On the Question of Integrating
Young Adult Literature into the Mainstream
Chris Crutcher walked into B. Dalton's in downtown Spokane after his first novel Running Loose was published. He says he was embarrassed to be kicking around in there looking for his own book, but he also wanted to see it in one of the places where books are supposed to be -- on a bookstore shelf. He looked in the teenage section, of course. He continued to browse, and as he was walking by the section for little kids, he saw it.
Crutcher says he'd been in a few bookstores since the book was published, but he'd never introduced himself or asked about the book because he didn't want it to seem like he was being arrogant. This time, though, he grabbed the book and walked up to the cash register. "Why in the world," he asked the people, "is this book in a section for first-through-third graders?"
They told him this was the only section where the shelves were high enough for the books to stand up.
"I don't normally say this," Crutcher replied, "but I'm the author of this book, and I'd rather not have it there. I would rather not have it in your store."
Crutcher doesn't get agitated often, but he gets agitated about the idea of young adult literature existing separate from literature in general. "I would really like it," he says, "if somebody would step up and promote this stuff [which is to say his stuff and other stuff similar in magnitude] as being different, promote it as being not like The Babysitters' Club, not like Sweet Valley High, not like Dance a Step Closer. I want my books separated from that." Chris says,
I think the publishers need to create a specific category for books that can be read by adults and youth, books that have both literary and teaching merit. I think the publishers need to create a specific category for books that can be read by adults and youth, books that have both literary and teaching merit.
Few people would disagree that Fallen Angels stands up to anyone's standard of good literature. Ironman gets a powerful and consistent response from adult males who have had power struggles with their own fathers, not to mention those who are having power struggles with their own kids. I can't count the number of women who have come to me and said this is a good book for their kid, but they sure wish their husband would read it.
I understand that B. Dalton and Waldenbooks have to do some of the categorizing, but the bookstores don't have anything to respond to. I understand that B. Dalton and Waldenbooks have to do some of the categorizing, but the bookstores don't have anything to respond to.
Craig Virden, Vice President and Publisher of Books for Young Readers, Bantam Doubleday Dell, has been contemplating just such a category of books as Crutcher mentions.
Another thing that frosts Crutcher about young adult literature is that YA books aren't stocked in national bookstores in hardback. "You buy a good book in hardback," he says. "You want to keep it, so you buy it in hardback. After The Things They Carried was published in hardback, it came out in paperback, and I've got three paperbacks. But I want that book in hardback. John Irving's books I want in hardback.
People don't get the chance to buy YA books in hardback because they aren't available. I mean I don't know where they're available in hardback. You can order them from the publisher, but they're not in bookstores. If a local bookstore knows you and promotes you, they'll stock the books. But that's it.People don't get the chance to buy YA books in hardback because they aren't available. I mean I don't know where they're available in hardback. You can order them from the publisher, but they're not in bookstores. If a local bookstore knows you and promotes you, they'll stock the books. But that's it.
The question of hardbacks is a particularly interesting one for Crutcher. He was once told by a professor of young adult literature that his books didn't have an audience. "It had been a discussion in her class at her university. For the first year, our books are read as if they're being Ôscreened' rather than for the merit of their content. It isn't surprising that we really start to get the mail after a book has made it into paperback."
The occasion of this essay was the thirty-fifth annual convention of the Midwest Modern Language Association in Minneapolis and my participation there on a panel discussing the topic: "Crossing Adult Boundaries: Literature for Both Children and Adults." I'm not a scholar -- I have a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa -- but I found myself among scholars at the invitation of my colleague at Mankato State University, Kay Puttock, Ph.D. Kay has the office next to mine, and she often hears me railing about young adult literature. My friend, Chris Crutcher, rails on this subject too, and I expanded the essay into its present form based on talks with him.
Way back in 1979 I wrote a novel titled Vision Quest about a high school wrestler. The Viking Press marketed the book in the mainstream, and Bantam marketed the paperback there too. The American Library Association named it one of the best books for young adults of 1980, and this was the first time I ever heard the term young adult in relation to literature. Warner Brothers made a movie of the book in 1984, and Bantam brought out an edition with a cover featuring the movie characters; still later Dell brought out a Laurel Leaf edition, which they presented as fully young adult -- listed in the YA catalog, bound in a YA cover.
I never intended Vision Quest for a teenage audience, but in 1992 I wrote a novel titled If Rock and Roll Were a Machine, which I did write for that audience. Now I'm writing a critical biography of Crutcher for the Twayne series on young adult authors, and the research I've done on that, along with having written such books myself and having read what's been written about me, comprises the experience I bring to this topic.
Here's what I believe. Although a few books do cross over and become literature for both young people and adults -- To Kill a Mockingbird and Ordinary People are two examples -- most young adult books can't cross the boundary into grown-up literature for the following reasons: 1. because publishers present most of the books in a package that an older teenager or adult wouldn't want to pick up and carry around, let alone read; and 2. because many of us who write about these books and teach them and have charge of them on behalf of young readers refuse to hold the books to real literary standards.
