Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Blurred Boundaries in YA literature

In my last post, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to attend the YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium in St. Louis earlier this month.  I am still using this blog space to write about some of the insights I gained from that conference.

Another trend discussed widely among both authors and librarians at the symposium was the blurring of genre-boundaries found so often in YA literature. While there are certainly ample titles that can be clearly classified in a particular genre, there are also a rising number of titles that don't fit easily into any one box. Indeed, our Teen Room patrons often wonder why we don't have separate sections for mystery, horror, science fiction, etc., on our shelves. More accurately, they wonder why we don't have a special shelf for the "vampire books."  While a lack of space for such separation is one very practical reason, the increasing overlap of books into more than one genre also makes it difficult to shelve YA literature this way.  For example, those "vampire books" might be horror (Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series); paranormal (Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series) or romance (Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books).

This blurring of genre boundaries does not only occur with books about vampires, but with all types of YA books.  I attended one session specifically about this YA literature trend, and would like to share some of the presenters' thoughts here.

from YA author Helen Frost -- Frost writes in narrative verse, a genre-blending style that has been most popularized in YA literature by Ellen Hopkins. Frost's novels, including The Braid, Keesha's House, and Crossing Stones, also use poetry to tell a story. Frost spoke of using not only the words of the poems to convey the characters' personalities and motivations, but also the form. For example, she wrote the poems in Crossing Stones in different styles to match her four main characters' personalities:  free verse for a more independent spirit, and more traditional forms for those characters more bound by society's expectations. Frost spoke of reading verse-narrative novels metaphorically, akin to "surfing on water" where prose is the land, poetry is water, and a verse-novel is not quite immersed in either form. For Frost, the popularity of verse-novels, which blur the boundaries of prose and poetry, is reflective of teens' own psychological state -- being not quite immersed in either childhood or adulthood. 

from YA author A. S. King -- King is one of only a few American YA authors to write in a style called "magical realism." Her novels include Printz award honoree Please Ignore Viera Dietz; Everybody Sees the Ants;  and the recent Ask the Passengers. Just as it sounds, magical realism incorporates elements of both fantasy and realistic fiction, resulting in a story that is grounded in contemporary settings and situations, but will suddenly shift to an event or perception that is not quite real. Reading magical realism requires a certain suspension of disbelief: a reader bent on making sense of all the events will often end up frustrated.  Hispanic authors have long written in this genre, and King admits she's read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred years of Solitude dozens of times. For King, however, a genre definition is not important.  "I just write what comes out of my head." she says, admitting that she herself does not always know what her characters will do until events happen. That attitude of just "going with it" appeals to King's YA audience; speaking like a teen, King questioned "what if it (life) is all just a fantasy?"

from YA author Scott Westerfeld -- Veteran author Westerfeld is experienced at genre-blurring: his Uglies series blended science fiction and dystopia long before the Hunger Games came out, and more recently, Westerfeld authored the Leviathan trilogy, which rewrites World War I history as a blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and steampunk.  (For a good explanation of steampunk, visit The Leviathan books not only blend genres, but also feature illustrations that enhance the story.  Westerfeld explained how the writing of the books was a true collaboration with his illustrator: while he generally authored the story, there were times when an element of an illustration inspired Westerfeld to create a new scene in the novel. Westerfeld observed that one reason teens enjoy novels that blur the boundaries of more traditional genres is that they are still haphazard readers, sampling stories from a variety of genres according to their moods; they have not yet identified themselves as "mystery readers" or "science fiction readers" as many adults do.

Although the prevalence of genre-blurring novels can frustrate those of us who would like to easily categorize them, the truth is that these novels serve an important need for teens to sample a variety of styles, genres, and even storytelling methods. The more teens read different kinds of literature, the more fluent readers they become . . . and the more likely they are to discover a type of novel that genuinely appeals to them.

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