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.
This is the first line of a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review by Lisa Belkin. The article reviewed two YA novels about abusive relationships – Jennifer Brown’s BITTER END and Deb Caletti’s STAY – and while it is exciting to see more and more YA novels getting press, I have a serious issue with this opening statement.
Sarah Ockler wrote a fabulous response to Belkin’s article, claiming that the NYT review missed the point. I happen to agree and urge you all to read Ockler’s post. My thoughts are very much in line with hers and she breaks down the review (and her issues with it) so very well.
In my opinion – and Lisa Belkin is certainly entitled to her own – the purpose of young adult literature is not twofold. There is just one purpose: tell a story. Tell an amazing, jaw-dropping, can’t put it down, read it under the bed sheets by flashlight late into the night kind of story. Truthfully, I think this is the purpose of all fiction. It is the sole goal, regardless of category or genre. Whether you read romance or thriller, sci-fi or fantasy, for YAs or adults, the book should weave a fantastic story, pull you into its world, and refuse to release you until the very last page.
Sure, other things happen along the way. Characters grow. Sometimes they learn lessons. Sometimes there’s a moral. But it is all secondary to the story. Ockler puts this quite eloquently:
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 at 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 if 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.
So well said. Honestly, what teen wants to read a work of fiction that preaches to them? What adult wants to? Regardless of age, when you pick up a novel you are picking it up to be transported into a story. Not into a lecture. At least, that’s what I assume 99.9% of people want. Of course, you know what they say about assuming.
Belkin sums up her reviews of BITTER END and STAY with this:
While both books aim to illuminate a real problem, neither rings convincingly true…Moreover, the need to tell a good story gets in the way of the message.
I haven’t read either of these novels (yet), and while I can’t vouch for the actual story/writing/plotting of the books, I can default to what I’ve already said. What Ockler said. It’s all about the story.
The need to tell a good story SHOULD “get in the way” of everything else. I want to read a story that captivates me first and challenges me to reflect (by way of that story) second. If the author has to spell out the message, they are insulting their readers’ intelligence and likely boring them in the process.
I doubt YA authors are in this business because they are dying to “teach a lesson,” or “transcribe a moral” – at least not primarily. Sure, every author has something to say, but I would wager they are writing to share a story with the world. A story full of characters, and brimming with conflict and loaded with suspense. A story that is real and honest and emotional and raw. A story that lets readers escape. A story that lets readers laugh. Cry. Learn. Grow. A story. Always, always, always, a story first.
- Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK is a story about a girl finding her voice.
- John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA is a story about a boy and his search for ‘a great perhaps.’
- Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER is a story about a child seeing for the first time.
- Sara Zarr’s SWEETHEARTS is a story about two childhood companions.
- Louis Sachar’s HOLES is a story about a family curse and a boy with bad luck.
Do they all have messages? Yes. But I don’t have to spell them out for you, and neither did the authors, because the story is what made the message so powerful, not the other way around.
Anyone else have thoughts on Belkin’s review? Ockler’s response? My thoughts here? Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments. Debate is healthy!