I am teaching two sections of Materials for Young Adults at Rutgers this semester, one one campus, one online. After we do our introductions, the first real class is always spent exploring “what is YA?” — we look at age range, emotional and physical development, voice, style, subject, coming of age as defined in different places and times, whether or not to include books not defined as YA, etc. My students always do a good job of recognizing that these many shifting categories do not neatly overlap, and so defining YA literature is necessarily an ongoing process. But this year, online, after they posted their tentative conclusions, I pointed out that their subtle and thoughtful definitions equated YA literature with fiction. One student who is already a librarian then noticed that her library does not even have a YA NF section — an observation soon echoed by two others.
Experiment: go to your library (where you work, or one near you) and look: does it have a J NF section? Does it have an adult NF section? Does it have a YA NF section?
Thought experiment: for libraries that have NF sections in the two other ages categories but not YA, two questions immediately come to mind: why not — that is to say, what was the thinking on the part of the administration and staff which suggested that in teenage, readers would have no interest in the world, no need for information on health, sexuality, jobs, college admission, the military, war, poverty, pets, anime, sports…– and, why haven’t patrons complained — that is, what set of expectations for the library do readers 12-18 have such that they would not even expect to find such a section, and thus protest if it is not there?
Now it is true that the YA NF award from YALSA is new (congratulations to Steve Sheinkin), and the very newness reflects the fact that there has not been a great deal of older YA NF published. Although there have always been a trickle of memoirs, NF graphic novels and graphic novel memoirs, of hard lives — gangs, drugs, being a boy soldier, various forms of oppression — often with some form of redemption that are not J and not adult. And, see above, teenagers have always needed, and sought out, the kind of information NF provides. Much if not all of that sort of information can be found on the net — but that could be said of many sections of the library. A library curates — it selects and presents materials suited to its patrons. So why have neither those who run the library nor those who use it recognized this gap? Why would anyone imagine that in teenage, teenage of all age groups! — one would suddenly have no interest in NF, or need for what it offers?
Why have we equated YA and fiction even in the structure and layout of too many libraries? I leave you to check your library, and ask yourself these questions.