Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Great American (YA) Novel

My friend Mark is an an aspiring writer who mostly focuses on adult fiction, though he seems to flirt with the thought, as many do, of writing for kids someday--perhaps because has several young-readers-in-the-making of his own. He occasionally tosses astute questions out at me about the kidlit world as he reads and writes and thinks about the writing life, and I've actually been chewing on one of these queries for weeks, because, well, there's a lot to ponder packed into it. In his own words:

"The Great American YA Novel: In your opinion, has it already been written? If so, which one is it? If not, what would it look like? Discuss."

My first reaction was to think, "Yes, of course it's been written! Need you even ask?! We're living in the Golden Age of YA, after all!" But the second piece of that question gets far trickier--which one is it? Of course dozens of books jumble into my mind, one after the other--award-winners, and personal faves--contemporary, historical, fantastical.... There is certainly a growing canon of universally- acknowledged great YA out there these days, and we could no doubt have a rich discussion about what should top that list (in fact, this is your invitation to duke it out in the comments, if you'd like).

But it's actually the next piece of the question--what would or what does the Great American YA novel look like?--that got me thinking even deeper than titles and authors and books that carry shiny awards stickers.

We (and by we, I mean the tribe of English majors to which I suppose I belong, having written altogether-too-many college papers on Milton and Shakespeare and The Great Gatsby and Sophie's Choice and 20th-century this and postmodern that) usually call adult literature great because of aesthetics and symbolism and critical acclaim and technical brilliance and etc., and because we can categorize and classify and rationalize and argue and footnote it all.

But young adult literature's greatness comes from a place that is often just as aesthetically and technically brilliant, but also far more emotional, I think. And perhaps this is why I love it far more than the many Great Works of Literature I read in college. (Apologies on that count to all those English professors of mine--but hey, at least I ended up with an English major sort of job, right?)

Part of being a young adult is by nature, I think, to be a bit self-focused. You're beginning to truly claim (and also reject) the defining pieces of your world and your SELF for the first time:
your future, your family, your friends, your relationships, your truths, your ambitions/dreams/beliefs/hopes/ideals, your joyous/painful discoveries, your life. With so many things already in fragile balance, it takes something fairly significant to tap through that wall of self-absorption and demand attention . . . to affect the person a young adult is, and is becoming. But the brilliant power of books is such that, sometimes, they can do just that. They can validate, they can challenge, they can inspire . . . they can make a reader pause and redefine the world they've known up until that moment. And when they do any of those things, it's that book, whatever it may be, that becomes The Great American YA Novel for that reader. And so The Great American YA Novel is constantly changing. Because young adults are constantly changing, constantly growing, and the novels they claim as great--because they are full of words and characters and truths that affect and shape them--change and grow with them.

So, Mark, that's my long-delayed answer, I think: what matters most in YA is not the labels scholars give, but rather, the labels that readers give. What matters is that, actually, every YA novel published has the potential to be considered The Great American YA novel in the mind of the teens who will read it.

Treatise now complete, I'd love to hear how other people would answer this question, so please chime in with your thoughts in the comments!


  1. I totally agree with you. I think that it has been written but it's so hard to choose which one. The books that seem moving to me, that affected my life when I was a teen are different from yours and from so many other people. Since teen lit is about focusing on the self, maybe the great YA novel is unique to each individual and a book that each individual found helped discover ones self.

    Nisha Sharma

  2. I think that you're totally right. There's an assumption (at least to my mind) that "Great American Novel" means there's a finished American experience that it captures in literary greatness. There's certainly literary greatness in YA. But YA is about being UNfinished. The endings aren't endings, they are beginnings. A good YA book holds so many possibilities, and being a teenager holds so many possibilites, so how could there be just one Great American YA Novel? Maybe there are defining books of different generations (FEED for the 2000s?), but no one Great.

  3. Ah, well this is almost a one or two glass of wine question then, isn't it? Because one question begets another, which begets another...

    So here's where I got sidetracked..."The Great American YA Novel" - (not a very auspicious start when I'm stuck on the title, is it?) But here we's Sunday night....let's babble a bit, shall we?

    In this day and age, with blended families, communities and global economies...can we define a novel by it's geographic boundaries? Do we want to? Is Mark inquiring about a YA story set in America? Written by an American author? Measured by American readers?

    Because it seems to me that the underlying themes, which tend to be universal, and how they are told in story are what makes a novel great. And as you pointed out, different themes resonate with different readers at different times of their lives, so it could be an ever-changing winner.

    Have I blathered too much? Back to sipping my wine....

  4. Hi Molli - good to see you over at Harpers.

    Are you up for that marketing interview now? :)

    i think there is a great american novel of this time. teens arent necessarily looking for labels - they are looking for a connection :)