Friday, 16 December 2011

YA musings

This article by Andrew Karre on Hunger Mountain is one of the smartest pieces I've read on the topic of YA.

He begins by noting that articles about YA have become internet crack, racing to the tops of 'most emailed' lists and filling Twitter with hashtags. These articles come largely in two flavours:

Strand one can be called the “YA is too dark” strand, or, as I prefer to call it, the “Think of the children!” strand. Strand two is the navel-gazing strand, or, if you prefer, the “YA is/is not a genre!” strand. I have established positions on both (for the record, barely dark enough and it’s a genre for me), but I think the fact of these coexistent debates is evidence of something much more interesting and important than either debate.

But why do we (well, some of we) care so much? Because, Karre argues - persuasively and readably - that YA publishing has become disruptive, in the same sense that Apple's i-Products are disruptive. YA titles - Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games - have become culturally ubiquitous.  Writing from the inside of the debate, Karre concludes:

Arguing about whether YA is too dark is the literary equivalent of arguing about whether consumers will ever want a cell phone without a physical keyboard. Worrying about whether YA is a genre is the equivalent of agonizing over whether an iPad is a computer or merely a media consumption device (the answer, conveniently, is the same in both cases: It doesn’t matter; it’s whichever you need it to be). The only meaningful outcome of these debates is this: What we’re doing matters.

Arguing from the outside is Adam Gopnik in his recent piece in the New Yorker, a fascinating analysis of what it is about long, complex fantasy series that enthrall kids and teens (and adults). Many are ponderous, over or underwritten:

What is it, then, that makes the books enter kids’ consciousness?

First, kids experience them as mythologies more than as stories—the narrative sweep is, curiously, the least significant part of their appeal. When kids talk about movies, it’s usually the cool parts that get highlighted. (“So there’s this, like, cool part where the guy—the blue guy?—has to tame, like, a flying dinosaur and they’re all on a cliff and he says, like, ‘How do I know which one is mine?’ And, so, the blue girl is, like, ‘He will try to kill you!’ ”) Readers of the Eragon books don’t relate cool incidents; they relate awesome elements. You hear about the Elders, the dragon riders, the magical fire-sword Brisingr; what drags readers in is not the story but the symbols and their slow unfolding. The sheer invocation of a mythology casts a deeper spell than putting the mythology on its feet and making it dance. If you talk to an Eragon reader, you will see why the introductory seven-page synopsis of the mythology is necessary. The synopsis is the story.

And the truth is that most actual mythologies and epics and sacred books are dull. Nothing is more wearying, for readers whose tastes have been formed by the realist novel, than the Elder Edda. Yet the spell such works cast on their audience wasn’t diminished by what we find tedious. The incantation of names is, on its own, a powerful literary style. The enchantment the Eragon series projects is not that of a story well told but that of an alternative world fully entered. You sense that when you hear a twelve-year-old describe the books. The gratification comes from the kid’s ability to master the symbols and myths of the saga, as with those eighty-level video games, rather than from the simple absorption of narrative.

It's such an interesting point. Kids love mastering complexity. This makes me wonder - how could that love be better harnessed in the classroom?

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