Suitability, Stuart Little, and Teen Readers

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jill Lepore, who chairs the History and Literature Program at Harvard and has a novel due out in December, has written a most extraordinary piece in this week's New Yorker. "The Lion and the Mouse" takes a definitive look at E.B. White's journey with Stuart Little and at the librarian and social forces that sought to thwart the perpetually tidy mouse's very existence. Banned from many libraries, despised by the self-righteous, barred from the Newbery Medal list, Stuart Little nonetheless went on to sell more than four million copies. Fortitude is an essential character in the story here. So is the power of American readers to override the gate-keeping critics.

In her exquisite essay, Lepore also explores a question that haunted me throughout my chairing of the National Book Awards Young People's Literature jury in 2001: What makes a children's book a children's book, especially for stories aimed at the pre-teen and teen set? What, in other words, determines suitability? Young readers have before them an entire world of books—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dickens, Tolstoy, anything anywhere that sits on any shelf or (now) resides on some virtual post. Why the need for a YA label? Why not just write and sell good books and trust the teens to find them?

In my own work on what will be four novels for young adults and one long short story for an upcoming anthology, I've taken the stance that teens are as smart as and often smarter than adults (at least, as compared with moi, they demonstrate an acutely superior intelligence). Teens are smart, they are discerning, and—trafficking as they do in blog contests and book reviews and often electrifying e-book talk—they are some of the most important readers around. What gets written for and read by teens is being talked about today and will reverberate tomorrow, and so, in my own small way, I have chosen to write about big issues—identity, dying, loss, poverty, and, in the short story, suicide—in language that does not sacrifice itself to some false premise about teen vocabularies.

Today, on the myspace Harperteen blog, I'll be continuing my discussion of an issue I wrestled with earlier this week: brand name novels for girls. In the meantime, I send this calla lily from my garden to bookluver, who embraced HOUSE OF DANCE earlier this week.


SarahBeth said...

I love the tale of Stuart Little rising to the top against the odds. What a fantastic little character!

I think there's definitely a question of suitability, but it's not something that can be pinned down. For instance, there are some 12 year olds who are very capable of handling mature issues in their reading as long as they are presented in a tasteful manner, but that doesn't mean every 12 year old would deal well with the same book! It's a never ending question and I think the best answer is that it's on an individual basis.

I often find that the YA label works as a personal recommendation! Although I have been known to venture outside of the YA stacks. The Young Adult offerings just seem to offer the perfect mixture of deeper meaning, entertaining text and intriguing characters. You can't beat that.

I'm off to check out your latest review...

Em said...

What a thought-provoking post! I've been thinking about the brand issue recently, too, because I reviewed a book for an author on my blog and my main complaint was the plethora of brand names in the novel. The author disagreed with my review and, if you take the perspective of the NYT, then maybe she is right.

But I have another theory. There are tons of bestselling teen authors that don't name drop. Sarah Dessen, Stephenie Meyer, and Meg Cabot, to name a few. I think that the popularity of series such as the Gossip Girls isn't in the name brands, but in the subject matter. Sex, drugs, rule breaking. All those things that are taboo for teens are appealing in book form.

And if I'm wrong about why teens read these name brand novels, well, fashions come and go. What's popular now in the Gossip Girls will be out-of-date in a few years, whereas Sarah Dessen's books will continue to appeal to teens for years to come.

Beth Kephart said...

SaraBeth and Miss Em:

Thank you for your thoughts on this. SarahBeth, I hope you find the New Yorker story and read it all the way through; it's just fascinating to see that we all very nearly didn't get to meet the little fellow! And that a librarian was largely behind the blockade!!!

And Miss Em: Are you kidding me? An author disagreeing with you, the woman who combines kindness, intelligence, and authenticity in every review?



I've got to read a Sarah Dessen book.

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