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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Young Adult Books and Much Needed Lessons

I wasn’t going to read the New York Times reviews of Bitter End by Jennifer Brown and Stay by Deb Caletti, Novels About Abusive Relationships, because — confession time — if I plan to read a book, I don’t like to read reviews of it. Instead, I’ll bookmark, read the book, write my review, and then go read the reviews.

Then I saw Sarah Ockler’s post, Brown & Caletti: NYT Book Review Misses the Point (Again). And I had to read the New York Times article myself.

And, yes, according to the Times, “The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson.” Just in case you missed it: “the need to tell a good story gets in the way of the message.”

Ockler’s response says it all here: “This broad categorization of YA as Establisher of Morals and Teacher of Wayward Youth (there should totally be a cape and a catchphrase, right?) is as outmoded as my Sony Walkman.”  And: “Like I tell my students in our YA novel workshop, the purpose of young adult fiction is singular: to tell a story. Period. Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader. If it’s going to happen it all, it will happen organically as she’s experiencing the journey of the story along with the characters. Of course authors should care about their subject matter, and should always write with something important to say. Call that an underlying message of you’d like, but much as the “do as I say, not as I do” lectures from parents, the moment a novel is crafted with the specific intent to send messages or teach lessons, the audience tunes out.”

Can I just repeat — once the book becomes message driven, the audience tunes out. This is true for adults; and it’s true for teens. And let’s not even get into the issue of who decides what “the message” should be; in this particular review, the authors don’t deliver the message the reviewer believes should be delivered.

Meanwhile, if you want to read something about adults reading and enjoying young adult books as good books, check out Shannon Ford from Blogcritics, This ‘Old’ Adult Prefers Young Adult Literature (reposted at Seattle PI).

Edited to add: After I wrote this up, I read Bennett Madison’s One Man’s Opinion: Young Adult Fiction and found myself nodding and agreeing with much of what he said. Why? Because he turns his attention to those within the YA community (he says authors, but I’d include us all, including readers and bloggers): “One thing I’ve been consistently surprised by since I started writing fiction for teenagers is how many other YA writers I’ve talked to DO still seem to think that our books should be somehow prescriptive—  that YA fiction is different from other fiction because of the kinds stories we should be telling and the morals we need to impart (or not impart).  . . .  Even among writers who would never say such preposterous things in unequivocal terms, there seems to be a general attitude that YA literature, at its best at least, should enrich our readers. Young people should be able to read our books and walk away with raised social awareness, more positive body images, ways of dealing with abusive relationships, tools for feminist action, better coping skills when it comes to bullies at school, and of course a shuddering aversion to the word “fag.”Go read Madison’s entire post; and the link in the quote is from his post.

Madison is right; I’ve read and heard these types of comments, and I cringe at it, in all honesty. Partly because my sense of fairness is, “we cannot say it’s OK to be messsagey about a book when it’s a message we like.” That doesn’t say there are no messages, rather, it says there is litmus test of whether or not it’s the “right” message. Or, it can be how some want to use the books. I love books, I love story, that’s no surprise to readers of this blog. But I don’t think books are going to raise social awareness, to use Madison’s language. Books are a part of the overall culture that the reader absorbs.

To wrap this up, I’ll end with two people who remind us that theme is different from message, and that difference matters in these conversations, in how we write and how we read, how we talk about what we read, and what we want out of what we read, for ourselves and others.

At Ockler’s blog by SusanG: “in his wonderful memoir, “On Writing,” states unequivocally that the Story trumps everything else. When and if a “theme” occurs, King says that it is found. He describes the theme as something that happens after a first draft is written. When the author spots it, it is the authors job to “carefully tease the threads out of the fabric of the story“. King’s On Writing is one of my favorite books, and what King should be true of any book, adult or young adult.

And message versus theme is a point Gail Gauthier made on a previous post: “I think messages should be reserved for sermons. . . . Many people think they’re the same thing, but theme is more of a world view that writers deal with in a particular piece of fiction rather than a lesson they are trying to teach. Do I have to conform, to change to get along in life? is my idea of a theme. And an author would then create a world and storyline about characters dealing with that open-ended issue. When an author creates a world and storyline to instruct readers to be themselves and not to conform, that would be a message. The message story is dumped on us. The thematic story we become part of because we’re trying to make out a resolution for ourselves, which may or may not happen. But just making the effort may make a change in us.”

