I'll never forget the day I finished Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
. I had spent the entire Fourth of July weekend riveted. Sometime between the potato salad and the fireworks I reached the haunting, perfect conclusion. I was stunned. I had never been so profoundly disturbed and enthralled by a book before. Of course, I was thirteen years old, and my reading up to that point had been more, shall we say, age appropriate. One of the fabulously hip, witty contributors of Sassy Magazine
(RIP) had said that The Handmaid's Tale
was a very important book
, and I, wanting desperately to be a fabulously hip, witty lady myself, had gone directly to the Seattle Public Library
to check out a copy.
I had imagined that the book would change me dramatically. Surely I would look and feel more mature in my Doc Martens and dress-worn-over-cut-off jeans after I had read it? Not really. Instead I was initiated into the world of adult literature, from which there was no going back. On to Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf, and John Updike (don't ask).
Among The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye, books that are often associated with morose (read: thoughtful and highly sensitive) teenagers, there is an enormous amount of literature that exists in a gray area of readership. I remember Dave once saying in a meeting (this probably wasn't his point, alas) that bookstores are failing teens by putting so much physical space between literature and young adult books. In a store as large as Powell's, this means that they occupy completely different floors. But even in smaller stores, where the distance might be a few yards, the separation is symbolic: grown-ups read literature, teens read kids' books.
I'm about to digress, but bear with me. I've noticed an interesting phenomenon among some parents shopping for books. When the children are still young ? toddlers to fifth grade, say ? parents will sometimes make a point of telling us how advanced their kids are. It might go something like this: She's only two but she's way beyond board books; or, He's in fourth grade but he reads at a seventh grade level. But get the kids to junior high, and suddenly the parents start to fret that their intellectually advanced kids are going to be reading books that contain "mature" content.
Another phenomenon: kids often want to read about characters that are slightly older than they are. An eleven-year-old will probably want to read about thirteen-year-olds, or even fifteen-year-olds. Older kids get to do more and better things, and these older literary characters model behavior younger kids want to emulate. This is a strange place for a kid to be in, because reading about older kids can simultaneously relieve and exacerbate fears about growing up. (I, for example, read a second-hand 1970s edition of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret when I was nine, and lived in terror of having to wear a "sanitary belt" for a week every month. A sanitary belt?! What kind of heinous instrument of humiliation and torture could that be?!)
It's natural that parents want to protect their kids from growing up too fast. It's also natural for kids to want to grow up as fast as possible to get the whole messy business over with. So, when it comes to what young adults read, the space between young adult lit and adult lit in the bookstore is symbolic of the liminal space of adolescence itself.
Most teens migrate to adult lit sometime in high school, but with the explosion of the young adult genre in the last decade the division between adult and young adult seems to be growing farther apart. Yes, adults frequent the aisles of YA looking for Garth Nix or Philip Pullman, but I wonder if fewer young adults are heading to the literature section, or if they are heading there later? Oh well, right? Maybe it's better that publishers have figured out how to write age appropriate material.
Don't be too sure. Young adult novels often include sex, violence, and drugs (the trifecta of parental no-no's) in as much detail as adult novels, but the marketing is drastically different. The covers are all bare navels and draped body parts. The titles are even more obvious: Sticky Fingers, Doing It, and Jailbait, for example. Whether these books are genuinely good stories or not is obliterated by marketing aimed directly for the teenage weak spot: libido. Of course, sex is a marketing tool that works on adults, too, but compare a few covers from both sections and the young adult books come crasser and less subtle.
I wonder if publishers would market differently to teens if young adult books were treated more like adult books in bookstores: away from the kids' section, closer to those pivotal adult novels to which many teens are already gravitating. Appealing to the teenage libido (which, of course, is not the only way books are marketed to teens) is a cheap shot that ignores the complexity of the adolescent experience.
When I was a teenager in the 1990s young adult literature was thriving, but not like it is today. More and more great writers like T. C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, and Isabel Allende have written young adult books. And there have always been, and always will be, those young adult authors who remember with an almost unnatural acuteness what it was like to be a teenager. The number of excellent, serious young adult books will only increase in the coming years. Lucky kids. I would've loved to have had books like Chabon's Summerland, Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, and Gregory Galloway's As Simple as Snow as a young reader.
That said, I often wish that I could recommend more adult books to some of my teen customers. Nothing is stopping me, I suppose, except my own anxieties about parents flipping out that a Powell's employee exposed their high school freshman to Margaret Atwood's sexual dystopia. I come across books all the time that I wish we could order for the young adult section. Two books that I read last year, Maggie Nelson's Jane: A Murder and Samantha Hunt's The Seas, struck me as excellent books for young adults. Both books are about young women learning how to negotiate loss and construct identities distinct from their families.
I hope that the explosion of the young adult genre doesn't keep teens (and parents) from wandering over to the literature section. I know how transformative it was for me to read adult literature at a relatively young age ? to know that I could understand and enjoy a book that was written for the kind of smart, vibrant women I modeled myself after.
Incidentally, I reread The Handmaid's Tale at 26, and it is still one of the best books I've ever read.