not wanted to admit it at the time, he now realised that many of those books had been not only challenging and confronting, but actually damaging.

I don't believe there is any issue that should in itself be taboo for children or teens. But the more confronting the subject, the greater the need for sensitivity when writing about it for school-age readers.

I think part of the problem is that there doesn't appear to be a strict definition of what YA literature actually is. Sometimes it's considered literature that is suitable for readers aged 12-18, and at other times it can seem to target readers anywhere from 8-25.

While I dislike the idea of restricting books to particular age groups, I do feel guidelines need to be more specific if they are to be genuinely useful.  What do you think?


  1. This is really interesting! I think, as of late, there has been a shift towards darker material, whether that's a setting (dystopian, for instance) or the themes/issues that a book explores.

    I clicked through to Megan's review and read it, and I'm fairly certain that I get the idea of the horrifying theme within it. I've personally never read a book like that (or seen one in YA). Personally, I wouldn't like it because I don't like anything that's too dark/gruesome, etc.

    With that said, when I was a little bit younger (13-15ish), I remember picking up a lot of YA books that all centered around eating disorders. While I understand that books written from the perspective of someone with an eating disorder is the only way to really let someone understand how damaging disorders like that can be, the books often came across as glamorizing eating disorders. Obviously, characters that have eating disorders often don't think there's a problem, and many of them enjoy the lifestyle and appearance they have thanks to their problem. I just remember feeling confused and often wondering what it would be like to have an eating disorder, and I instantly found myself wanting to be thinner. While I'm sure the authors never intended that to happen (and they probably meant to demonize eating disorders rather than encourage them), that's how it came across to me. I just think it's hard to express really tough issues from the perspective of someone who's perpetuating it. Of course a drug addict is going to view their drugs in a positive light, so any book that features an addict protagonist is going to, at least on the surface, feature drug use in a positive light. While the underlying message might present drug use as negative, I think younger readers might not be able to pick up on that subtlety (or may even find the idea of negativity & trouble somewhat thrilling).

    Just my two cents worth. :)

  2. Probably worth a lot more than 2 cents! I think you're right - some books really do give out mixed messages, even if they don't mean to.

  3. Really interesting post, Robyn.

    I might as well say the worst of it here, so at least we've got some basis for what we're saying.



    Mr Creal was a rapest and had been, for almost his whole life. There were pretty graphic and detailed scenes where Nick was raped, and flashbacks to other characters.

    There was an in-depth scene where one character killed another by basing her and kicking her head in until she was dead.

    There was the general drugs and violence too, but what got me was the rape - between TEEN AND UNDER 12 BOYS and Mr Creal (oh! And a particular fantastic gang-rape scene between Mr Creal and his friends and Nick) and the poor girl who died.

    Not for people under sixteen. Not at all.


    I really hate censorship of books. I hate when books are banned.

    I hated it when I was 12 and my dad banned me from reading 'Tomorrow when The War Began'. He was just over-protective and the TWTWB series ARE aimed at that age group because there's nothing wrong with them.


    This book was completely different.

    It was horrible and confronting.

    Not for younger readers.