A couple of weeks ago Ruth Graham of Slate wrote this take down of adult readers who choose Young Adult books, stating that adults who read books meant for children should be ashamed of their reading choices. Graham’s article is click-bait. Meant to boil blood and inspire enraged responses all of which will link back to her original text. And it worked! The article currently has 74,000 Facebook shares, 2800 links via Twitter and 3000 comments. There’s no doubt that Graham spent all of last week on Slate’s leader board.
The most obvious counterpoint to Graham’s argument is that “Young Adult” is merely a construction of book marketing and reflects less on the text than on the desire of a publisher or bookseller to move copies. Michelle Dean over at Gawker makes the counter-argument very well so I’m not going to re-hash what she’s presented so well.
To celebrate Ruth Graham’s trolling, let’s talk about a book that may or may not be YA but is definitely wonderful: Kevin Brockmeier’s A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade.
Brockmeier’s book is currently 132,403 in the Amazon rankings; another example of a brilliant book with popular appeal being largely overlooked by popular audiences. So I’m going to slap a YA label on it and see if we can’t move some copies.
Ways in which A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip is a YA book:
A large chunk of the novel is concerned with what happens when people you think are your friends turn on you. When we’re young, we’re open with friends, we’re ourselves with friends, in a way we can’t be as adults. When childhood friendships end, as they inevitably do, that openness can mined for data and converted into cruelty. The bullying storyline in YA novels is usually some mean older kid at school who pushes our hero around but that isn’t really how bullying works in real life. It would be a lot less painful if it did. The bullies are usually the people who used to be our closest confidantes, the ones who know (knew) us well enough to turn our insecurities into harpoons.
2) Protagonist pines after a seemingly perfect love interest.
Sarah Bell plays the wonderful-if-thinly-sketched love interest required in a YA novel to provide our hero with motivation for his heroism.
3) First sexual encounter trope.
We’re in seventh grade so we’re only talking a kiss here but our hero requires a victory of the first kiss variety after all that he’s been through.
4) Main character and their newly changing body trope.
Brockmeier doesn’t spend a Judy Blume amount of time on pubescent body-awareness but there is a short guest-appearance by pubic hair.
5) Rescue by a caring adult figure who is not necessarily a parent trope.
It’s always the English teacher isn’t it? Just once, I want the adult hero in the YA novel to be the guy who teaches AP Calculus.
Ways in which A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip is not a YA book:
1) Well. It’s not a YA book. It’s a biography
You’ll find this one under non-fiction. My library copy has a big yellow “Biography” sticker on the spine meaning it wouldn’t even be filed where the kids might find it. An intrepid librarian or bookstore employee might decide to relocate the book to where the youth are but otherwise you’d have to go looking for it.
That this is the story of someone’s life, or a year of it, seems radical to me. Of course we assume that most YA writers are basing some of the text on their own experience but there is something particularly brave about Brockmeier owning his story.
2) Written by Keven Brockmeier, a Serious Writer.
While Brockmeier has written a children’s book or two in the past, he is best known as a writer of fantasy and literary fiction. He’s award winning and teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Stephanie Meyer, he is not.
3) The adult perspective interlude.
Perhaps I haven’t been clear enough about how much I loved this book so let me gush for a bit. I felt it deeply, related to it completely and even shed some tears for young Kevin. About halfway through the book, two of Kevin’s pals make the dreaded “you’re not our friend anymore” proclamation and then aggressively torment him for the next three weeks. He manages to hold his head high until finally he can’t anymore and he asks a teacher (English teacher, see above) if he can wait out the lunch period in her classroom. She asks him what’s wrong and he cracks. The scene is familiar and devastating to anyone who was bullied during school.
“Do I have to go outside for recess?”
“Can I just sit in the library through lunchtime?”
“Do you mind if I just stay in here?”
Just when he’s bringing up life moments we don’t want to remember, Brockmeier introduces a new voice. His own. In a dream/fantasy sequence Kevin sits and talks with a man who offers him an out from the terrible things he is going through. But then then man promises that if Kevin does choose to tough it out, he will make friends again, he will (eventually) find a girlfriend, he will go to college, he will be a writer. Brockmeier wrote the “it gets better” conversation we all wish we could have with our young selves. It’s a necessary and beautiful scene that allowed me, as an adult reader, to read on and not dissolve into memory and self-pity.
4) There’s not a vampire in sight.
5) There’s a male protagonist.
If you are a Harry Potter fan please do not send me angry email about how I have overlooked momentous works of Young Adult fiction in which the protagonist is male. I know these exist. But. In YA, male protagonists are usually trotted out to be wizards or fly dragons and not to talk about feeling insecure or disconnected from their peers.
YA VERDICT: Who the fuck cares? This isn’t Slate. Just read the book.