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. Kelly Ramsdell Fineman says:

    AUUUUGH! *headdeskdeskdesk*

  2. Oh lord – I hate this concept. As a kid and a young adult, I didn’t read fiction books to get any sort of lesson. As an adult I most certainly don’t. I don’t do it with books, I don’t do it with movies, or tv or any sort of entertainment (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan – two great movies, or so I’ve heard, that I don’t have any desire to see because they just feel like healthy, granola type entertaiment to me and I already know that the Holocaust and war in general are terrible, awful things that led many people to find the heroes inside of them). If I’m looking for a message or information on a subject and how to deal with it, there are self-help and informational books/sources for that. That doesn’t mean that really great fiction can’t illuminate serious issues, but that’s not why I’m there. Now there are probably adults and young adults and kids out there who love message driven novels and that’s fine, but it’s not all of them and I don’t think it’s even most of them. And if it’s not why adults are there, then why should it be the reason kids and young adults are there?

  3. Kelly, I’m thinking of getting bangs just to cover all the bruising from the head – desking i’m doing.

    Jen, it’s such an odd thing — adult books usually aren’t expected to have messages. Yet teen books should? I’ve just added to the post some more on message & theme in books. Actually, it’s funny as I think about it, in that there are indeed certain grown up books/movies I avoid because I think “I don’t need anyone to teach me that, thank you.” For me, I’ll stay away from films like Revolutionary Road or Blue Valentine because I don’t need a film telling me that sometimes life stinks.

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    Might I be so bold as to posit that statements in the form “The purpose of X artform is Y” are ALWAYS wrong. Stephen King has his own axes to grind, some of which I agree with, some of which I think are complete BS, but I simply cannot agree that the “purpose” of ALL literature is to “tell a story.” Sometimes the purpose lies not in the “story” at all (which might be a completely standard one that’s been used endlessly) but in the WAY the story is told, or in the way the characters are presented, or even in the themes and messages present. I’ve said this before on this blog, but I just cannot exclude 1984 or Catch-22 from my personal canon just because their authors had specific messages in mind in writing them.

  5. Liz, Absolutely on Revolutionary Road and Blue Valentine and such – thanks movies, but life itself has already convinced me that it can sometimes be awful, I don’t need a movie to bring it home. I find it interesting to note that, as I think about this more, it becomes clear to me that I, personally, have a much higher tolerance for message in books than in my other entertainment. Perhaps because I do sometimes read to learn things, but I rarely watch for that purpose? When I’m watching things, I’m looking to turn off and have an escape, whereas when I read I’m bringing something to the table myself with my involvement in the process? I’m not sure exactly why, I just know that’s the way it is for me.

    Mark, I used to broadly say that adults don’t read fiction in order to learn lessons so why should we expect kids to, but then I realized that I know several adults who do indeed like to read books that provide some sort of message or lesson – whether the books were written with that intent or not. I don’t tend to read message heavy Holocaust books or retellings of Hamlet for fun of my own choice (Caudill lists and other people’s selections for my adult book club aside – I’m looking at you “The Boy Who Dared” and “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”), but I know both kids and adults who find books like that to be catnip. So I definitely agree that one purpose is never enough to cover all movies or literature or, as you said, any artform really.

  6. Mark, to get beyond the Times article itself, and messages/lessons in books, different people will have different tolerance levels to the point of whether or not they see it, how it impacts the reader, what the author does or does not intend. I wonder, is there perhaps a difference between someone intending a message versus a lesson?

    Jen, and I know some people love those movies! They just don’t do it for me. I don’t like when the message is the Anvil of Obviousness — but different people can react differently to that, too, in that what I see as heavy handed another may see as wonderfullly subtle.

  7. Mark Flowers says:

    Liz, I totally agree with you about different tolerance levels, intent, etc. etc., which is why I object to broad characterizations like “once the book becomes message driven, the audience tunes out”–depending on purpose, audience, particular message, frame of mind, etc., the message might be exactly what the audience is tuning in for.

    As to whether “there [is] perhaps a difference between someone intending a message versus a lesson,” certainly I think there’s a difference, but I’m not sure if it matters much to the discussion. Does the fact that Frances Burnett was a Christian Scientist and intended a (explicitly religious) lesson about the supposed healing power of nature make “The Secret Garden” a less powerful work? I guess it depends on who’s reading it, but I would say that its legions of fans (including myself) would seem to disprove that point.

    I guess my point is that literature is too big, literary works too varied, and readers too different to try to pinpoint the unitary purpose of any of it. Which of course makes the NYT writer a buffoon, but I don’t think a kneejerk response that “it’s not about message, it’s about story” is terribly helpful either.