books and reading

On the New York Times and YA Novels

Dear NYT,

Recently, you published an article about YA novels featuring abusive relationships.  In it, writer Lisa Belkin makes a bold pronouncement:

The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson.

Um, what?  Where, exactly, in the definition of young adult novels does it say that YA fiction has to teach a lesson?  YA novels are not inherently didactic.  As Sarah Ockler says on her blog (in response to this same article), “Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader. If it’s going to happen it all, it will happen organically as she’s experiencing the journey of the story along with the characters.”  This idea that because a book is published as YA makes it automatically an after-school-special-in-book-form is total crap.  Of course, anyone who continued to read Belkin’s review of the two books covered in the article (Deb Caletti’s Stay, which I have read, and Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End, which I have not) realizes that not only is Belkin getting her facts about YA wrong, but she doesn’t understand young adult fiction in general.  What’s more, it’s clear that she doesn’t really care about it, let alone respect it.  Besides entirely dismissing the concept of adults reading YA (she says it doesn’t appeal to them; the internet’s plethora of blogs devoted to the YA book universe written by adults says otherwise) Belkin writes:

But offering a lesson to teenagers is less graceful, less subtle, than conveying an idea or theme, and these books can feel like after-school specials. Where “Bitter End” and “Stay” fall short is more a reflection of the pitfalls of the genre than the talents of their authors…Any girl who needs guidance navigating a threatening relationship will probably not find it here. But this assumes teenagers are more interested in morals than in sex and drama; if that’s not so, the muddiness of the message matters less than the mediocrity of the tale.

It’s not just Belkin’s misrepresentation of the entire YA category that I take issue with.  Her tone throughout the piece is condescending and a little snide, which is both irritating and completely inappropriate.  Like Ockler, I don’t have a problem with critical reviews and thoughtful discussion.  I actually encourage it and hope for more of it to take place.  But that’s not what Belkin is doing in her article.  She’s taking an entire category of books (a category of books that has continued to sell well, both to teens and adults, despite the flagging economy) and making grossly misinformed generalizations about it.  Ockler says it best at the end of her post, taking just as much issue with the phase “pitfalls of the genre” that I did:

More like pitfalls of adulthood, particularly when adults don’t remember what it’s like to be a teen. I’m all for debate and critical reviews, especially when those reviews are thoughtful and engaging. What I’m not for is unilaterally dismissing YA novels based on ridiculous and outdated expectations of what young adult literature is supposed to be or do. Every novel is unique, and each deserves to be read and reviewed for its individual storytelling merit, not for its ability to spin the “proper” cautionary tale.

Just something to think about.  Next time, why don’t you hire someone who actually respects YA to write a piece about YA?  There’s plenty of us out there.

Clementine Bojangles


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