What is Y.A. anyway?


By Bill Colvard - [email protected]



What’s the deal with all this ‘young adult literature’ anyway? Or ‘Y. A.” as it’s called by the people who write it.

A few months ago I joined an online writer’s group, and except for one dude who writes sci-fi, they’re all into the Y.A. thing. More information was required.

Young adults? I asked them. You mean like college students? They’re adults who are young. But I couldn’t grasp why people who are dissecting Dostoyevsky for a grade would read “Harriet the Spy” in their spare time.

Not college students necessarily, they said. More like middle schoolers.

But middle schoolers aren’t adults, I countered, and the conversation spiraled downhill from there. So what I have gathered since then is that there is a lot of magic involved and much in the way of alternate universes and parallel histories, and often, there’s time travel, which I am told is not magic. But barring some scientific discovery of which I am unaware, I say time travel is still firmly in the realm of the magical.

I’ve tried to look up an official definition of Y. A., and it’s rather vague, 12 to 20 years old seems to be a more or less agreed upon demographic. Which leaves me more confused than ever. So a college sophomore has more in common with a sixth grader as far as reading tastes than with a senior two years older.

I’m calling bovine excrement on this whole business. This is for grown-ups looking for a little escapism. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just call it what it is.

I remember the day in the third grade, when our class went to the school library for our weekly session to check out books, and the teacher called out the names of six or eight of us, and told us we were no longer restricted to the ‘Easy Books’ section. The entire library was open to us. It was a magical moment indeed, as we, the chosen ones, waved good-bye to our less literate friends and plunged headlong into the grown-up books, you know, the ones for seventh and eighth graders.

Here we were, eight or nine years old, several years until we would be eligible for the magical joys of Y.A., and Miss Jane Lowe (who never taught again after barely surviving a year with us, so she told me at a gallery opening 40 years later) had set us free to find our way in the literature of the world.

It boggles my mind that back in the 60s, when we as children were far more sheltered than kids of today, we were allowed to read anything as soon as we had the skill to sound out the words, and kids today, who watch porn before puberty, require special age-appropriate literature.

I chose “Jane Eyre” that first week out, mainly because it was the fattest book I could find. I also chose it the second, third and fourth weeks because it took me a solid month to read that sucker. My name took up about half of the little card in the back of the book that I signed again each week when I renewed the book. That was embarrassing. Now that libraries are computerized, kids don’t have to endure that kind of shame, not that they would, since they’re all reading titles directed especially to their non-fully-formed ‘young adult’ brains.

When I finally finished “Jane Eyre” a month later, I had enjoyed it enough to pick the book next to it on the shelf “Wuthering Heights,” whose author shared a last name. Turns out they were sisters, but I didn’t know that at the time. I did not enjoy it nearly as much, it seemed kind of silly. Later on, I saw a film version in high school and liked it enough to re-read the book. Liked it much better after the hormones had kicked in. God alone knows what those Brontë sisters were up to out there on the moors to get their material.

Then I hit on Dickens, and was lucky enough to start with “Great Expectations,” which has remained one of my favorite books throughout my life. I re-read it two or three years ago, and from the far end of my life, I see why I liked it so much. The main character, Pip, and I share quite a few personality quirks. And not good ones, either.

Which probably explains why I felt so strongly about him. Although I hadn’t nearly enough self-awareness to know it was because he was just as shallow and self-absorbed as I am. I didn’t yet know what those characteristics were. But his story spoke to me even though I did not know why.

And I’m really glad I got to read Mark Twain before all of the brouhaha about the racism of “Huck Finn.” Believe it or not, kiddos, there were excerpt from both “Huck Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” in our reading textbook that we read aloud in class. The mind reels.

Of course, it didn’t end happily with every book. I chose “Vanity Fair” mainly because it was in three volumes, and I wouldn’t have to sign one bloody card so many times. I tried Jane Austen, and found her dull as dishwater, though a couple of the girls swooned over her. It wasn’t until I saw “Clueless” decades later that I was tempted to try again. Now I get what all the fuss is about. And unlike the Brontës, it has nothing to do with hormones. It’s about having the life experience to pick up the wry humor, which skimmed lightly over my nine-year-old noggin.

And maybe that’s why kids need their own books. Maybe some folks want to completely “get” what they’re reading, secure in the knowledge that nothing is being missed.

But I’m glad I took another route. And read the books that didn’t always make perfect sense. If it was too far over my head, I took it back to the library the next week, and tried something else. “Moby Dick,” “Silas Marner” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” got kicked to the curb in the first or second chapter. And what “Far from the Madding Crowd” was doing in an elementary school library is a mystery to this very day.

But all of those books were waiting for me a few — or many — years down the road when I was ready for them.

I haven’t said anything to the writer’s group, but personally, I got plenty of time travel and alternative universes in the books I read. A workhouse in Victorian London is both.

And I’m really glad I didn’t get my fill of magic in my youth. Old age is the best time for magic, when everything is still technically possible, but nothing is very likely.

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By Bill Colvard

[email protected]

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

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