The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of Fiction

One of the most important questions I ask about fiction when I’m looking at a manuscript- or even at a published book- is “why?” Why is this scene important, and why is it necessary? (Those two answers aren’t necessarily the same thing.) Is it furthering a plot arc? Character development? Thematic through-lines? Is this a scene that’s important for the author to know happened, or is it something the reader really needs to know?

I admit it; one of my favorite things about YA and MG fiction is how streamlined they are. Yes, they’re frequently 400+ pages long these days, but in a good story, that length comes from a slow-burn development of something important in the novel: a relationship (among friends, family, or potential sexual partners), a storyline, etc. When I finish a particularly good novel, I feel like there isn’t a single scene that could have been left out, nor a single scene added. It’s a story, and it’s complete and it’s whole.

This is part of why the idea of New Adult as “It’s YA but with sex!” bothers me so much. There’s plenty of explicit YA out there (physically graphic, emotionally erotic, or both). But when it’s there it feels necessary. What people may mean when they talk about NA as YA with sex is that part of the emotional or thematic or plot-related growth is expressed in sex. But when we say “YA with sex,” I think there’s an implication that either the sex is something missing in YA that needs to be put in, or the sex is something extra that can be added. The idea of NA being necessary to be “YA with sex!” is fundamentally minimizing to at least one of the genres; either one is incomplete or the other is superfluous.

So let’s put that aside and look at one of the other definitions:

Looking at the idea of ” Harry Potter meets 50 Shades of Grey” that’s been getting tossed around as a definition of New Adult (thanks for that, New York Times) has mutated into us discussing it like the goal is “young adult [even though HP is middle grade --a pedant's opinion] meets pornography.” And I know that those books are the ones chosen because most people writing about these things don’t know anything about romance or erotica as genres, and the only things they know about children’s lit and YA are HP, Hunger Games, and Twilight, so they went for the one that they thought would horrify the most people and gather the most attention.

But I find the choice fascinating, even though it was probably unintentional from the people who coined that phrase, because the fan origins of 50 Shades and the fan community that surrounds Harry Potter has a lot to do with the parts of New Adult that sound appealing to me. I’d argue that the growing fan culture online is probably part of what’s leading to the need (real or perceived) for New Adult: people who felt strongly and passionately about these books who want that strong passionate connection as adults. In fact, I’d argue that, regardless of your feelings on its literary or erotic merits, 50 Shades is an excellent example of this: someone taking a relatively chaste YA series and adding a spin that reclaims it for their own age group, allowing them to keep the emotional connection the stories evoked while making the additional concerns metaphorical manifestations of adult desires, rather than teens’.

But even though it did that, as I understand it, 50 Shades doesn’t fit any version of what New Adult would be that I’ve seen. Although the protagonist is a college student, 50 Shades is not dealing with problems that are exclusively faced by 18-to-24-year-olds. It doesn’t follow a bildungsroman format. (In fact, it’s worth noting that even the “50 Shades of Grey meets Harry Potter” quote indicates that 50 Shades doesn’t count on its own; it has to be melded with a young adult [MIDDLE GRADE] series to achieve what they think NA is looking for.) But I’m also struggling; from everything I’ve read, I feel fairly certain that 50 Shades wouldn’t be considered NA, but I’m not entirely sure why I feel that way, or why this would or would not be true.

If we’re defining New Adult in the context of YA, that also means we have to define YA, which is frustrating, because there isn’t any one way to view it. For me, part of the appeal is an unexplainable, visceral connection. I can give you a lot of theories for why, all of which I think are real (off the top of my head: the stories are a lot more raw; they aren’t clouded with nostalgia; they aren’t self-consciously aware of ‘real’ problems that ‘matter more'; they rarely pontificate about the Meaning of Life when they could let a story explain it), but it’s still amorphous enough that I can’t say for sure.

Part of any literature is simply the alchemy of storytelling: do all the parts combine in a satisfying way? Is it possible for them to? I’ve already explained why I don’t think it’s possible to have YA with porn, but is it possible to have the appeal of YA with adult concerns? I’d like to believe it is, but part of me thinks it simply might not be plausible. If part of YA’s appeal is that adolescence is a kind of safe space in which to experience these things and come out the other side still developing (and I’m not entirely sure I’m willing to make that argument, but IF), then there’s an additional weight when a college student or a young worker makes those decisions that isn’t there in the YA protagonist. If YA novels are about learning to navigate the world without adults, it sounds like NA is about performing that tightrope walk without a safety net.

All of which makes me think that New Adult is basically a quest to find the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of currently popular literature. It’s not that no one ever thought of combining chocolate and peanut butter; it’s just that it hadn’t been in that package before.

(Side note: I’ve seen a fair amount from children’s and YA librarians about new adult, but what are adult librarians saying about NA? Is this need for NA (real or perceived) a gap in content, a gap in marketing, or a gap in consumers knowing who to ask to get what they’re looking for?)

I’m still not sure, honestly, what New Adult is. I don’t know if it’s achievable, and I don’t know what goal would be attempted to achieve it. I don’t know if New Adult is a new type of literature that needs to be invented on the publishing end of the industry, or a new shelf marker in bookstores, or if it’s just an additional metadata tag to be thrown into MARC records. But I think that the discussion has the potential to tell us a lot about ourselves as readers, and about what young adult as a category really means.

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The Disreputable Analysis of Frankie Landau-Banks

What I have learned in the past five months, part 1: uploading videos to YouTube takes a lot of time.

What I have learned in the past five months, part 2: really good books can give you so much to sink your teeth into that, months after a discussion is over, you’ll be like “Wow, EVERYTHING SUDDENLY FITS.”

