When Praise Feels Uncomfortable: A Follow Up to the “Who is YA Literature For?” Discussion

Last week, as I was putting the final touches on my slides for my presentation the following morning on circulating e-readers in public libraries (sometimes I procrastinate) when I got a mention on Twitter that surprised me.

— Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) September 29, 2015

I was surprised that I was receiving “praise” for a simple Storify I did recounting the objections that YA authors and librarians had to some of the comments coming out of the Nielsen Kids Books Summit. It was clear the author hadn’t read my actual response, which I posted on YALSA’s The Hub.

The author of the post who had tagged me edited his post on Thought Catalog after I criticized some of his language—like calling my friends and people I respect “ignorant bleaters.” He also did include some links and quotes from my post at The Hub explaining why I sympathized with the people who are concerned about how conversations at this conference might impact the future of YA publishing. But he still misses the point.

Yes, YA authors and bloggers and librarians sometimes vent their frustrations on Twitter. We’re a very active Twitter community, but not one that is always heard or recognized outside our own circles. We chide and sometimes even mock the terrible news coverage that YA sometimes receives in mainstream media. We are sometimes defensive of the literature that is the foundation of our career.

Though Porter Anderson wonders what could be “cooler” than listening to eight adult readers talk about why they love YA, to those of us who are adult readers of YA ourselves, and infinitely more connected to the community and in touch with the wide variety of eclectic, literary, boundary-pushing YA that these eight readers don’t seem to know exists, their thoughts are nothing more than what we see echoed in mainstream news. Not only do we help teen readers find books they’ll love, we are also happy to help adult readers find YA they’ll enjoy, or educate them about the merits of the category, which is sometimes necessary.

So we don’t find comments about the popularity of The Hunger Games from someone who only bought it after they saw the movie particularly enlightening.

Don’t get me wrong; I am highly interested in how all sorts of readers select the material they choose to read, how they follow trends, and why they are interested in particular titles. I am very supportive of legitimate study of this type of behavior.

I just think (as a researcher, as a librarian, as a reader) that there are better ways to get at this sort of data than giving a lot of weight to the comments of eight seemingly random and seemingly ill-informed adult readers of YA. These are not the people I would want to have a lot of sway in decisions about how YA books—for teens–are published and marketed. I would certainly help them find books that are about the struggles of real teens that they don’t seem to think exists now, or help them find more great sci-fi, since they like what they see in YA better than what is being published for adults. I just don’t want there to be more of what they want and less of what teens need on the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble.

Porter Anderson is quick to explain how no one at the conference intended to “shame” readers. The organizers of this conference and its participants don’t want to shame readers! They want them to buy more books!

But asking the question of whether or not YA should be the term we use to describe this category of fiction pre-supposes it’s shameful to enjoy books written for teens as an adult. Why else should we change the way we talk about the category? Why else would it matter what it’s called, unless you feel YA is too juvenile for your tastes?

I mean, why would reducing the category to “the most famous YA books in the business, from those endless cow-eyed vampire romances, Bella, to the latest disease-of-the-week for teens” ever be associated with shaming readers?

Perhaps these comments were made in jest, both in Anderson’s article and at the conference. It’s true that live-tweeting of a panel doesn’t always convey tone or intent.

Funny, though, how Porter Anderson doesn’t quote any of the comments coming from the Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf account, which are certainly the ones that made the YA literature Twitter community even notice this conference. They did seem to have an underlying tone.

To its credit, the Nielsen conference was more than this one panel on adult readers of YA. There was also a focus on the demand for diversity (albeit from a “look at this potential market!” perspective rather than a respect for the goals and values of the We Need Diverse Books movement). Another session showcased the thoughts of Real Actual Teens who read YA.

But, to those of us make a living on writing books for teens or helping teens find the books that will make a difference in their lives, the comments that were tweeted out of this focus group of adult readers felt very tone deaf and ill-informed.

This incident has already blown over. To those who live in the world of YA literature, it was just another time that we got frustrated about the characterization of YA literature. Next week, it will be something else that sets Twitter into a firestorm. But instead of writing off authors, bloggers, and librarians who care deeply about these books as “ignorant bleaters,” perhaps in the future, people will listen and engage with us.

 

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