Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Megan: The Myth of Reading Up

It is a truth universally acknowledged that teens read up. Your protagonist should be a couple of years older than your audience, or so the thinking goes. It's time to start questioning this assertion, at least when it comes to high school students.

I'm surprised how many times I'm asked what aged audience I was thinking of when I wrote Secrets of Truth & Beauty. Occasionally a parent or teacher has told me, a bit guiltily, that they liked the book but wouldn't give it to their fifth grader. That's fine, I think, I didn't write it for your fifth grader. I wrote it for high school students.

In my job as a high school librarian, I help teens to make their reading choices every day. For the most part, they want to read about other teenagers. When I look at the fiction on my return cart, I do not see a row of adult novels. Instead I see mostly YA, with a few Jodi Picoult and Stephen King thrown in – authors, it should be noted, who often feature teen characters.

It would be a reasonable assumption to think that since I am a YA author, I would be inclined to purchase and recommend YA books. However, my evidence is not simply anecdotal. Every year, librarian Jo Lewis asks members of LM-Net, a school librarian list-serv, to report their top ten checkouts. She collects and analyzes the data, and compiles lists for each type of school (elementary, middle, secondary). If you go to the list, and choose "secondary" from the drop down menu, you'll see that the top ten for high school students are all young adult novels.

So that's high school. What about younger teens? In 2009, the Twilight series was tops in middle schools as well as high schools – no surprise there. With a few notable exceptions (The Lovely Bones!?), the rest of the top ten are books with a middle school audience in mind. While it seems that younger teens may range both younger and older, they too, are eager to read stories about kids their age. Teens it seems, want to read about teens.

Thankfully the explosion in YA literature means that there are books for every age and interest. For me this is not simply a matter of curiosity, but one of equity. Teens, like everyone else deserve to see themselves in books. Sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds shouldn't be forced to read about mid-life angst since the younger kids are reading about their lives.

As writers it's our responsibility to portray our world's honestly. If the stories we tell about teens also find resonance with a fifth grader, so much the better, but we needn't simplify or clean up because this younger reader might pick up the book. Write your story. Write the truth. Everyone will be better off for it.

10 comments:

  1. I had a similar discussion in one of my writing groups. One of the works we're critiquing has a ten-year-old protagonist, even though the author meant for it to be geared towards adults. I'd originally thought of it as a literary novel because of how it's written, but everyone had different takes on it. Many people felt that the age of the protagonist would determine the age of the audience.

    After much back and forth he decided to just keep writing, be faithful to the book and its characters, and then see where that takes him. I thought that was a good idea, but am also wondering if not having an audience in mind will keep the work from finding an audience. I guess it's all about finding a balance.

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  2. I'm a 38 year old Mother and I will be wearing a TEAM EDWARD T-shirt and waiting in line with the teens to see New Moon! If it wasn't for Twilight I wouldn't have tried writing my own urban fantasy.

    No matter what age I am at I have always been drawn in by the voice. The age has never been an issue for me.

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  3. This is a breath of fresh air. I'm writing a contemporary multi-viewpoint novel with a group of eighth graders as characters. It's a little on the edgy side but I'm not writing it with a sixth grade audience in mind. The characters are dealing with things that happen in junior high school.

    I know kids do read up (I taught english for fifteen years before resigning to write full-time) but that doesn't mean we have to write with the youngest reader in mind.

    Thanks for this. The fact that you are a librarian writing this, as well as a writer, speaks worlds.

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  4. No matter what we assume, readers, particularly teen readers, will read what they want. I work with some very active teen book clubs that are filled with middle school and high school kids. I've had several college students who wanted to participate in the discussion of YA lit, too. Some of my extremely bright high school students (AP and IB students) really enjoyed Roar by Clayton and the Alcatraz books by Sanderson even though they are targeted at middle grade. Rosenberg's first rule of reading "never apologize for your reading tastes" applies to all readers regardless of age.

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  5. I'm 43 and I love YA. I've spent the last year studying all kinds of YA. I entered a scene contest last year. My tween thought my scene was so good that she wanted me to make it into a YA novel. She takes notes for me as I'm driving. Ideas always seem to flow when I don't have a free hand. My story starts at the end of Marissa's senior year and extends into college. I've never written anything longer than a begining chapter book, so I'm a bit nervous. I'm convinced that it will be a great YA. My daughter who is in advanced a grade level in communication arts, reads everything...From King to Meyers to picture books. Anything I drag in the house she reads and vise versa.

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  6. I'm especially interested in seeing books for the older YAs. I feel like there's a gap in addressing the experience of YAs who are on the verge of leaving home -- or who have just left.

    Seems like there's a ton of high-school-based YA stories. But I think by 16 or 17 a lot of kids have emotionally left home, if not physically yet. And who writes about that transition from home to not-home, whether it's to college or not?

    While I know a ton of teens simply read adult literature (as I did), so many of those stories are filled with middle-age protagonists, or at least adults who are well into adulthood, with jobs and marriages, etc.

    Publishers it seems have been wary of YA that goes beyond high school, but I'm hoping that this is going to change. (especially since I've written a YA that does -- 1st 3 chapters on my blog here: http://readeverythingthathappened.blogspot.com/)

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  7. Great post Megan! People have a lot of misconceptions about what teens want to read, especially older teens. It's good to hear straight from the librarian's mouth.
    -Sashi

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  8. The whole reading up thing also depends on the style of the book. I haven't heard a junior higher in my library complain that Percy Jackson starts the series younger than them.

    I do know that this is something that I weigh when I make my purchases. At the junior high it varies based on the quarter; we have incoming 7th graders still in an elementary mindset and then we have departing 8th graders who are going to make a rough transition into Romeo and Juliet if I don't have something geared towards a more mature audience.

    I laugh picturing teens reading about middle-aged angst; teens aren't stressing over interest rates. That fact was part of a mantra during a staff development class on YA fiction that I taught.

    Great post!

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  9. I have taught junior high for 21 years, and I have seen a lot of kids read a lot of books. Generally, I find that less mature kids are often happier reading books I consider to be middle grade fiction. I've got 7th-graders who read Goosebumps, Little House books, and Magic Treehouse books with no shame whatsoever. My more-mature students tend to want to "read up," regardless of their actual grade level or reading level. I've seen emotionally mature 12-year-old English as a Second Language kids tackle Harry Potter in English because they wanted to.
    My opinion is, then, that it's a kid's emotional maturity that matter most.
    But I can assure you that all kids hate it when authors "talk down" to them.

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