Who are we and why are we here to nerd out about young adult literature? We shall now interview each other to answer these and other questions.
Rebecca: Tessa, on a scale of 1 to 18 how much does it piss you off when people call you Tess?
Tessa: I’m taking this to mean 1 is Super Happy and 18 is Shaking with Rage. When people call me Tess it is mildly annoying, and I’d put it at a 9. After all, it’s only one extra syllable. And there’s something about the way people say “Tess” that makes them sound fake-friendly, like they’re trying to ingratiate themselves with me in order to sell me something.
TB: Rebecca, you are very firmly a Rebecca to me. Is that how you see yourself? Would you ever be a Becca?
RP-G: I am very firmly a Rebecca to myself, too. A dear friend started calling me Becca in 6th or 7th grade, because I gave her a nickname. She was the only one who ever did it. Then, when we started high school together, a few people overheard her call me that and picked it up. But it was brief, and it always felt like a nickname, never a real name. I don’t like Becca, also, because when I was little I read this book called Get Lost, Becka, and we had a book-on-tape of it so I listened to it over and over, and all I can hear is the older sister in the book saying, nastily, “get lost, Becka” in this really snooty voice. Lots of people call me RP-G, though.
TB: In a happy turn of luck, I work as a young adult librarian here in Pittsburgh. My official title is Teen Librarian (which is problematic in that it implies that I am a teen, not that I work for the library making it more fun for teens to come there). This means that I read a lot of YA and YA reviews, and I like to talk about it. Specifically, I like to talk about it with you, Rebecca, because I find your opinions edifying.
And I’ve found that many of my friends aren’t aware of the depth and breadth of YA, and they don’t know what YA means. So now I’m going to have a tool with which to spam them with the knowledge.
1. For one, I am an unabashed escapist in my reading, so I particularly love YA fantasy and sci fi. There is just such a day-before-winter-break feeling about a really good YA adventure!
2. So many YA books are about the protagonist discovering something important about herself—a desire, a hidden truth, an unacknowledged weakness or strength. Many critics tend to lump these things into “The Coming Of Age” monolith. Rather, I think, discovering or acknowledging important things about ourselves is actually something we should all strive for at all times. So, I love YA fiction because it shows characters who are brave enough (and not so stolidly set in their ways) that they can make big changes, take risks, become different, better. There’s something about reading those stories that gives me a real charge, and makes me want to do the same.
3. Finally, some of the most innovative work with genre is being done in YA fiction. As a committed genre reader, I have found the YA fiction of the last five or ten years more exciting than books marketed to an adult audience.And I want to write about YA books, specifically, because I think YA fiction is unique in the way it’s appreciated. There are so many readers (of all ages) who read YA fiction purely for enjoyment and escapism, and talk about it for fun and with such delight, and I want to be a part of it. I don’t mean that we, its fans, are uncritical or unthinking; just that the approach to YA fic feels to me more generous than the approach to many genres of “adult” fiction or literary fiction.
RP-G: Do you have a favorite YA novel? Or, a YA novel that was particularly influential to you as a kid? Or an adult?
TB: For real, I hate picking favorites. It’s like Sophie’s Choice if Sophie was also the Old Lady Who Lived in Shoe and Had So Many Favorite Books She Didn’t Know What to Do. This is a pretty obvious answer, but the most influential thing in my life when I was a kid was being able to go to the library and look at whatever I wanted. It sometimes resulted in me reading stuff that was way over my head, but it gave me an immense sense of freedom and access to curiosity, so I could chill out with Paula Danziger or read about leeches, or go hog wild on the Mary Higgins Clark–which I did, so as a result I’m catching up on all the classic YA I missed then in my career today.
I was pretty devoted to the Chronicles of Narnia, though. If I was forced to give you a favorite, that would be a strong contender. I would sit in my room and stare at the old wallpaper, hoping that it was secretly a print of Narnian plants and would someday magically transport me there.
2. For an entire month, I cooked food that was mentioned in books (many of which were YA) and then, as you know, I wrote blog posts about them.
