Another day, another take on YA books

December 2nd, 2008 • Kate

Not sure exactly how I feel about this, so I’m opening it up to comments in an attempt to get a dialogue going, and maybe I’ll be able to sort out my own thoughts. Basically, I saw this piece on MediaBistro yesterday which reads as a pretty rough indictment of YA (the author Caitlin Flanagan proclaims “I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me.”), but at the same time, the full-length piece in the Atlantic from which the MediaBistro extract is pulled is a lush paean to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Yes, there are the quotes pulled out in the MB article disparaging Gossip Girl and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but I couldn’t help but notice the author’s deep love for the YA books of her own childhood.
The titles that spoke to her then were full of what she finds so engaging in Twilight; that is, the idea of romance — all-consuming, at times overpowering, deeply emotional, overwrought, and uncontrollable — and I’m sure that any reader of YA worth their salt can name half a dozen other books that plum those same depths of love. Not in the marketed, name-dropping way of Gossip Girl or the friendship-over-boys theme of Sisterhood, as Flanagan dismisses other bestsellers for the market, but with prose that isn’t sacrificed for story, as is the case in Twilight (as per Flanagan, who describes it as “no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana”).
So — what’s your reaction to the Atlantic article? How do you feel about Twilight as romance or as literature? What books would you name that capture that same sense of teen angst? Sing out in the comments!

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20 Responses to “Another day, another take on YA books”

  1. Joe Iriarte Says:

    As the writer of a boy-oriented YA novel, I feel obliged to point out that not all YA is romance. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I haven't read Twilight. What I've heard about the series strikes me as troubling, but I have to admit up front that it's all secondhand. Most of what I've heard came from an author of (among other things) vampire books geared toward adult readers, who found Twilight enraging for the way it romanticized attraction to the bad boy. She felt that teenage girls would try to emulate the pov character, only their bad boys wouldn't be content to lie chastely beside them and hold their hands all night. This author felt that Meyer was setting a lot of adolescent girls up to be taken advantage of. For myself, I've noticed that every time a scene from the book is described to me, including in this article, it is a scene in which Bella exists as the cause for Edward to act. That's why I didn't refer to her as the protagonist, but as the pov character. She doesn't seem to be an agonist at all. Edward saves her from this. Edward saves her from that. Edward saves her from something else. Edward wrestles with his conscience. She would let Edward act out his lust on her, but Edward refrains from doing so. Edward does, or Edward refrains from doing. What the heck does Bella do? (Other than, apparently, want?)
    The Atlantic article, though, I found pretty annoying. It was full of generalizations the author had spun into obvious truths, but they're only truths because she says so. Girls are designed for reading in a way that boys, men, and women are not, because of the four, only girls need to be undisturbed while working out the big questions of their lives and only girls need "to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others." Really, now. Girls "have a more complicated attitude toward their own emerging sexuality than do boys." Well, I won't fill your blog with TMI, but I beg to differ.
    I couldn't help but notice that Flanagan had a tendency to downplay the public success of YA books she didn't like as much, because (IMO) their popularity undermines her thesis, which, as near as I can tell, is that YA romances rooted in modern values suck and don't appeal to teenage readers all that much, and that the reason Twilight is so successful is that it appeals to traditional values, which adolescent girls secretly long for. In the service of this thesis, she refers to books she likes as "real" YA books, while characterizes popular series she doesn't as some sort of corporate creations.
    I can't speak to the accuracy of her observations of the series, but her comments on life in general and on adolescent girls in particular struck me as facile overgeneralizations with no conception of the difference between correlation and causality–the fact that girls like Twilight doesn't prove that this or that particular feature that Twilight may happen to possess is what girls want. The fact that many real girls like works that are fundamentally different from Twilight in the points Flanagan focuses on, such as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, while *simultaneously* liking Twilight indicates to me that it's not as simple as Flanagan seems to think.
    At the end of it all, Twilight appealed to the nostalgic Flanagan by reminding her of the books she loved in her adolescence. She's trying to spin this into some meaningful revelation about What Girls Want, but really that's all there is to it.

