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

So Much Fun

So many articles, so little time.

From about a week ago: Maria Tatar at the New York Times, with No More Adventures in Wonderland: “But the savagery we offer children today is more unforgiving than it once was, and the shadows are rarely banished by comic relief. Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive.” Much discussion has ensued about the article, pro and con, on blogs, listservs, and Twitter. For a sympathetic view I’ll direct you to Monica Edinger at Educating Alice  (“I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan.”) Fellow SLJ blogger Fuse # 8 had a different take at Darkness Redux: Has The Children’s Novel Lost Its Way: “It’s essentially a better written version of that Wall Street Journal piece from a couple months ago but with a different focus.” Don’t miss Nina Lindsay of Heavy Medal and her post, Where Danger Is Balanced By Enchantment: “Tatar contrasts the “luminous promise of magic” in Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the “unforgiving…savagery” in The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and The Graveyard Book.  To her credit, she’s not denouncing the latter–just noting the shift, and her nostalgia.” My very short response? Like Educating Alice, I admire Tatar’s work; but as Fuse #8 points out, comparing yesterday’s children’s books to today’s young adult books isn’t quite the right way to prove your thesis, and, to use Heavy Medal’s phrase, a bit too much nostalgia for earlier times and earlier books.

Meanwhile this week Salon gave us not one but two articles that slam children’s and young adult literature!

How the National Book Awards Made Themselves Irrelevant by Laura Miller; all you need to do is read the subtitle, “a once-influential literary prize is now the Newbery Medal for adults: good for you whether you like it or not.” Sadly, the article could have been interesting without the Newbery slam. Miller asks some interesting questions, such as whether the judges give preference to overlooked titles. I was particularly intrigued with her “the judges often have a distorted sense of the role literature plays in the lives of ordinary readers.” She supposes that people reading only two or three books a year “want to make sure they’re reading something significant.” Actually, I find that supposition to be distorted; I’d say that the reader wants to read something they will enjoy, and “enjoy” varies for the reader. Some may want something significant, others enjoyment, others catharsis, and so on and so on. Anyway, the Newbery mention is relatively minor yet just enough for me to not quite get why it’s even there, except to get people like me pissed and comment at her article. Apparently, Miller was scarred by reading And Now Miguel and other Newbery medal “medicinal reading experiences”. However, later she mentions reading and loving From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. My take away is that since Miller didn’t like some Newberys she assumed all were bad until she had to read Mixed Up Files and what a surprise, she liked it. True story: I hated my Nana’s cheesecake and so for years thought I didn’t like cheesecake. At almost thirty I tried some and LIKED it and now it’s my favorite. Early impressions aren’t always the correct ones.

To be honest, though, when I read adult fiction I tend to read genre fiction, not books like those nominated for the NBA. So in a way, I have no skin in the game.

Salon also blessed us with Why Teens Should Read Adult Fiction: Parents push young-adult fiction because it’s safe. But protecting kids from sex, death and adult themes is wrong by Brian McGreevy. You know, I think I’m only three or four sentences away from loving this article. Now, put the pitchfork down because what McGreevy is actually saying is parents think YA is safe. He could have been clearer on the point that its not a correct assumption, but since his point is teens should read adult fiction, “McGreevy sidesteps the entire issue of what YA books are and aren’t with a “The YA category is a marketing distinction, not a moral one, however much parents would like it to be a synonym for “safe.”” I wish the point that “YA doesn’t equal safe had been stronger, because I can easily see a parent not as familiar with YA books believing that this article is telling them it is “safe”. This could have been a stellar article if McGreevy’s point was that protecting teens from sex, death, and mature themes in any book is wrong, whether that book is YA or adult. His concluding sentences are “Life’s genesis and termination — and every gradation of human experience in between — is [children’s] birthright. They are entitles to learn about it at exactly the rate it is appropriate to their individual moral development to do so. And as long as you love them enough, they’ll end up basically OK.”

I don’t believe that books for adults are inherently “better” than books for teens; and I think readers, whatever the age, are fascinated by many things and have many reading hungers. Just as kids who want to read adult books should not be kept from doing so, so, to, teens who want to read teen books should not be kept from doing so by an attitude that YA is the easy-reader stepping stone to adult books, best ignored by the kids who are really smart. I know I’m biased by my own reading experiences (but obviously Miller and McGreevy and Tatar are biased by their own reading experiences and that doesn’t stop Salon and The New York Times from publishing them), but I read everything as a teen, and I read everything now, and why would we want to limit any reader to “just” adult fiction or “just” young adult fiction? Our reading hungers are varied, so our reading options should be varied, also.

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. People who only read a book or two a year generally want to read the latest bestseller or book mentioned on tv. I know this because these folks generally preface their request with “I haven’t been to the library ever/since I was 5/for a long time and I’m not a reader/don’t read much/am too busy to read but I heard on the radio/saw on tv x title and it sounded really interesting. Actually, to refine it more, the titles these folks ask for 90% of the time are memoirs – A child called it, Soul survivor, etc.

    I’ve never had a reluctant reader, child or adult, ask for an award-winning book.

    I’m just sayin’

  2. Hi Liz! Just last night, I posted a piece in reaction to the Tatar article — from reading the Introduction to The Wizard of Oz, written in 1900. I hadn’t realized that Baum wrote the book when he thought current stories for kids were too dark! Here’s my post:

    Those other two articles are annoying! I was just thinking how I wish my son’s AP Language and Literature class included even a little YA literature. I know, they’re going for college credit, but my son almost reads nothing YA any more. They read some great books in that class — but I wish they weren’t ALL books for adults. And I wish people didn’t tend to assume books for adults are more important. I think in a lot of ways, books for teens often deal with much heavier themes.

  3. Jennifer, if someone who doesn’t read wants a book, it’s going to be because they heard something good from someone they know, and today “know” includes the radio, TV, etc. I think the NBA-ish books are for readers like me or other book bloggers, who read a lot and are looking for new things.

    Sondy, thanks! Very interesting. A mix of titles — adult, YA, new, classic — would, I think, do a better job of showing the spectrum of reading & the needs different books meet, much more so than classes whose booklist appears to establish a “these are the only worthy books” list.

  4. Exactly Liz – I do have kids who come in asking for the Newbery winner, or Printz books, but they’re almost always voracious readers. Non-readers find it less scary to pick up something that “everyone’s reading” or so it seems to me.

  5. Jennifer, exactly! After a few years, those books may become the ones “everyone is reading”, but the idea of “oh, I only can read 3 books a year so it better be significant” still is a tough one for me to understand. Back when I had less reading hours (law school, etc.) when I had time to read for myself, it was mainly something light because of the heavy reading I’d been doing. But I can see, in that situation, perhaps, a person saying they want their only book to be significant.

  6. What I walk away from these articles with is the idea that no one whould be telling anyone what to read period. People should be free to read what they want when they want. This applies to genre, age level or any other descriptor a person can give to a book. Reading (like so many other things) is subjective so for someone to judge or something or someone based on their choice of reading is ludicrous to me. I wish more of these articles were based in fact. I know this would defeat the poop-stirring purpose but gah, can’t we just read and let read?