So: What is Children's lit, exactly? And what is YA lit? And where do these books belong?
Surprisingly (or maybe not), the specifications of both are very contentious.
Let's start with literature for children.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica here: Children's literature is a "body of written works produced to entertain or instruct young people".
That's very neutral. No age range, no specification as to what exactly "entertainment" and "instruction" are.
Here are the criteria for the Newbery Medal, which is awarded by the American Library Association every year to "the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children". They define "contribution to American literature for children" as:
This appears to indicate that children have less understandings, abilities, and appreciations than adults. Is this true?
Parent or guardians or teachers who choose to restrict children's reading choices to shield them from dangerous and frightening things are practicing an exercise in futility. Children know that dangerous and frightening situations and people exist. Children learn history. Children live through history. The occurrence of 9-11 (or any horrors that happen often) wasn't something that could be dismissed to protect the children.
Children can appreciate books with darker themes. They may not recognize the full extent of the darkness, but they perceive the tone and feel of the book. They can read books like The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time, both Newbery winners, and know that there are bad situations and people, and learn to emphasize, and they will not be scarred for life. (Then again, The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time are books that adults can and do read as well.)
Here is a quote from Lois Lowry's Newbery acceptance speech for The Giver:
And all of you, as well. Let me say something to those of you here who do such dangerous work.
The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.
It is very risky.
But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom.
Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things.
Here is part of children's librarian Elizabeth Bird's review of The King of Attolia:
Children usually don't have the emotional maturity to understand love, either. I would say that there is no possibility of a child understanding Gen and Irene's relationship. That's not to say that children should be condescended to. It just means that adult authors can't write about adult experiences for children, because children are not ready to understand them.
Here's a quote from Madeleine L'Engle, just to put things into perspective: "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."
Here's an article from the Washington University in St. Louis website quoting Gerald Early:
We understand the customs and practices of the genre so well that we can usually spot a children's book without having to be told... But a children's book, as with virtually all of our thinking about children, has reality only in relation to how we see something that is not for children. If something is for children, it does not have sex, it does not have graphic violence, it does not have obscene language.
And, interestingly, he continues:
That's an extremely vague explanation. How does a publisher or YALSA determine what books should be published for 12-18 year olds?
Here's a post from Cheryl Klein, an editor at a division of Scholastic, who blogs at Brooklyn Arden:
- A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of
- its teenage protagonist(s),
- whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the
- and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.
This is often where I find adult books separating themselves out here, because while they may have a younger protagonist, the adult books aren't interested in that protagonist's life per se -- they're interested in showing the world the protagonist will encounter in all its ugliness or glory, and a younger character often provides a useful "innocent" or "naive" viewpoint, or at the very least a figure of instant sympathy to adults.
"growth" -- the character is different at the beginning than he is at the end, and usually for the better. I always think of Richard Peck's wise dictum that a YA novel ends "ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life yet to be lived"; and that the events of the book have left the character better prepared for that.
2) "teenage protagonist(s)": Yeah, I'm going to posit that YA novels require a protagonist at an adolescent stage of life, between childhood and the full rights and privileges of adulthood. I do not think this is true of children's books, particularly picture books (that is, that they must have a child main character); but I think it's true of teen books, because life between the ages of 14-18 is such a unique time, full of so much intensity and so many firsts, that only a very sheltered adult or a very advanced child could have those same sorts of experiences and changes.
Now, I think there's debate about exactly how old Gen is, but I also think that most, if not all, readers consider him an adult. He has the responsibilities of an adult: he has a job he feels obligated to fulfill, he loves a woman, he gets married, he runs a country. He may do it in an extremely original way, but there's no question but that he's an adult. Even if he's a teenager, which I don't think he is, he's beyond typical teenage adolescence. These YA criteria do not apply.
More on YA from Patty Campell's 2004 article in the Horn Book magazine, quoted in author Gail Gauthier's blog here:
Defining a genre in terms of its presumed audience is a problem. Especially when that audience is something as nebulous as “teenagers”.
So, yes, YA is a publishing category and books are published there if that’s where a publisher thinks a book will sell best and attract the most attention. But it’s also a distinctive genre with its own flavour.
She does not explain what she means when she says that YA is a distinctive genre.
More from author Gayle Forman here:
A YA novel will feature characters/narrator with a certain voice that sounds young, feels young, authentically so.
From the blog Alien Onions here (who are in publishing in Australia):
So YA fiction is often about a world in flux. It's about exploring this new world, or surviving it, or simply trying to navigate it without a compass.
And it's the YA books that capture the authenticity of this see-saw between strength and vulnerability that resonate most with readers.
So YA characters are often consumed by these questions: 'Who am I? What am I going to become? Where am I going and how can I possibly get there from here?' Their emotions and desires are intense and can have a huge impact on how they make decisions and which pathways they choose.
Books for adults often have young protagonists, but this doesn't mean they are YA books.... A young protagonist in an adult novel is usually knowing and has an adult sensibility in their telling of the story.
Here's what Orson Scott Card wrote about The King of Attolia:
But then, there is no place in our society where personal politics is carried on with more ruthlessness and intensity than junior high school. No matter how much childish behavior you find in Congress or university faculties, image-building, character-assassination, and jockeying for position reach their peak among seventh and eighth graders. So this novel may be exactly right for that age group.
It's also an adult book, however - an unusually entertaining and intelligent one - and I recommend it highly. Give the gross-out thrillers a break and pick up something that will actually exercise your brain and leave you feeling rather good about being human.I think what I said above about Gen is still true. He's not emotionally an adolescent, and Eddis and Attolia are definitely not. Think about how Ornon respects Gen, and the magus, and Sounis, and Attolia. He's an individual fully cognizant of his abilities and capable of making his own decisions and living with the consequences. He's an adult.
So, in conclusion: The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia (I'm actually not sure if I can include A Conspiracy of Kings; Sophos seems to be a traditional YA protagonist)
a) don't belong on the Children's shelf
b) don't belong on the Young Adult shelf
Where do they go, exactly? I still agree with the blogger who called it "a riveting political drama", and for all my Googling, I haven't found which blogger it was. So I can't credit it, though I think it's exactly right. They're in a genre of their own.