  2. Trish Doller Says:

    I've been struggling for an hour to say what Joe just said. So I won't say it again. I'll just focus on your other discussion topic.
    I'll start with an apples-to-oranges comparison, since most "real" male romantic interests don't glitter, can't stop cars with their hands, and don't sit up all night watching their girlfriends sleep. That said, I'd pit any one of Sarah Dessen's romantic pairings with Bella and Edward. No, Dexter (This Lullaby) doesn't make me swoon. He's clumsy, lanky, and he has a hard time keeping his shoes tied. But he is absolutely certain about how he feels about Remy and THAT makes me swoon.
    But, if you want an apples-to-apples comparison, Evernight by Claudia Gray is better. Better writing. Better story. And a couple whose attraction is every bit as magnetic and breath-taking as Bella and Edward. In fact, forget Team Edward. I'm Team Lucas. Also, what makes Evernight different from Twilight is just plain AWESOME.

  3. shellijohannes Says:

    I think kids love Twilight. I did. when i was a teen, i read for literary reasons at times. But at others, I just wanted a bok I connected with that was gripping and made me stay up late just to finish it. If you dont read or write YA, I dont think you can understand it. Most adults dont read YA so I could see why Twilight would not appeal to them. But I dont think that makes it bad writing. I think Stephanie really nailed the feelings that young teens think. Teens struggle with a barrage of feelings for the first time, ones that as you get older, you deal with differently. I think all books have their special place in the world of publishing (ok maybe not celeb books ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. lotusloquax Says:

    Wow, hating YA books–somebody has not been reading the ones I've been reading. Some are boring, sure! Just like in any group of books. But all! Come on! There are some incredibly amazing YA books. Some literary, some commercial. They are not all Twilight and Gossip Girl.
    As far as Twilight being romance or literary. I would classify it as romance with a twist. It's not really literary to me. It's commercial.
    I think it's amazing to imply that the only people reading Twilight are pre-pubescent girls who have no sense of self and are insecure. I know tons of adults and teens who have read it and love it. Of all the many people I know who have read the series only 2 didn't love them–one because she didn't like the message that the book sent to her teenage daughter, but liked it for herself–the other didn't like the way vampires were portrayed and how weak Bella was.

  5. kandg_felidae Says:

    (Before saying my take on this article, I must first say that I myself am a YA. I'm a sophomore in high school, right smack in the middle of the age range that YA books are geared towards. But anywho, here's what I thought:)
    I love how she describes reading as an escape from reality. When speaking of the typical teenage girl, she says, "This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading." Everything in that quote is SO true for me it's not even funny. That is not the reason why I read, but it is most definitely why I read romance YA books. I have no romantic life of my own, and I crave one so much that I have gone the the length to find one in books. I have even gone to the length to put romance in my own novel I've written (and currently and rewriting).
    As to the whole repetitive themes in YA romances, I completely agree. But I don't read romance books like that. I have found so many authors that have been able to portray that emerging longing to be loved that comes out in the teen years through stories that are NOT centered on that romance. One of my favorite of these books would A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. In her book, she is able to have an exciting story that is adventure and fantasy, but then is able to incorporate a romantic part of it that doesn't fail to also crave the longing the teen reader has for that romance. The way in which she shows the emerging sexuality and how the main character responds to it is amazingly spot on.
    I've read many of the books that she quotes as being some of her childhood favorites. From what I've read of those and of other older YA fiction: you can't compare the YA books now to the YA books of even ten years ago. The writing quality had seemed to me to go up, and with that the subtext of emotions behind the actual words. I seem to be reading more and more YA books that hit the exact feelings that I feel everyday, and describe them in a way that makes me want to read more. And they are able to weave these teen feelings into a magnificently compelling story that I don't want to stop reading.
    So there's my opinion. I'm trying to emulate what I just said into my own writing, in hopes to be able to convey exactly what I feel to others, but in an entertaining story that does much more as well. I love YA books. I don't see how anyone could think they were boring.

  6. Joe Iriarte Says:

    "Wow, hating YA books–somebody has not been reading the ones I've been reading. "
    *nod* I agree. I personally am not well-read in YA romance, but I'm pretty well-read in YA science fiction and in YA literary fiction, and I think some of the best writing goes on in YA. YA writing, in my observation, is generally unpretentious and focused on story.