3. I’m writing a blog about them. Right. Now.See, those aren’t dorky, right? Right? Um, right . . . ?
RP-G: Tessa, what do you think is the biggest misconception that the general public has about YA books?
TB: Just yesterday I read a review of Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler & Maira Kalman, and the reviewer had the gall to say that “the book is so good at capturing what it feels like to be a jilted 16-year-old girl that it seems almost wasted on its young-adult audience.” That’s the biggest bee in my bonnet: the idea that teenagers don’t deserve or somehow can’t understand well-written books. If anything, teens need MORE well-written books that can accurately mirror their vulnerable and raw emotions.
I also hate the very concept that there’s one single rubric with which to measure what is well-written. Adults read for escapism as much as young adults, and each are willing to overlook a weaker part of a book because they’re enjoying a stronger part (e.g. a book with terrible descriptions & dialogue but a great plot).
So, as a remedy to my complaint, I think more adults as well as more young adults should read more YA books, because it’s seriously the best thing out there. It’s so easy to read across genres in YA, and the themes are so universal that it’s immediately immersive and appealing to the reader, giving so many more access points and chances to find something new to read and be excited about.
TB: So, what do you, Rebecca, think is the biggest misconception out there about YA lit?
RP-G: Tessa, you are a librarian; is there a book that you’ve recommended to young adults more than any other?
TB: Not really–if someone comes to me with a reader’s advisory question it’s usually geared to what kind of stuff they’re already reading so I follow their lead on it. That being said, if I can I will always recommend M.T. Anderson’s books, and I’ve been pushing Divergent by Veronica Roth as something to tide people over with when they’re waiting for The Hunger Games.
And I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels, so those always come to the front of my mind.But mostly people want to walk away with a book in their hand so I stick to what’s on our shelves, which is not always what comes to the front of my mind.
TB: Rebecca, how does reading YA complement being a PhD? Do you ever find yourself deconstructing Anne of Green Gables, for example?
RP-G: Actually, grad school is what got me back on the YA train after years of it being off my radar. As you know, before grad school I read fiction constantly. Then, when I started grad school, where I was reading difficult texts for like twelve hours a day, it was hard for me to take a book to bed and read to unwind. I had the horrible, horrible fear that going to grad school for literature was ruining books for me, and if that was the case then I would obviously have to drop out, because it totally wasn’t worth it. So, I started re-reading my favorite authors from when I was a kid—S.E. Hinton, Susan Cooper, Aidan Chambers—and found that YA fiction was exactly what I needed. It was so completely different than what I was reading for school, and it had attached to it only warm and delicious feelings.
As for deconstructing Anne of Green Gables, while I like nothing more than a knock-down, drag-out dispute about a book, or a full-on kvell session, I usually don’t have the impulse to think about YA fiction the way I might if I had my PhD scrappy cap on. I was recently teaching Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation,” and found my feelings on YA fiction very much in sympathy with its luminous final line: “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
RP-G: What is your favorite color? Follow-up question: if you see a book with a beautiful cover in this color do you need to buy it?
TB: My favorite color is moss green. It used to be blue when I was growing up but that was only because my sister had claimed green and I felt it was inappropriate to have the same favorite color (much like ordering dinner with the family and feeling that no one can repeat). Once my sister matriculated into college, however, I realized that I really did prefer green to all other colors.I limit my book buying to books I’ve already read and know that I want to re-read. Working in a library has freed me from many feelings of need as far as book purchasing, because I know I can probably get it at work and pre-screen. And then I won’t have thousands of books to stuff into my apartment or move around.I am more attracted to books with a nice pop of green, though.It may be more accurate to say I judge books with gradient features more harshly than books with clean design.
TB: What’s the best thing to eat whilst reading?
RP-G: Cinnamon toast.
TB: Oooh, that’s a good one. How do you feel about books that make you cry? Manipulated? Or moved?
RP-G: I actually love books that make me cry. Mostly because I don’t cry much in my normal life and so it gets saved up, so crying at books is like a tear-drain. That makes me sound really in need of help. But, yeah, even when I know I’ve been manipulated to cry I still like the crying itself. Blatant manipulation might make me lose respect for the book in the morning, though.