Last week in class we discussed that many of the books on our assigned reading list have been difficult to find. Not all are available in the Western Library catalogue. The LPL has been missing a few of the key titles as well. Chapters-Indigo has listed most of the books I’ve looked for as out of stock, both online and in-store. What’s really interesting to me about this perceived shortage is that the titles we’ve been assigned are seminal classics for young adult literature. Many have been award winning, best-selling books. The stories are beautiful. The writing is of high quality. So why are these books so hard to find? Returning to Caroline Hunt’s Young Adult Literature Evades the Theorists helps answer my question, at least in part.
One contributing factor may be that Young Adult literature has “a striking lack of theoretical criticism” (4). It makes sense that the Western libraries wouldn’t purchase or hold onto books that aren’t studied frequently. The idea of YA as its own genre is one that people have struggled with. As a genre, it shares some of the same issues as children’s literature, meaning that theorists, publishers, and even authors failed to differentiate between the two. Censorship is common for YA literature. These are decisions made by adults on the appropriateness of language, sexuality, experiences with drugs and alcohol and other “obvious taboos” (6) that are not present in children’s literature, but certainty important in YA. Hunt argues that theorists tend to defend the existence of the book instead of analyzing it from a literary perspective. Caroline Hunt purposes that the category needs the time to pass to create more serious criticism.
Hunt notes that the marketing of YA titles has a huge impact on the longevity of titles. While children have books purchased for them by their parents, young adults tend to buy their own books. Working to appeal to this quickly shifting demographic, current publishing practices tend towards more paperbacks, more series, fewer reviews, and multiple works by the same author with less individual authors.
The books that are popular with young adults tend to date quickly. The language, customs, and sexual norms of young people have changed drastically from generation to generation. As a result, accurate portrayals of YA life date the book very quickly, meaning that enduring classics, such as S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, are rare. As a result, it’s hard to nail down a canon. Hunt purports that today, theorists are working towards constructing many canons, but that is it challenging: “[is it] possible for books to remain canonical after their readership has completely deserted them?” (7). Classics like Walter Dean Meyer’s Monster aren’t available in our school’s library catalogue because they aren’t been studied. They aren’t available at Chapters because they aren’t being read.
What can we do to change this? We can read the books, for a start. We can study them and write about them. As theorists, we can work to establish a canon. As librarians, we can work to introduce them to a new generation of readers through programs like reader’s advisory, reading groups, and library displays. If a story is truly worth reading, it’s possible (and important) to keep it alive.
Coats, Karen. 2011. “Young Adult Literature: Growing Up in Theory,” In Handbook of research on children’s and young adult literature, pp. 315-29, edited by Shelby A. Wolf, Karen Coats, Patricia Enciso and Christine A. Jenkins. New York: Routledge.
A preprint available from author’s website can be accessed by clicking this link.