Earlier this week the American Library Association announced their 2013 Youth Media awards, sparking immediate discourse on Twitter and listserv about the winners and honorees. Being Australian leads to some unfamiliarity with these American titles, however I found myself reading the thoughts of many American librarians. Their arguments were scarily familiar– the notion of literary quality versus teen appeal.
Is the priority in these awards to recognise the best writer? Awards committees have an established list of guidelines in which to follow – it makes sense that a title’s literary qualities are more easily quantifiable. A writing award should go to the best writer. Good writing elevates young adult literature. However, in arguing for the best piece of literature, we sometimes eliminate books that resonate more strongly with teen readers.
Many librarians expressed dismay that some of the awarded titles would gather dust on their bookshelves despite vigorous booktalking and elaborate displays. Which begs the question – is the concept of quality made null and void if there is no hunger for what is being awarded?
Many readers read books that are the equivalent of Fruit Loops while growing up, yet will move onto works of literary genius. Some readers like to dally in each end of the reading pool, some like the deep end, some do laps churning through everything. Teens know what quality is. They just prefer it when quality is also enjoyable to read.
It is nigh on impossible to sell a book to a teen if it doesn’t sell itself. Quality or not, there needs to be a plot or a concept that ignites a spark. Quality isn’t a selling point to a teen and this is something we need to remember as adults. We might be over paranormal or dystopia, they aren’t. We might choose to reference Ferris Bueller in order to spark their interest, they probably haven’t heard of it. At some point, we need to divest ourselves from the equation.
While teens are represented in the title of an award, they should also be a part of the award criteria. Young adult literature is for teens. That should count for something. While we have a vested interest in cultivating taste, and having teens read about social injustice and inclusivity – sometimes teens just want to read what they want to read.
While quality is important, so is the teen reader’s engagement with reading. There are many authors who achieve this, John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon, or Markus Zusak’s The Messenger. I am cautious of award winning books that have an “issue” clearly stated in the blurb. Good writing for teens isn’t about an issue, it’s about living, loving and surviving. It’s about bravery, and yearning, and sacrifice. It’s about growing and changing, not learning. It’s about feelings, emotions and the every day difficulties of ping ponging between who you are and who you want to be. It’s these books, without social agenda, that connect. It’s these books that fulfill teenage readers.
Quality in youth literature should represent exceptional writing, emotional awareness and a representation of a young person’s experience through an authentic gaze. Some people will read this and believe I am a proponent of dumbing down teen’s reading. This is not true.
Every year the Centre for Youth Literature hosts the Inky Awards, a teen’s choice award. Teens have a strong voice in the longlist of ten Australian and International titles, and are primarily responsible for the shortlist and the ultimate winner. The adults who oversee the teen judging panel usually approach the task assuming the teens will choose along popularity, quality-lite books. They come away knowing they are wrong, and reevaluate their thoughts on teen readers and their perceptiveness. Previous Inky winners, as decided by teens, have included John Green, James Roy, Simmone Howell, Jenny Downham and Lucy Christopher. Teens have taste, and quality ones at that, so why is teen appeal so often dismissed as popularity?
Why are adults deciding what is quality teen literature? Where are all the judging panels that have teens sitting alongside librarians or teachers? Often awards from teens are separated from the big awards. Where is the teen representation for the Printz, The Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year or Prime Minister’s Literary Awards? If awards are for teen literature, shouldn’t the audience be represented?
Adele Walsh is the Program Coordinator for the Centre for Youth Literature promoting ways and means to encourage young people to read for pleasure. Adele is an avid YA reader and advocate, and a successful YA blogger (Persnickety Snark). She has previously worked as a teacher in Australia, and Japan.