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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Being and Becoming: A New Way to Think of Literature for Teenagers

This week is war week in my Rutgers class. We aer redding some of the Harry Mazer WWII books; Walter’s Sunrise Over Falujah; Trent Reedy’s Words in the Dust; Ryan Smithson’s Ghosts of War, and the collection Patty Campbell and I put together, War Is. As I’ve been reading the books, I remembered back to 2005, when we had a panel on war at ALAN. At that time, we were so much in the thrall of the Don’t Glorify War that it felt revolutionary even to talk about it. Now, six years later, there are more and more books that have their origin in the coming-of-age experience of war. In a sense, that has been the theme of this whole year — how fantasy was in, then out, then in; poetry out, then in, now less visible again; how YA fiction at one time meant “realistic” fiction, but that is no longer the case, how female authors were warned away from writing about monsters b/c, supposedly, girls did not like, say, vampires — pre Twilight.

I’ve come to realize that we make a mistake in framing any discussion of YA literature with terms of being, — YA “is” — we really need to add a qualifier — “right now, YA is”; “for the moment, YA is” “in recent years YA has been.” This might seem trivial, but I believe YA literature is different from any other. It goes through these strange stages of what Stphen Jay Gould called (in a totally different context) “punctuated equilibria.” That is we settle down into a pattern, then burst into a new one. There is not a slow arc of change. Rather YA Lit “is” one thing, then another. That is, of course, b/c teenagers change, libraries change, and we adults change in our ability to recognize teenager’s reading interests. While all reading communities change over tme, I suspect that the shifts in experience and interest among teenagers are more radical than in other groups. We adults have to keep being alert.

Every YA Lit class begins with a little history lesson. But then usuall that lesson ends up with YA as if it were in full blossom and defined in its characteristics. I think we would do better to describe this field as constantly in flux, constantly fluid, and therefore we need to be constantly ready to redefine it.