  7. Julia Says:

    I have not read Twilight – so I can't comment on the book(s). The article was interesting and I agreed with her on certain points (particularly how young girls work out a lot of issues in private, between the pages of books.)
    I appreciated the Jane Eyre/Edward Rochester comparison – and, from what I understand about Twilight after the numerous reviews I've read of it – it would seem there are more parallels than just that Rochester at first spurns Jane (who is a teenager, 18, in the book.) (Rochester's secret – the crazy wife, his decadent lifestyle, etc.) The article also made me think of Elizabeth Bennet/Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride & Prejudice – same spurning / loving parallel. (and, FWIW, I think both Jane Eyre and P&P qualify as young adult books.)
    For the past year or so I've been doing a lot more writing than reading, and the reading has mostly been middle grade (not so much romance there!) But, one book that comes to mind that has the teen angst and I think captures a young woman coming to grips with first love, is Dairy Queen by Catherine Murdock.
    I, too, love YA. A couple of days ago I blogged about a successful adult author whom I was listening to as a book-on-tape. I was blown away by the poor writing. No MG or YA book would get published if it were written in such a manner. And this author has been writing "best-sellers" since the 1980s.
    Therefore, I remain firmly entrenched in the YA corner – both as a reader and a writer.

  8. Joe Iriarte Says:


  9. Joe Iriarte Says:

    Oops. There was supposed to be a link there, but apparently HTML gets stripped away:
    Apparently, MSN rated Flanagan one of "Thirteen Women Who Make Us Cringe."

  10. Carrie Harris Says:

    I think that dismissing the genre (as when Flanagan says she hates YA) on the strength of Gossip Girl and The Sisterhood sends a very clear message: She doesn't know YA. How many people who really know the genre would say, "Yeah, those series are THE BEST that YA has to offer."
    Not I.
    I read Twilight and thought it was okay. I sure hope my little girls don't grow up to act as helpless as Bella, though, because I may have to take drastic action.

  11. jeanoram Says:

    All I have to say is it's all about intended audiences. I don't expect men to read nor enjoy the romances I write. Follow the logic.

  12. Stephanie Perkins Says:

    Oh, I love Twilight and the Sisterhood!
    They're not for everyone — sure — but I refuse to let anyone make me feel guilty for gettin' my teen angst on and lusting after Edward Cullen. For me, good characters make a good story, and Meyer, Brashares, and Von Ziegesar all create compelling characters.
    Literature-shmiterature! (Just kidding. Sort of.)

  13. Joe Iriarte Says:

  14. Evv Says:

    Being a Young Adult (13) myself, I think I can give a legitimate comment. I hate the Twilight series. It contains too much purple prose and the characters are Mary Sues.The plot reads like it was written by a starry-eyed, amateur fanfic writer who had been told from a very early age that she was a "good writer" by people who clearly had no idea what a "good writer" really is, and the overwhelming message is, "Life is complete once you have a husband, a child, a beautiful house filled with beautiful people, and a tacky cottage to have sex in."
    Some recommendations for YA readers: John Green, Maureen Johnson (can get a bit cheesy at times, but ironically so), Suzanne Collins, Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight,Laurie Halse Anderson,Jay Asher, and Meg Rosoff. (These don't include fantasy and sci-fi.)
    Some recommendations for YAs (or anyone, really): Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Clive Barker, Holly Black, H.P. Lovecraft, and Susanna Clarke

  15. Sara Says:

    First off, sorry this is so long, especially since no one knows me. I just found this blog today; I'm a college student and this is a conversation I've had with friends a few times, so this is my attempt at articulating and re-thinking those conversations.
    What concerns me about Twilight is, I believe, the basic problem that concerns Joe: the influence of Bella's passivity on young girls. Though I have read the series and I agree that it is, if nothing else, a motivating read that "sucks you in," I worry that the books will lead girls to expect boys to save them, lead them to trust dangerous guys out of a belief in true love, make them emotionally dependent on men at too young an age, etc., etc. — to say nothing of the romanticization of teenage pregnancy in Breaking Dawn. I genuinely believe that these novels do and will impact girls' lives in real ways; I know that growing up (and continuing to grow up) I sought a lot of advice, maybe more than I should have, from YA novels. So these points worry me–though of course I think Twilight has positive messages too (obviously the term "positive messages" is deeply, deeply biased, so take that with a grain of salt).
    That said, I wonder if my objections are really justified. YA novels aren't blueprints for adolescence, but reflections of myriad adolescences. The NYT adult bestseller list always contains and is even dominated by books with characters or themes that I would never base my life off of — so why would I expect something different from YA? YA would be pretty boring if every novel were a script of how the author thinks adolescents should lead their lives. To reduce the YA genre to a genre of message novels seems unfair to me, and not appreciative of the real talent and sparkle (a sparkle much better than any of Edward Cullen's special effects) of so many YA novels.
    Still, I can't help but find myself wishing that Flanagan had addressed this issue better in her article. Yes, the themes of Twilight recall a mentality of adolescence from several years ago; yes, they reflect real fears and values that (some) adolescents continue to have. But what fears and values do they create or perpetuate in those same readers? If these effects are indeed partly harmful (again, harmful as I perceive it), does that lessen the book's quality or its worth? Just some questions that I think it would be prudent for Flanagan to better consider.

