Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Blurred Lines

The other day, I was at Barnes and Noble when I noticed the “What Teens are Reading” display prominently placed so that anybody, like me, waiting for their Starbucks fix would have to see it. Being a teenager—at most—at heart, I started perusing the titles. Here are some of the titles that stuck out to me: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Maze Runner. Having just finished the last one, James Dashner’s first book in his Maze Runner series, I began to wonder just how exactly it is considered to be a young adult novel.
            I won’t spoil the books for you, so don’t be afraid to keep reading. It is sufficient to say that Dashner is not stingy with his vivid descriptions of gruesome violence and post-apocalyptic desolation. That being said, I am already voraciously attacking the second book in the series, The Scorch Trials.
            I am not an advocate for censorship by any means—quite the opposite, actually. You would be hard-pressed to find a stronger advocate for the freedom of information. Rather, I am interested in definitions—specifically, I want to know what the “young adult” part of Young Adult (YA) Literature means.
            Naively, I used to believe that the author gets to choose. It sort of makes sense, right? Let’s say I write a novel—a spanking good one, I hope—and decide its target audience is teens between the ages of 14 and 17. Shouldn’t that be enough to get it shelved in the Young Adult section somewhere between Stephen King (yes, some of his books are actually YA) and Lois Lowry? The short answer is no—and so is the long one. There’s a large group of literary critics out there who believe books have their own meaning completely independent from any sort of authorial intent.
            So, who decides?
            Technically, it could be argued that the people who put the books on the shelves decide. But, how do they decide? What criteria do they use to determine if a book is Middle Grade or Young Adult or even Adult? Here are some basic characteristics used to classify a book:

            The Protagonist: Generally, he/she/it is a young adult

            What’s the Story Really About?: These days, it’s probably about star-crossed lovers or some sort of misunderstood mythological beast whose worried about his SATs, but what’s the story really about? It’s about growing up and becoming something or someone different than you were before you started.

            Content: This is a bit of a gray area. Obviously, if the book is overflowing with blood and gore or certain adult aspects of romance, it should not be middle grade. However, at what point does the blood and gore and sex become enough to bump it up to the Adult classification? Sometimes the lines are a little blurry.

            Money: Sadly, this one plays a pretty big role in where a book’s going to get shelved. Where will the most people buy this book?

            However, I think there may be another answer to the question of who gets to decide. What if it’s you? If a book does not get its meaning from the author, then where does the meaning come from? The reader—you. Not too many people would consider War and Peace to be Young Adult, nor does it meet most of the criteria requirements, but when I read it when I was 14, it changed me— it helped me to grow up a little. I’m sure if I read the book again today, almost 14 years, a wife, three kids, and a dog later, it would have a completely different meaning for me. But, at the time, it was young adult because I was a young adult and it contained some of the answers I needed then.
            Besides, whoever said that a young adult has to be a teenager? The day I outgrow Harry Potter or A Wrinkle in Time or Where the Wild Things Are for that matter, is the day reading stops being worthwhile.


Joel Kotanko likes to write books at his kitchen table in the dark after his three little children have gone to bed. He is a graduate student at Hollins University where he is pursuing a degree in Children’s Literature and also a student at National University where he is pursuing a degree in Creative Writing. He has his undergraduate degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan (a place almost no one has even heard of but that he loves dearly). He was inspired to become a writer by J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway and about a million other brilliant authors.

When Joel is not writing in the dark, he is a captain in the United States Army where he works with radios and computers and spends most of his time wishing he were home with his lovely wife, Ali, and his three perfect (though perhaps a bit unruly) little babies.

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