Before we go on to a consideration of YA cover art, we need to consider the word pander. Here's what pander means: to cater to the lower tastes and desires of others or exploit their weaknesses.
Staying Fate for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher, is serious in the classic sense. Publishers Weekly says that "such superlatives as riveting and powerful can only hint at the craftsmanship on display in this transcendent story of love, loyalty and courage," and School Library Journal calls the book "a masterpiece."
Does the novel's cover strike you as suitable raiment for a masterpiece? It strikes me as embarrassing.
You might be thinking, "Now Davis is going to tell us how this cover art panders to young readers."
It does pander, but the focus of its pandering isn't young readers. It's us. Publishers present YA books like this to pander to teachers, librarians, and parents, And the weakness in us they appeal to is fear. A cover like the one you're looking at suggests that the material within it is innocuous. "We're calling this literature," the cover whispers, "but actually it's literature for young adults. Like the unsophisticated representation of reality here on the cover, the reality represented inside is unsophisticated too. Don't worry, this reality isn't too real. Your students and your children won't be harmed by this, and above all no one in the community will run to the school board objecting to it."
But the representation in Sarah Byrnes of reality is sophisticated. Which is to say that it represents the complex truth about what it is to be a human being, young or old.
A lot of us have been working for years to master the craft of telling this complex truth in writing -- that is, to write real, full-fledged, grown-up literature -- and it's frustrating, and it hurts to see the truth we've tried to tell packaged in a lie.
This is a harsh thing to say. I suppose I should say "packed in a euphemism." It's harsh and emotional, but it's also true. And at the same time it's unfair. I know people who edit and publish YA books, and I've met plenty of librarians, public school teachers, and university teachers of YA literature, and I know them to be enormously decent people, not to mention well intentioned, dedicated and smart. I just think that the presentation of most YA books -- and our support for this presentation -- is misguided.
Along with being seen as unfair, I might also be accused of biting the hands that publish me. I'm grateful to be published by Bantam Doubleday Dell, by Delacorte Press. I'm hugely grateful. I don't make them any money: I don't bring them any prestige; and I also don't even deliver them a novel but about once a decade. You can think whatever you will about me. The nature of my character doesn't affect the accuracy of my contentions here.
Vision Quest was designed for the mainstream, and If Rock and Roll Were a Machine and Chinese Handcuffs, for the YA market. The Vision Quest cover is simple. Just the title with some trees and mountains inside the Q in Quest, the author's name and the designation "a novel." If Rock and Roll Were a Machine is graphic, but the central image, a Harley-Davidson engine, isn't particularly suggestive of youth: it's the young face reflected in the air-cleaner cover that creates the YA tie. This cover doesn't seem to me to pander. It's a wonderful cover, and I'm profoundly grateful to Delacorte for it.
Note the different quality in the Chinese Handcuffs cover. See how the presentation is muted: the story elements the cover suggests are wholesome -- a young athlete, the young women in his life, a pal who rides a dirt bike; the sketch quality of the drawing suggests that what follows won't be too skillfully crafted, that it won't really be art, so it won't be too challenging; and the rolling cursive script creates a sense that nothing with too sharp an edge exists beyond. There's nothing appealing about the cover -- except for Crutcher's name -- but cover art that lacks aesthetic appeal is no crime.
When you discover what the story is about, though, and the seriousness of the tone catches you, and you observe the story-telling skill, and you're drawn into the depths of the characters' lives, then you see the scope of this cover's attempt to euphemize. Then you understand the crime.
Here's a passage from Chinese Handcuffs. The narrator is Dillon Hemingway, and he's speaking here about his friend Jennifer Lawless:
The place I may be really crazy is that from the instant I knew her stepdad was messing with her, I felt this tremendous desire for her. I can't ever tell anyone alive that, and I don't have a clue what to do with it.
Dillon is encountering, recognizing and admitting to himself a quality of his human nature. And Crutcher is presenting to readers this element of the complex truth about how a particular young male human being feels. To present this information to readers -- particularly young readers -- is an enormously valuable thing in a culture where almost no one tells the truth about sexual desire.
Dillon can't help being aroused by what he knows about Jennifer and her stepfather: it's in his nature. What he can help, though, is how he treats Jennifer and other women. It is not what we think or what we feel that makes us decent people; it's how we act in the world. It's how we treat others. The more Dillon knows about being a man, the greater chance he has of understanding himself; and the more he understands himself, the greater chance he has of making himself into a decent man.
The questions that Chinese Handcuffs poses are about as serious as questions get, and yet look at how this seriousness is packaged. I'm not suggesting that book covers advertise the weight of the stories they contain; what I'm saying is, that if we want young adult literature to come out of the kitchen and sit down in the dining room with the adults, it needs to look like it belongs there.
The way we present ourselves to the world is based in the opinion we have of ourselves. If we like ourselves, and if we've earned the right to a certain degree of pride because we've tried to live by standards of decency, then -- at least on formal occasions -- we want our appearance to reflect this affection and esteem. Much of young adult literature appears as though it doesn't take itself seriously, and I believe one of the reasons for this is that we don't hold it to high standards. If we're going to call it literature, whether or not we preface the word with the young adult qualifier, then I say we should hold it to the standards of literature. And many of us don't.
