When YA Fantasy Wasn’t “YA Fantasy”
When I was a teen, finding a good book was as simple as perusing the children’s book section—a library of books billed as suitable for children age 4-18, tucked neatly away from all the other boring, serious adult books.
Both avid readers, my mother and I spent hours each weekend in our nearest book store, Exclusive Books (In South Africa, Exclusive Books is the equivalent of Barnes and Noble, or Waterstones). Usually I’d head straight for the children’s section and she’d head into the vast maze of adult fiction. We’d meet later in the adjoining coffee shop, each precariously balancing a stack of books, all of which would be given a more critical once over so we could whittle our stash down to an “affordable purchase.”
I spent countless hours in that children’s book section, cross-legged on the floor, hidden behind a scoop of bookshelves where I had my pick of childhood favorites like the Animorphs, Narnia, the Famous Five and the Chrestomanci series. It was a place of imagination where I could find stories about lands far beyond my native South Africa. If you’re South African, it doesn’t take much to find something novel as many of the books in our stores are authored by Brits or Americans. And while we may be an old British colony, we’ve got our very own, unique culture, which makes even the most mundane American or British school book, “different.”
For me, the children’s section was much more than a place to escape. It was also a place to grow, a sort of secret, coming-of-age land where I could nose into older teen books like “The Northern Lights,” or “The Lovely Bones”—at my discretion. If I found something I didn’t like, well I didn’t cart it over to the cafe to peruse in greater depth, simple as that.
Best of all, I got to choose when I wanted to “grow older” because children’s books and teen books were not as sequestered as they are today, at least in America. There weren’t any bookshelves labelled 7-11 or 9-12, so I didn’t feel ashamed reading up or down. I couldn’t tell you what the Exclusive Books from my childhood in South Africa looks like today, but if it has kept pace with the rest of the world, it has probably also changed.
Today, “children’s books,” are placed in the more colorful “children’s book section” right along with the scented and musical books intended for toddlers. The “young adult section” can usually be found floating in a sort of purgatory between adult fiction, sci-fi, and the discount tables. It’s never the same as no one really seems to know where to put it. What publishers, booksellers, and probably book-fearing adults know is that they ought never be together!
I can hear them now, mind you’ll have to forgive me imagining this in a Southern drawl: “What if my darling little Jessica reads about menstruation and all that blood before I’ve explained it all nice and tidily? Heavens she may very well have a heart attack.”
The implicit message is this: children this is what you should read (and not read), and teenagers, this is what you should read (and not read). We, the adults, in all our infinite wisdom, will decide when it is time for you to move to the next level.
And of course, the same applies to those older children or teens who read “down.” The message for them is “aren’t you too old for this?”
Even though I know the system is jerry-rigged, I’ve still felt that inkling of shame walking into the children’s book section, perusing the shelf for 10 year olds. It’s as though I’m a pedophile scoping out the kiddies playground!
The truth is, these categories don’t really exist, unless we let them. I still read everything: children’s books, books for teens, adult books. I am indiscriminate, except when it comes to writing quality, and even then, a really good story—Enid Blyton is proof here—can win me over.
Broadly speaking, books are categorized according to the age of the protagonist. If the protagonist is 10 years old, you can bet that book will be found in the section for 10 year olds. Of course, unless it’s “The Lovely Bones,” which back when I was growing up was actually placed in the children’s section!
Today, finding any of the fantasy books I loved as a child takes a little more skill and requires checking not only the children’s section, but also the section for teens, and the adult section. That’s because these books have been further segregated into sections that are often on opposite ends of the book store.
For example, where Artemis Fowl used to be classified as a teen read, today you’ll find it in the children’s section. The same is true for most of Diana Wynne Jones’ books.
Unfortunately, because most books in the children’s section are for elementary school children, and most books in the adult sci-fi section for RPG nerds, most of the time I find myself in the YA section, reading books classified as suitable for young adult readers. I miss quite a few good books because of this modern segregation
This raises a couple of questions. Firstly, what’s the agreed-upon definition of young adult literature? Secondly, what’s the best section to be placed in?
If you’re in that camp of people who thinks it’s not important to concern yourself with where your book might be placed (that’s the publisher’s problem, surely?), think again. While this might not stop your book from getting published, it may relegate you to an obscure, low trafficked section of a bookstore, or worse, it may stop major consumer booksellers from stocking it.
In Barnes and Nobles own words, “All books will be considered for store placement based on subject matter and salability.”
So, beyond my incredible dislike for limiting categories, in the next post, I’m going to tell you exactly how young adult literature is defined today.