Wednesday, February 13, 2008

This One's Going Out to Lynne

What makes a good young adult novel?

I was saying that I think, in some ways and sometimes, YA is a more impressive craft than straight literary fiction; literary fiction can be weird and artsy and has all kinds of different ways it can be interesting (many of which I would label as straight-up boring). But YA has to be smart and usually funny (much harder than dramatic, which most lit fic is), or at least charming, in addition to hitting certain notes.

What are those notes? Well, first, as mentioned before, there's charming. Part of this is the YA attention span--people who read this stuff don't read it for an interesting, textured experience; they don't read to be challenged. Often enough a good challenge comes along, something happens that you didn't want and you have to follow the author somewhere you didn't want to go, but you can't trust a YA reader to read through something artsy, spacey, deep-but-boring. You need pacing. You need things to happen.

This is my whole quibble with literary fiction, actually--too often things don't happen. There are some good novels out there that you can tell the story of in three sentences, but in my opinion, there are way more bad ones. And of course, there are some awful books that meander all over the place (an acting program for transvestite prisoners, anyone?) and have way too much going on. But in general, I see that as ambition gone off the rails, while (I'm sorry but) I see a book in which nothing happens as an exercise in navel-gazing; look at the tiny, nuanced details of life as I observe them, close up and in minute detail. Aren't I perceptive?

Anyway, where are we? YA books need to be at least charming, if not funny, plotty, and usually stylish (depending on the age target; remember that your main character is about 1-3 years older than your target audience of readers). They are generally better at ensuring that their main characters go through significant changes, because youth is all about change, and a good one makes the change worth reading about. It doesn't necessarily have to be a bildungsroman, but there is a learning or growing experience going on in the book.

That's all I can articulate this close to bedtime. Do I get extra style points for using the word bildungsroman after 10pm?


Anonymous said...

All for me? What a treat. Charming, not challenging. Funny, plotty, stylish . . . got it. I shall apply this wisdom to my current massively lucrative reading project. Must get on that right away. And what IS a bildungsroman?

And can I just SAY (you knew this was coming), I quite like literay fiction in which nothing happens. I guess I like to think gentle, slow things happen. Like that old fave My Antonia. You loved that, right Sharon? :)

LibraryHungry said...

A bildungsroman is a coming of age story, according to my high school freshman English teacher (and wikipedia, when I looked it up to check the spelling).

And YES I liked My Antonia, a lot, but going to dances and getting chased across the Russian countryside by a pack of ravening wolves count as things happening. It's really more about the sense of movement in a story, the feeling that things are happening and important, than about what the happening things actually are.

I don't appear to be able to edit comments, though, so I'm sorry about your typo!