Friday, November 24, 2006

Confusion about kids' books

I've noticed some speculation and muttering lately on these here Internets about categories for kids' books. I thought I'd throw my two pennies into the ring.

When I was a kid, I don't think the categories YA (young adult) or MG (middle grade) existed. There were generally two sizes of books in what was called the Intermediate section of the library. The trade size, which is the larger of the two, indicated (to me, anyway) books for ages 8-12 or so: Beverly Cleary, Eleanor Estes, and the Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing books by Blume. The smaller sized books, called mass market, were in spinner racks. These were for the 12-and-ups. Books like the Sweet Valley High series. SE Hinton. Robert Cormier. More mature works by Judy Blume. There were sub-categories for Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery, and Non-fiction.

That was it.

Many kids in high school were assigned books to read such as Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird. These books were found in the Classics section, and included both adult and children's classics. Also, many high schoolers were reading books from the adult section.

Ten years ago, I managed a children's bookstore. We had Picture Books, Early Readers (short, easy chapter books), Intermediate (ages 7-12), and YA (ages 11-14 or so), as well as the usual sub-categories. We determined the correct placement in the store not only by size (mass market vs. trade) but also by content. Some books overlapped.

Today, there are many more categories. That can be a good thing, but it can also make it harder to find the specific book you're looking for in a bookstore or library. Intermediate became Middle Grade, and now there's Tweens as well (ages 10-12).

Also, the Young Adult category has grown fantastically over the past decade or so. It's also gotten edgier. Typical young adult books are considered suitable for ages 10 or 12 to 15 or so, depending on content and the child's reading/comprehension level. You'll find elements including romance (crushes and dating), dysfunction, social/racial/ethnic issues, some abuse (physical and emotional), and sometimes tragedy including death in contemporary YA (for whatever reason, death in historical middle grade appears acceptable, but I don't see a lot of death in the 7-10 year old range of books when the characters are living in current times -- Though Bridge to Terabithia comes to mind).

YA has expanded in age as well, to include more mature themes. Drugs, sex (with some detail, but generally not terribly explicit), moderate amounts of profanity, emotional illness and and teen problems such as anorexia, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, suicide, murder (as opposed to accidental death)...everything you might find in an adult book. This category is sometimes referred to as Mature YA, Upper YA, or Teen Lit.

So if this upper YA category is similar to adult books, why does it exist? I'm not positive, but unlike 20 years ago, it seems that if the main character of a book is under the age of 20, the book is considered Teen Lit by default.

I invite you to share your opinion -- my post here is my own personal opinion which relies somewhat on memories from 10-30 years ago. I could be waaaaay wrong on this. But I think I'm closer to reality than some.

More on Teen Lit in the next post.

13 comments:

TechNoir said...

As someone who was reading 'adult' books by the age of eight, I hate it. I think it retards readers by stuffing them into categories much younger than they are ready for. And they fail to learn early on what 'literature' or even good writing is.

I'll shut up now before this gets ugly.

Heather Brewer said...

Ah, but I couldf add that "literature"/good writing is all a matter of personal opinion. ;)

So long as the booksellers and librarians know where to shelve the books, I really could care less how they categorize them.

It is amazing how complex it's gotten over the years, but then, it's nice to see more of a focus on kids' books. By the by, Lisa, EIGHTH GRADE BITES is one of those rare 9-12 death books. ;)

Lisa McMann said...

Tech, what do you propose?
How do you make it so that you can browse a section in a bookstore and not have to go through all sorts of books that you wouldn't be interested in?

I agree, these categories are putting readers into boxes, and I hate that. What's the solution?


Heather, I should have specified non-genre. What genre do vampire books fall into, anyway? Paranormal? Horror? (sorry...I should know this but I don't)

TechNoir said...

Yes, Heather, you could. But I don't know you so I won't respond. Lisa can explain why.

Lisa, I'm not sure what problem we are solving. If the problem is folks gazing on books they likely won't buy, I don't view that as a problem. In fact I view the extreme categorization as a huge problem, and this from a person who frequents half a dozen bookstores and three on-line shops. I can't find things in SF or Mystery or all those other fiction categories without expanding it all to age groups.

How does one learn what one wants to read without exposure to a wide range of choices pressure free. I wandered the adult sections at an early age and read books on architecture and all manner of odd things that I never would have found in the rigidly categorized sections i see today. Even the shopkeepers can't find their own stock.

This is too long for a comment so I'll shut up. I guess I don't understand what problem we are solving is all. Unless it is making it easier for the merchants, and you know very well that I am not remotely sympathetic to that cause.

TechNoir said...

Maybe it just comes down to the notion that I don't believe in 'children's books' or 'children's movies' or ... well you get the idea. I'm quite certain that today "To Kill A Mockingbird" would be a YA book that adults would never read. And that would be a tragedy. On the flip side, if a YA book can't make it in the world of grown-up books, I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

TechNoir said...

OOooh, ooooh, I figured out the answer to my own question. In the Olden Times there existed small, local, specialized bookstores. (There still do where I live.) The owner picked out things that they thought the customer would buy.

But with the growth of Wal-Mart and Amazon and the like most of those small stores have gone belly-up. Amazon doesn't require that sort of categorization because they accomplish it with their fancy algorithms. Wal-Mart, however, does. They have staff who don't read stocking the shelves. And they take seriously their mission to serve as a censor. I suspect YA, Middle, and all that stuff gets more space and less scrutiny.

TechNoir said...

And I propose the disappearance of Wal-Mart :)

Lisa McMann said...

I worked in one of those mom & pop bookstores. My staff and I read the books. We knew where everything was. It was a blast -- I didn't know how rare that was until I moved out of small-town. Although there's this great used bookstore in Tempe.

Anyway, I guess could see mixing middle grade, ya, and adult all shelved alphabetically by author, together. But picture books, no, because of their size. If every shelf has to be twelve or fifteen inches from the one below or above it in order to accomodate the scattered picture books, that's a huge waste of space.

In fact, now that I think more on this, throw the picture books for kids and adults all together -- that way there'd be a place for David MaCauley's The Way Things Work.

Tech, you mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird, and that touches on what I'm going to blog about next: crossover books.

TechNoir said...

I apologize for going on and on. :(

Lisa McMann said...

No apology necessary! This is a great discussion.

I don't know if chain stores use as many categories as the publishing world uses, by the way.

And I agree about Walmart. ;-)

Fourteen Year Old Writer said...

I'm not sure. I think writers make a bigger deal out of the categories than teenagers do themselves. They just read what books interest them, YA or Adult.

Yep, as I am when it comes to many issues, I am opinion-less. It's not that it doesn't matter. Maybe it does. It's just that I'm not sure what I think.

Ah, I'm a typical teenager, aren't I?

Lisa McMann said...

You make a good point, 14. Maybe we all should stop worrying about it.

Heather Brewer said...

Ah, the disappearance of WalMart...there's a happy thought. :)

"Heather, I should have specified non-genre. What genre do vampire books fall into, anyway? Paranormal? Horror? (sorry...I should know this but I don't)"

It depends, Lisa. My book is categorized as fantasy, but the fact is that it's also humorous fiction/horror/what-have-you with a wee bit of romance, mystery, and adventure thrown in. But, just because a book features a vampire doesn't mean it can be squeezed into a category together.

However, I personally read just about anything with a vampire in it...as do others I know, so maybe we could just count them all as "vampire fiction", even though that's pretty general. :)