What I have learned in the past five months, part 3: You guys, my friends are REALLY REALLY SMART.

As I mentioned in the previous post, in January I went to Boston to visit friends, and we had a two-hour discussion analyzing THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS by E. Lockhart. We used whatever analytical tools we so chose, as long as we could back them up with the text. The discussion was basically a critical free-for-all, and if you have ever wondered why I speak so highly of my grad school experience at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, you really just need to watch any of these clips to see a bunch of people who care passionately about young adult literature discussing a really fascinating book on every layer we can think of.

As previously mentioned (ages and ages ago, which is apparently what happens with non-work projects until nice people start GTalking me daily with “did you upload the videos yet?”), the panel is:

I’d like to be either really smart or really funny in describing the conversation for this blog, but the truth is, I feel privileged to have even gotten to participate in it, and I’d really encourage you to watch some if not all of these clips, because for me, they embody what children’s lit crit can be all about.

I’ve edited the video into fifteen parts, between two and ten minutes long, and posted them all on my YouTube page.

A brief description of each follows:

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Yay, an update!

Hello, the Internets!

I know, I have been terrible updating. It’s that well-known internet truism that the longer you go without updating, the harder it is to update, even when you have things to say. Even when you have a lot of ideas about a lot of books on the list of books you wanted to talk about! It’s self-fulfilling prophecy. Plus, work takes a lot of time! As do very important naps. And I had to catch up on TV- have you watched Revenge? It’s pretty great.

But WordPress sends you a yearly review of your progress, and that’s depressing, especially when you have SO MUCH YOU MEANT TO SAY.

And that starts now.

There are two ways to say what’s happening tomorrow:

(1) I’m hanging out with a few friends to geek out about children’s lit

or

(2) I’ll be recording a conversation with New York Times bestselling author Kristin Cashore, professor at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s  Literature Deborah Kaplan, and professional children’s literature critic Rebecca Rabinowitz (and me!), where we deconstruct the feminism in E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and whether Frankie’s journey can be read as a success or a failure.

Both of which are technically true, it’s just that one sounds way more impressive.

I’m- for some loose definitions of the term- moderating, but it’s generally going to be a fun discussion (clearly influenced by all four of us having masters in CHL from Simmons), which I’ll then write up and post here. If you have any questions or points you’d like us to cover, please feel free to leave it in a comment or tweet me (@yasubscription), and I’ll do my best to bring them up during the free-for-all serious academic debate

 

(For context, we started conceptualizing this discussion in the comments of a post here in February of last year as a potential “point-counterpoint” post. It has possibly grown a tiny bit since then.)

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DANGEROUS ANGELS by Francesca Lia Block

Real life has been kicking my ass lately, but I feel bad for not updating. As a gentle prompt/reminder, Deborah Kaplan (see contributors page!) sent me this fantastic write-up of Francesca Lia Block’s DANGEROUS ANGELS- at which point I managed to accidentally delete the entire contributors page and freaked out. And then, because she is a good friend, she reminded me again. And now we are back!

ANYWAY.

Deborah has good, solid thoughts on a series that I could never quite get into, and again, she makes me want to read the books just to understand the full impact of what she’s saying.

I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on TONING THE SWEEP, NUMBER THE STARS, and an article on picture books posted by the New York Times which tried to confront gender in children’s lit and missed the mark spectacularly. For now, enjoy Deb’s thoughts on DANGEROUS ANGELS, which are definitely worth reading, and a great way to get back into the feminist YA mindset.


Title: DANGEROUS ANGELS by Francesca Lia Block

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ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE and TRICKSTER’S CHOICE

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! In celebration (that’s totally a lie, I was posting this morning anyway and this is just a happy accident), I have our first guest post. Jennifer Cary Diers (check out the new and shiny Contributors page!) was nice enough to cover both of the Tamora Pierce novels on the list, and give a thoughtful evaluation of same.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t read ALANNA since 2006 and I haven’t read TRICKSTER’S CHOICE at all, but just reading this essay made me want to read them both. On the one hand, this kind of goes against my goal of not having to read all 100- but really, isn’t this the best kind of failure?

–a


I should point out, right from the start, that I am a Tamora Pierce fanatic. Not fan—fanatic. I have read everything, many times, and I can quote from her novels at length. The idea of pulling apart her work for the purposes of this book review is daunting. But just as Amy pointed out when reviewing L’Engle, the love of a book or of a character cannot (or, perhaps, should not) erase the issues. And so, here are some issues for your consideration…

Title: ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE and TRICKSTER’S CHOICE by Tamora Pierce

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The Skin I’m In

First of all, shout-out to Simmons College, home of the amazing Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and also the fine institution which gave me my graduate degrees, which links to my blog at the end of their poll on what ARE the most feminist YA reads. (Link for voting removed, thanks to a friend tipping me off it’s just for within the Simmons community- sorry about that, guys!) And thanks, too, for reminding me through that that I should be updating this blog, rather than just reading books and venting at people on GoogleTalk with a lot of caps lock and exclamation points (and maybe freaking out a little bit about the YA Mafia- you guys won’t all cast me out of the field forever for trying to start some critical discussion, right?).

Anyway.

Title: THE SKIN I’M IN by Sharon Flake

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Posted in Book Reviews, The Skin I'm In | 10 Comments

Rules and Regulations

I have to say, this blog is making me happy already. I’m pleased so many of you out there are as interested in exploring this as I am! I’m glad to have a place to throw some ideas around. Also, selfishly, I’m really looking forward to some of the posts people have said they’d write for the site. (Trust me, when you see them, you will too.)

I set a bunch of ground rules for myself for this blog, but I realized I haven’t stated them explicitly, and I should have done that. So here goes:

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