A while ago, while having a conversation with my critical methods professor, I found myself in a conversation about Young Adult literature. This is, of course, a favorite topic of mine, and one that I was happy to discuss for days on end. After a while we reached an impasse of sorts when my professor said, “I’m tired of adults who’ve only read Harry Potter!” to which I replied, “Well, I’m tired of Professors who won’t read Harry Potter!”
This exchange is the crux of a more pressing issue – the question of if the traditional canon of literature that is taught at colleges and universities is in fact, a true reflection of the vast array of literature that the world has to offer, and whether this canon needs to be expanded to include the ever growing sector of Young Adult literature in order to truly meet the needs and expectations of modern day students.
Despite the merits of YA literature and the like, they’re taught only (if ever) in segregated classes, separate from the bulk of literature courses, and often seen as lesser for being centered around literature written for young people or, as the case may be, simply about young people.
In his piece, “The Future of the Profession” Jerry Griswold discusses the industry’s resistance to more popular literature being introduced to students. He states, “there was a time when literary studies were narrowly confined to canonical works, and any attempt to widen that canon was resisted as an attempt ‘to get comic books in the classrooms’” (240). He goes on to say that while these days the canon has been widened “to include Women’s and African American Literature, as well as some unacceptable genres like Science and Detective Fictions, and other kinds of literary work (241)” the traditional canon still resists YA and children’s lit.
Even though Children and Young Adults are a huge part of our society and the future of our culture, the literature industry refuses to acknowledge works designed for or about them as real literature, worthy of being taught alongside other pieces.
Richard Ohmann writes, in a piece in our textbook entitled, “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975” that, “the categories change over time (just as “literature” used to mean all printed books but has come to mean only some poems, plays, novels, etc.) and that at any given moment categories embody complex social relations and continuing historical process” (199).
He comes to the conclusion that that “process deeply invests all terms with value: since not everyone’s values are the same, the negotiating of such concepts is a struggle for dominance – whether between adults and the young, professors and their students, one class and another, or men and women” (200).
His argument can be assumed to mean that the making of the canon relies heavily on which group wins the argument over “what literature is.” What makes a novel into a work of literature worthy of being taught in a classroom? And the problem with this struggle and the question it encompasses is that it’s all a matter of opinion, and whoever is in the position of dominance is able to determine what is thrown in and what is thrown out of the canon.
Griswold poses this scenario for our consideration: “When someone writes, for example, about colonialism in Burnett’s The Secret Garden, all the references or comparisons need not be to literature intended for children [and young people]. Surely, references might be made to Shakespeare’s The Tempest or other works; and in this way, such an essay might be more valuable, comprehensive and accessible” (239). Another example would be including a modern piece, like The Hunger Games, into a dystopian literature course. This act is sure to add a new dimension to the class that adds to, rather than detracts from, the course’s merits. Many professors teach that students should read and become familiar with a wide array of literature, yet YA lit is consistently left off their reading lists.
“In Philip H. Ennis’ study, Adult Book Reading in the United States, he determined that three reasons people read are a ‘search for personal meaning,’ a desire to ‘reinforce/celebrate beliefs already held, or, to find support in some personal crisis’; and a wish to keep up ‘with the book talk of friends and neighbors’” (201).
YA literature is often on bestsellers lists, proving that people often read YA novels to find those things which all readers are seeking, yet despite Ohmann stating that being on a Bestseller list is often a first step in being canonized, YA lit has continued to be largely ignored as still being lowbrow.
Rebekah Fitzsimmons writes about this phenomenon in her work, “Testing the Tastemakers: Children’s literature, Bestseller Lists, and the ‘Harry Potter Effect’” – She talks about the fact that despite Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire debuting on every bestseller list around the world as #1, the New York Times list only reported it in a separate list, the new Children’s list. Though it far exceeded the sales of the #1 fiction piece on the New York Times list, it was degraded because it was considered only fit for a “lesser” audience.
She writes that, “the move seemed an embarrassing face-saving exercise and a final refusal to concede that children’s books might in fact occupy a significant place in the cultural mainstream”
The larger question here is why isn’t YA literature being allowed into our classrooms to be taught alongside other great works of literature, when many YA novels deal with weighty issues. These topics include historical events like in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, disabilities as written about in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and gender differences/biases and cultural stereotypes like in Scott Westerfeld’s series The Uglies. The truth is that YA literature is denigrated for the same reasons other kinds of literature have historically been degraded, (for instance African American or women’s lit) – critics and upholders of our current rigid canon structure argue that it’s not universal, that it’s written for a certain group or audience that we don’t value, and that it’s not written in a style we feel is important.
Fitzsimmons points out that “when authors began to write the ‘serious novel,’ or the ‘art novel,’ they did so by excluding women and children from the potential audience,” thus ensuring that “literature considered suitable for women and children was placed in direct contrast with highbrow, ‘serious’ novels” (85). Because children’s literature has long been viewed as popular, simple and easy to access it has a reputation for being inferior to more artistic novels, which are meant to be exclusive and difficult, and by definition, unsuitable for those “lesser audiences” like women and children.
Growing up, young adults are encouraged to read a variety of genres, often resulting in bookshelves lined with volumes of Kafka, Voltaire, Bronte and Dickens standing alongside those written by Rowling, Tolkien, and Patterson. It would seem common sense, then, that these same young people would be encouraged to continue to read and absorb ideas from a wide range of literature as they progress in their studies. But in the college classroom professors continue to withhold books that are not considered to be serious enough to be critically analyzed, in the same way they once kept minority literature, women’s literature, and disabilities literature off of course lists.
People like W. E. B. Dubois and Henry Louis Gates fought to have African American literature put into the canon. Historically, many African American and Female authors have fought to have their work taken seriously and included in classroom discussions. Without authors like Toni Morrison or W.E.B. Dubois we might not have ever enveloped these genre-types into our canon, and they would be left off our syllabi now as they once were.
But many Young Adults aren’t in a position to fight for YA literature, which is why it falls on the writers of YA literature and other professionals in the industry (librarians, professors, and the like) to be the voice of this movement instead.
Ohmann said, “The college classroom and its counterpart, the academic journal, have become in our society the final arbiters of literary merit, and even of survival” (206).
This says it all. If YA lit is not allowed into our classrooms it runs the risk of one day being forgotten by our descendants. And work that has real merit should not have to run that risk.