  16. suzanne72 Says:

    First, great post Daphne! You certainly inspired everyone to sing out the comments.
    I agree with Carrie, if she's basing an entire genre on Gossip Girl and the Twilight series, Flanagan doesn't know YA.
    Beyond that, as a writer, Sara's comments concern me. Don't we have more faith in our readers than to worry that girls will expect guys to save them based on a novel? Shouldn't we expect that they are intelligent enough to separate fiction from reality?
    When I was 15, I read Judy Blume's Forever, but it didn't motivate me to run out and have sex.
    Teens can make smart decisions for themselves. And the more we "worry" about them, the more it sounds like censorship.
    (How's that for opening a whole other can of worms?)

  17. Sara Says:

    I see and mostly agree with your point. I am very very strongly against censorship in any form, which is why I would never, for example, recommend that Twilight not be published, tell girls not to read them, or suggest that Meyer change her characters to make them better role models. All of those ideas give my banned-book-loving self a serious squeamish ICK feeling. And as I said in my post, I am also pretty against the definition of YA as message novels or things that should be imitated. So I think (though correct me if I'm wrong, or if I am not making my point clearly) that we are on the same page.
    My point was more that Flanagan doesn't address these issues in her article, though she expounds at length on the various gushy feelings that the books induce in young girls (sorry to generalize here — I know college-age guys who read the books, though they're in the minority), and likes that these books refer back to a halcyon era of true love and chastity? (The last part of that sentence is meant sarcastically. Though I'm not of the same generation as Flanagan, I am pretty sure that teens were just as randy and rowdy then as they are now.) I guess I'm just trying to say that Flanagan focuses on the "good" effects of the book, but doesn't recognize the bad.
    And one last thing: although I agree that teens can make smart (and unsmart) decisions for themselves, all media influence choices to some degree. I've spoken with readers who feel that Twilight did drastically impact how they view life and romantic relationships. That isn't dumb or strange of them; it's natural. I think it's human to, if you enjoy something, try to imitate it, even if you know logically that it's "just fiction." This isn't just the case with YA. I can name a lot of books that made me rethink my values and my perspective on life — including Judy Blume's Forever. Although, definite possibility: maybe I am just weird.

  18. Jeni Bell Says:

    I really like Jennifer Weiner's response to the article (posted on her blog, located at

  19. Joe Iriarte Says:

    I'm not in favor of censorship, but censorship is not the same as criticism. I think it's perfectly valid to criticize things that seem objectionable. Insofar as my admitedly ignorant, half-formed impressions of Twilight are accurate (and here's a columnist who has read at least some of the series and comes to the same conclusion) I think it's fair to criticize the choices that Meyer made. It's also fair to say that it's unfortunate that something that sends these messages is as popular as it is,
    (Along those lines, did you hear that Bratz dolls are coming off the shelves? I have two daughters, and those little prostitute-dolls have never been welcome in my house. I wouldn't have pushed to outlaw them or anything, but I sure can criticize them.)
    I don't think YA books have a mandate to be "message" books, but you don't have to write a message book to at the very least avoid glorifying female passivity and subservience. Just in case teens actually do absorb the subtle messages we send them.

  20. lotusloquax Says:

    Okay, I have to weigh in again here. I think it's important to state that SM initially wrote Twilight for an adult audience and was trying to get it published for adults. It wasn't until the agents and publishing got involved that the book was classified as YA.
    Some of the criticism that keeps getting lobbed at SM should be sent the direction of the publishing industry's classification of books. This takes us back to the fundamental question of what really makes a book YA.