Again, the main conversation’s over at Chasing Ray. The question, this time: “What sort of subjects do teen girls need to address in their reading that they can not simply find in adult titles? In other words – why do we need YA titles for girls in particular?”
I was struggling with my response in part because, much like the last question, I feel like I could write a dissertation and not think that I’d covered the topic adequately. So I asked a couple of writer friends why they thought we needed YA titles for girls. Both of their answers had to do with respect: respect for a group of people, teenage girls, who are not, as a rule, respected in contemporary American culture.
It’s easy to look at pop culture and think that teen girls — white, thin, straight, rich teen girls, to be precise — are held up as some kind of an ideal. But there are, of course, a whole lot of teen girls who do not fit into those categories, and besides, girls — not to mention adult women — are only supposed to look like teenage girls, not act like them. How do you insult an adult? One way is to accuse them of acting like a teenager; especially a “bitchy teenage girl.” You can denigrate a piece of art or music or literature by calling it adolescent. I don’t want to turn this into Identity, Round Two, but I do think that part of why we need YA for girls is so that girls can read books that resonate with what they’re experiencing — or take them very far away from it, depending. The point Alyssa made in the Girl Detective comments is well taken: “As far as the serious/meaningful stuff goes, we teenagers live with the ‘hell’ of high school and all the moronic teenage angst in general. I’ve noticed that many adult authors of YA want to ‘give us something to think about’ and ‘change our lives.’ Those are the kind of books the teachers make us read in school. But the truth is, when we go shopping for a novel and spend our money, we just want to be swept away and entertained.”
So one day you might want the Victorian-style magic, ass-kicking, and wit of the girls in Libba Bray’s A Great And Terrible Beauty. Another day, you might want to read about a girl with a messed-up family, whose family is messed up maybe along different lines than yours, but still in a way you can recognize, like Deanna Lambert’s in Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl. On yet another day, the matter-of-fact competence and scientific smarts of Dewey Kerrigan in Ellen Klages’ Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace might appeal. Or the torturous crush on a teacher in Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s Skim. Or the hilarious Quinceńaera for the Gringo Dummy in Nancy Osa’s Cuba 15.
Another reason we need YA for girls is that it can be a way into subjects you might not otherwise encounter — or admit to yourself you want to know about. I’ve heard from many girls for whom Empress of the World is the first book they’ve read that features girls in love with each other. This is, of course, an aspect of YA that causes controversy, since many adults seem unable to understand that you don’t necessarily read fiction as a how-to manual. (Otherwise, judging from the popularity of mysteries among adults, the homicide rate would be considerably higher.)
And there’s something about voice in the mix, too. I think the YA authors who nail teen girls’ voices credibly — and part of that is recognizing that a monolithic Teen Girl Voice does not exist — respect girls and their lives in a way that authors of adult books with teen girl characters often don’t. The YA authors who get it don’t treat being a teenage girl as the best or worst time ever, or — as is perhaps most common with authors of adult books — as a time of such excruciating awkwardness that they can barely stand to evoke it. Instead, the authors who get it present girls’ teen years simply as a time when a lot is happening, some of it confusing, some of it exhilarating, some of it tragic, some of it amazing. Much like, you know, the rest of life.