Where Have all the Good Books Gone? (Doo doo doo)
Last June, when I quit teaching full time, I went into a frenzy of writing research. Of course, I read up on how to get published (a topic for another post), but I also noticed that many writers and agents recommend knowing the market one is aiming for.
So what did I do? I popped into a B&N, of course!
Now an expert regarding all things writer, I knew that my target age - 11 to 14 - was technically in the YA genre. It would also be safe to assume the novel fell under the category of Fantasy, what with the mystical bonds between humans and animals, rumors of ancient seers, and an evil magician. Off I skipped to the Young Readers section, and I searched the helpful signs for the "YA Fantasy" section.
I felt like a kid in a grocery store who'd just been asked to go grab some popcorn while her mother stood in the checkout line. Is that with crackers or with chips? It could be in aisle 4 with the nuts! Where is the sign that says popcorn??
There was no sign that said "YA Fantasy". There is no "YA" section at all. Apparently, that is a category used by writers, agents, and publishers, but not by readers and consumers. Super. You want to know what there was instead? "Teens". Ok, I thought, I wouldn't exactly call a middle school child a teen, but let's give this a shot. Here is a sampling of the sub-categories I was horrified to find.
ADVENTURE & SURVIVAL, CHOICES & TRANSITIONS, HORROR AND SUSPENSE, SEXUALITY, SUBSTANCE ABUSE, and my personal favorite, PARANORMAL ROMANCE.
There is so much wrong with this picture.
I love, first of all, that "adventure" in and of itself is apparently not enticing enough for the teenager. No, the teenager needs higher stakes than that, like SURVIVAL! Prior to this generation, no other adventures were a matter of life and death. I mean, when Jim Hawkins was at gunpoint on an uncharted island, he wasn't really in danger. The pirates were just pretending.
Also, Choices and Transitions? What are other books about, staying exactly the same? I know that personally, as an adult, I love to pick up a book in which no choices are made and all characters are just as they were on the first page when I reach the last page. So calming, you know? Teenagers, on the other hand, are always wanting conflict or rising action or some such nonsense. They'll grow out of it.
Horror and Suspense has always been a thing and I don't get it, but at least it's an established genre.
What would I find in Sexuality? I shudder to think. But what baffles me more is that a bookstore is comfortable with the idea that a teenager perusing its shelves would see this category and make a bee line for it. Yes, I love fiction that is centered around the subject of sexuality!
Let's say a teenager was curious about the meaning of sexuality, about how he/she should feel on the hot topics regarding sexuality in the news, etc. That's reasonable enough. But why would that teenager be in a fiction section? I am skeptical that a fictional story which focuses on sexuality is a healthy read for a young mind. But I could be wrong. Maybe one of the books in that category is based on the Song of Songs, which is one long sexual metaphor for God's love in the Bible. Maybe.
Even if I had found a Fantasy section amid these stacks filled with putrid, squelching teenage ambiguity, I would have seen popular titles such as RED QUEEN, the cover of which depicts an upside-down crown with blood dripping from it. Another wildly popular title, THRONE OF GLASS, tells the torrid tale of a teenaged assassin, whose time imprisoned in the salt mines apparently reduced her breasts to an unattractive circumference (that's about when I stopped reading). What in the ... I mean, what?!
Well, I'm sticking to my guns. My book is primarily for middle schoolers and not elementary aged children (known in the business as Middle Grade ... how's that for baffling?). There is no sex in my novel, but there is sexual tension that a child under the age of 11 might not relate to. There is plenty of surviving in my novel, but no change in bra size. Even if there are talking animals and comedic relief, the protagonist wrestles with feelings and responsibilities that are experienced during the tumultuous years of prepubescence and beyond.
Publishers and big book sellers are not giving teenagers enough credit. Rather than pushing fiction that inspires, ignites, educates, or entertains in a positive way, today's YA world wants to exacerbate the darkest and least edifying temptations of our youth. I think it's possible to acknowledge the reality of teenage pain, such as with drug addiction, while also presenting a hopeful and nurturing alternative. There is enough chaos and hurt in the teenage experience -- especially in the bloody arena of social media. As writers, let's offer healing rather than wallowing, and understanding rather than unchecked passions.
Haven't been to the Teen section lately? Take a gander.