Crutcher tells another story. This one is about how his novel The Crazy Horse Electric Game was effectively banned in the State of Hawaii. In Hawaii, if two librarians veto adoption of a book, the state buys only one copy. The first librarian who reviewed the book said it was trash, and poorly edited trash to boot, such an awful book that it had no right to ever be published; the second found it well written but so depressing that she couldn't recommend it for YAs. So, for a year -- until this decision was overturned -- Hawaii's public libraries had only one copy of Crazy Horse, which the American Library Association named a Best Book for Young Adults.
Beloved, by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is pretty depressing. It won the Pulitzer Prize, but it's full of excruciating representations of the pain we human beings inflict on each other. Maybe we'd better not allow young people to read it. And King Lear is really a depressing play. Kids should probably know some Shakespeare, but let's not have them read Lear. It might make them sad. There's no pain or sadness in the lives of young people, of course, and they will never encounter sadness as they grow older, so let's not allow them too great a dose of pathos in their lifetimes.
Sarcasm, Davis? You bet.
Speaking of diminished standards for young adult literature and other things hard to accept, let me mention two examples from my own experience. The first involves what seems to me an expectation that the prose in YA literature shouldn't be too good. A review of If Rock and Roll Were a Machine in The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books says, "Davis has a slick but telling style," and then quotes the following example describing "a metal-head's sexy girlfriend": She is every gaping light socket into which Bert ever desired to place his tongue.
Okay, call me sensitive. But I doubt that, if my classmate at Iowa, T. Corraghessan Boyle, had written the line in a mainstream novel like World's End, reviewers would have called it "slick."
So we need to drop our style down a notch to write for young adults? Is that the lesson I should learn from the reviewer?
Serious writers don't condescend in terms of style or any other way. They try to perceive human life as deeply and clearly as they can every time they tell a story, and every time they tell a story they try to present their perceptions in the best -- the most vivid -- prose they can craft. That's why we call it art and that's why serious writers deserve to be called artists.
The most pointed example of a diminished standard for young adult literature that I know of remains stuck in my heart. It's the most pointed because it's the most fundamental. Publishers Weekly printed a review of Rock and Roll in which the following passage appears. Bert, the main character, was humiliated consistently over a two-year period by one of his grade school teachers. Years later in high school he has a chance to play this teacher in racquetball; the teacher accuses Bert of cheating and quits before the game is over. Here's what the reviewer said:
Despite considerable buildup, Bert's former instructor merely walks away when the showdown finally comes -- what should have been the climactic scene disintegrates at its crucial moment. While the teacher's reaction to Bert's challenge may be psychologically realistic, Davis's handling of it proves a letdown, making his novel generally unsatisfactory. Despite considerable buildup, Bert's former instructor merely walks away when the showdown finally comes -- what should have been the climactic scene disintegrates at its crucial moment. While the teacher's reaction to Bert's challenge may be psychologically realistic, Davis's handling of it proves a letdown, making his novel generally unsatisfactory.
While the teacher's reaction ... may be psychologically realistic ... What?
Here's what Crutcher says about the passage. Forget, just for a second that he's my friend.
Of course the man was a coward -- and that gives everyone more to think about. To have him stay and be humiliated by Bert, after what he'd done to Bert in the classroom, makes no sense. His walking off the court proves he couldn't stand any humiliation at the hands of a kid. It's perfect. Of course the man was a coward -- and that gives everyone more to think about. To have him stay and be humiliated by Bert, after what he'd done to Bert in the classroom, makes no sense. His walking off the court proves he couldn't stand any humiliation at the hands of a kid. It's perfect.
If I were writing a screenplay, the match would be the climactic scene, of course. Bert would destroy his former teacher, and a gaggle of attractive student friends would carry him off the court on their shoulders. But a novel isn't a movie. We all know most movies are sweet lies; we don't go to them to engage the truth of life. We go for diversion from life.
Psychological realism is the fundamental quality of characterization in literature. If characters' actions aren't psychologically realistic, the characters aren't credible -- at least not to readers who understand, and who are capable of admitting, what it's like to be human. Literature isn't about satisfaction -- at least not the kind of satisfaction this reviewer is thinking of. Literature strives to create accurate imitations of the world, to tell the truth about our lives; and very often that truth isn't satisfying or diverting. Literature -- and all art -- must be satisfying in an aesthetic sense, of course. But the reviewer isn't talking aesthetics. Unless it's a YA aesthetics. In any case, it's an aesthetics to which I don't subscribe. And it's part of the pandering and condescension that will keep young adult literature from crossing adult boundaries.
Terry Davis, author of Vision Quest and If Rock and Roll Were a Machine, teaches in the English Department at Mankato (Wisconsin) State University.
Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not inteded for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Davis, Terry. (1997) On the question of integrating young adult literature into the mainstream. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 5-8.