Just now, I was reading what should have been a decent analysis of the Hollywoodization of young adult literature, “We’re talking about Young Adult Fiction All Wrong,” but I stopped just a couple of paragraphs in. The writer, Kyle Fowle, of AV Club, made the same error that so many Johnny-come-latelys make when discussing YA. He drew a line in the sand of 2005 and proclaimed that YA became legit with the publication of Looking for Alaska. I shook my head and decided that anything following wouldn’t be worth the trouble.
I have nothing against John Green as a writer or a person. I have thoroughly enjoyed Alaska and his other books, except for The Fault in Our Stars, which I haven’t read due to time constraints. I have met John and his family, and they are all delightful people. His work with Nerd Fighters is extraordinary, and he literally deserves a medal for it. So this isn’t about him or his work.
I also have met Virginia Hamilton, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier, Katherine Patterson, and dozens of other writers whose worked helped create YA and earn its literacy chops literally before John Green was born. Patterson gave us the beautifully subtle and heart-breaking Jacob Have I Loved, a book so chock full of complex imagery and metaphorical conceits, it would take a dissertation to talk about them all. Then there is Zindel, the Pulitzer prize winning author of Pigman, a novel that created dozens of YA tropes. He was also the single funniest human being I’ve ever met. Finally, Cormier’s The Chocolate War brought complex religious themes, dark human emotions, and brilliantly evocative prose to the field when YA was still called The Junior Novel. Cormier’s work only got better, and Chocolate War is far from his best. Then we have Hamilton, whose masterpiece M.C. Higgins the Great, won both the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal, bridging cultures in a country still reeling from rapid social change. Her books opened dialogue and gave a voice to children who had never been able to speak for themselves.
In between 1975 and 2005 these literary writers were joined by hundreds of other great writers. Among them, they legitimized the field of young adult literature so that by the time Twilight and Looking for Alaska showed up, YA had an established canon of literary excellent. Its wonderful that young writers like Kyle Fowle have discovered YA, but the moment of their discovery doesn’t signal the beginning of something that already existed, any more than Columbus discovering the Western Hemisphere created a new world. It’s also wonderful that folks in media want to get it right about YA, but it would help a great deal if those who wish to write about new vistas in the field had the vision to see beyond the ends of their noses.