simplified for a younger reading level?
more easily digestible than adult books?
a warning to adults that they're immature to want to read these books instead?
just another way to say, "lacking in substance and mature themes"?
a way to insult authors who thought they wrote a book for adults?
YA Shame and Stigma. To date, it's our most-viewed and commented-upon post with over 8,000 hits in one year. I called out author Isaac Marion for some statements he made on his public Facebook wall regarding the YA label, which resulted in interesting (and sometimes heated) debate.
I'm still really baffled by the arguments, so revisiting this topic a year later is likely to be imprecise and blurry. I don't see the label "YA" as an attempt to limit a reader's judgement. It's a marketing term. It's a category. It's a guideline for people that are looking for a certain type of content they are drawn to (or, in Marion's case, repelled by). As a bookseller, for years, the first question I'd ask if someone told me they're not looking for a specific book is, "What kind of book are you looking for?" Hardly anyone responds with something as vague as "a good book", though sometimes it's "I think it was blue" or "there was a dog on the cover".
People sometimes said to me, "I don't like violence and swearing," "nothing too racy" or "I need a good cry". More often I would hear, "I tend to read biographies," or "I want something scary" or "I need an SAT prep book". It is categories and labels that helped me fulfill those requests. Sometimes I ended up having to explain to someone that the non-fiction section was over 60% of the book department. This is one of the reasons I think it's useful to have all these labels--they describe a continuum. There is no real wall between child and adult. There is a gradual transition and it's different for many people. There is no fence between non-fiction and fiction either; in fact some authors willfully straddle the boundary just to be confusing. And underneath both of those major divisions there are more labels subdividing them, to help people with a particular interest track down just what they didn't even know they were looking for.
I think it's the attitude of the reader that interprets the label and decides whether it's a limit or not. Malcolm Gladwell's books are labeled "Psychology" and sometimes "Business & Investing"--am I supposed to interpret them as "stodgy" and "yawn"? To tell you the truth, I read them as "intriguing". In fact, I am getting up really early today to go see him at LiveTalks LA. That's just the way my tastes run. I'll read mystery-thrillers, historical fiction (especially if it's nautical), fantasy, sci-fi, and romance. I buy books on art and math, science (mostly biology and anything about plagues), cookbooks, knitting and sewing. I collect picture books, even though I don't have any kids.
The only purpose I can see for the YA label is to insult authors who thought they wrote a book for grownups.
...Everything has its place, but having your book placed in a category for people who are "too young to read (or in some cases to understand) the full mature themes in a lot of adult books" when what you thought you wrote was...an adult book with full mature themes...is very frustrating. And that's exactly why it's not an inclusive genre, because--at least to the outside observer--it appears to promise books without mature themes, which isn't interesting to people who WANT mature themes.
I cringe at the attitude that says, here are the good/serious/real books, and then there's YA. I don't see it as an exclusive tag--arguably, the children's and young adult labels are meant to be read by a greater audience than the adult label. I mean, would you give The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo to a child? (If you haven't read it, I'll answer for you--NO.) But you could give Wonder to an adult. I suppose I understand this argument even less because I never really paid heed to labels in my choice of reading. There were books, and I read them. Sure, I had the full Sesame Street Library and a 15-volume Childcraft Encyclopedia. I collected piles of Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys mysteries. I have to admit Franny and Zooey really went way over my head when I first tried to read it (I was 8; I read it again when I was 17 and then again when I was 22, and it made far more sense to me as a young adult). But my grandfather (an adult) and I also read Robinson Crusoe and David Copperfield that year (note: I was not read-to; I read each novel on my own and we talked about them later). By the next summer I was reading Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, & Mickey Spillane. I'm pretty sure I snuck my first Mills & Boon novel a year later. I was 10.
Ok, tl;dr. Here's what I think. If you are lucky enough to have the freedom to choose your own reading material, read what you want. Don't let other people's judgement stand between you and a good book. No one worth worrying about really cares if you're lugging around Infinite Jest (do your back a favor and read it at home while wearing a wrist brace--this stems from personal experience). Would you rather be reading Kitchen Confidential, or The Fault in Our Stars, or The One & Only Ivan? Is the new Bill Bryson calling your name? Do you have every Dave Eggers or Nora Roberts book ever written?
Go for it. Just keep reading.
Are you proud to be a YA reader/writer?
Or is YA just not for you?
Let's hear it.