A professor explores the "no man's land" of young adult literature from three perspectives: teacher, reader and writer.
December 02, 2015, BY Heather Johns
Professor Virginia Zimmerman, English, is intimately familiar with the complexities, challenges and abundant rewards of writing for young readers. She is the National Endowment for the Humanities chair in the humanities and specializes in Victorian literature and culture, as well as in children's literature from the 19th century to the present.
Her middle-grade novel The Rosemary Spell is described as part mystery, part literary puzzle, part life-and-death quest, and chillingly magical. It's available online and in bookstores, including the Barnes & Noble Bookstore at Bucknell University, where there will be a book launch event on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.
Q: How is young adult (YA) literature different from adult literature — or is it?
A: The best literature doesn't fit neatly into age-based categories, though booksellers and librarians naturally want to know which books are most suitable for different groups of readers. These adults are mindful of the dangers of giving a child a book that has inappropriate content or that's too challenging — or, equally problematic, too simple.
One of the things I find most fascinating about literature for young readers is how adults act as matchmakers. Adults might read books because of a recommendation, but they also browse the shelves for themselves, or purchase books based on reviews. Children usually read books because an adult brings the child and the book together. This means children's literature needs to appeal both to the audience of young people and to the adults who will make books available to that audience.
YA fiction is in a kind of no man's land in between children's literature and literature for adults. Lots of teenagers read books because adults recommend them, but teenagers also select books for themselves. Many will choose books for young adults, but many will choose adult books, depending on their interests and their reading level. The main difference between YA literature and literature for adults is the age of the main character. Most YA literature features characters who are themselves young adults. These characters face the same challenges that the readers face, whether literally or metaphorically.
Q: In recent years dystopian stories have dominated YA literature (The Hunger Games, Divergent), and series have become increasingly popular. What influences these themes? In what direction do you see YA literature moving next?
A: As long as people have stories to tell about a broken world, whether our own or a fantastical one, dystopia will remain a popular genre. That said, the industry seems to be turning toward realistic fiction. The popularity of John Green, for instance, reveals that young adults value stories about people they recognize facing problems they recognize. Of course, fantasy remains popular, too.
Actually, it doesn't really seem there is a single, dominant form right now, which I think is a great thing. It was disheartening a few years back to walk through the young adult section of a bookstore and see nothing but books about vampires. The array of books available now will appeal to a wider range of readers, and it communicates to those readers that there are lots of stories worth telling and lots of ways of being a hero or even just a regular person.
Q: When writing books for young readers, what do you keep foremost in your mind?
A: I write for middle-grade readers, readers between fifth and ninth grade, roughly. I like this audience because they are old enough to appreciate a nuanced story, but they are still in the process of becoming themselves. The books kids read at this age can make a tremendous difference to them. A book can shape a young person's way of thinking about the world, it can build her value system, and it can become a part of her identity. This means writing for these readers is very high stakes. I respect young readers, and I want to give them stories that will matter to them.
Q: What do you love most about writing and teaching children's literature, and why?
A: I love teaching a genre that seems, at first, to be simple, and then I get to watch students discover the many layers and complexities of children's literature. More than any other literature I teach, young adult fiction offers a chance for me to watch students get noticeably smarter about the course material over the 15 weeks of the semester. I love writing children's literature because it feels important. As I said already, the readers are in the process of collecting the stories they will use to craft their identities. If my stories are important to just a handful of readers, I will have done a great thing.
Q: What are your five favorite children's books?
A: A reader's relationship with a book is a dynamic, changeable thing. As the reader changes and her life changes, the books she holds close will inevitably change, too. Books are important for different reasons at different times — a book that I appreciate but don't love today might become my anchor in a month or a year; a book that I love now may not be what I need down the road. So, it's hard to pick favorites.
That said, here you go. My favorite books from my own childhood are Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light and Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. My favorite book to teach is J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. My favorite books for children that have been published recently are Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me and Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief. Now that I write myself, I sometimes read a book and wish that I had written it. All these favorites are ones I wish I'd written, and I can only hope that somewhere out there are young people, or older ones, who will wish they'd written The Rosemary Spell.
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