“Ordinariness” in YA

Over at EW.com, Hillary Busis wrote an article bemoaning the lack of “ordinary” characters in YA, or what she refers to as “regular kid” lit. I had a lot of problems with this article, so now let’s go through it:

First, this quote:

“In a modern YA landscape glutted with fantastical dystopias, supernatural romances, brand-name-soaked glamoramas, and hyperbolic tragedy, what makes this heroine remarkable is the fact that she’s not very remarkable at all.”

Right, like there’s no contemporary YA that’s being published these days. This is a slap in the face to all the amazing contemporary authors out there, and to the writers in the genres mentioned that do a lot of creative things. The name “regular kid” lit also concerns me, because, really, what is a “regular kid”? If we go by the authors mentioned in the article, it’s white, middle class, heterosexual boys and girls.

Busis moves on to say:

“It wasn’t always this way. In a time when books aimed at the under-18 set hadn’t yet became the most valuable brand in publishing (let’s call the period B.S.M.: Before Stephenie Meyer) — back when “YA” wasn’t even really a thing — young adult and middle grade fiction were ruled by authors like Blume, Paula Danziger, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Voight, Rachel Vail, Louis Sachar, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. These writers largely rejected magic, vast governmental conspiracies, and star-crossed melodrama in favor of more accessible material — the difficulties of dealing with a friendship you’ve outgrown, or parents who are divorcing, or being abandoned by your unstable mother in a mall parking lot.”

How insulting is it that Busis says YA “wasn’t even really a thing” before Stephenie Meyer? Extraordinary authors have been writing YA before and after Stephenie Meyer, who is hardly the face of exemplary writing. Plus, the authors she mentions are not all contemporary writers. Lois Lowry is probably most known for The Giver quartet, which is dystopian. Besides that, other than Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, I don’t personally hear that much about any of the other authors anymore. They’ve had their heyday, now let’s move on.

I also thought it was a little out-dated to mention Ann M. Martin’s babysitting books, because that doesn’t seem to be what teens today are interested in reading about at all. Teens are an important group to cater to in publishing, so why would publishers produce books that won’t sell today? And she’s right: “nothing sounds more boring than a story about four friends who like to babysit.” Just because that idea worked way back when doesn’t mean it will be interesting now. Publishing is an ever-changing industry, and YA is an ever-evolving genre. Though Busis claims topics like babysitting were “compelling” when published, I can’t imagine many teens reading such books today.

The quote I had the most issues with is when Busis discusses what happens when YA does take place in a realistic setting: “When contemporary YA tomes do take place in the so-called “real world,” they tend to focus on what my old Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul volumes labeled “tough stuff” — suicide, school shootings, rape, rape, rape, and rape.” I felt very personally offended by the sarcastic tone she took when describing these issues, because they are extremely important to talk about. The way she wrote about so-called “tough-stuff” made it seem like she thought it wasn’t realistic. This passage also reminded me of the infamous Wall Street Journal article debating whether or not YA is now “too dark.” Real teens today, do face these issues, and calling them abnormal or irregular is just plain false. Clearly Busis hasn’t been paying attention to the news in recent years, and doesn’t realize that nobody reads Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul anymore.

Busis ends with this little gem: “Trends, of course, are cyclical. I have no doubt that someday soon, the tides could change, ushering in a new wave of regular kid lit that replaces the Katnisses and Trises with characters who are less flashy but no less fascinating. Until that day, I’ll cling firmly to my copies of Tiger Eyes, and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, and A Wrinkle in Time — and remember a time when being ordinary was enough.” The Cat Ate My Gymsuit? Really? I didn’t even read that when I was in middle school, and most teens I know wouldn’t be caught dead with that title. In addition A Wrinkly in Time is a poor choice for “regular kid” lit, as it is a sci-fi series. Busis also seems to forget that even though characters like Katniss and Tris might seem “flashy,” there are still things about their characters that are relatable. You don’t have to read a book about babysitting to feel connected to a character.

I, for one, think YA is evolving in a very interesting direction. It’s much more creative and diverse than the Judy Blume days, and though the writers mentioned in this article are significant, it’s important to move forward and write books contemporary teens want to read. YA writers today are being more creative than ever before, and I would trade a good paranormal romance or dystopian novel for a book about babysitting any day.

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4 thoughts on ““Ordinariness” in YA

  1. Hmmm but authors like SM and Rowling have developed an adult audience for YA which has meant more YA books get published etc. And post these series YA storylines have appeared to become edgier, and now we have the whole New Adult genre emerging… But that’s one of the great things about YA, it’s versatile and they’ll always be room for a babysitting book or a raging werewolf, or a broken world. 🙂

  2. I’m going to have to read that original post now because WOW it seems really off-base. I think it’s a bit hilarious to think of “A Wrinkle in Time” as “ordinary teen lit” because um, because all the WEIRD & FASCINATING sci-fi things, there’s Charles Wallace, who is in no way ordinary. Interesting choice.
    And yeah, there’s plenty of contemporary with the kind of characters the writer was talking about anyway.

  3. What’s truly surprising to me is how many people are agreeing with her in the comments!

    If nothing else, she’s completely skipping over all contemporary YA, which aims to show “ordinary” protags in the “ordinary” situations that she’s so nostalgic about.

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