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Rethinking the Label: Is YA Always for Kids?

PUBLISHED: May 9, 2009

The Book ThiefSometimes it pays to be friends with a children’s librarian. Without the recommendation of someone who sees what gets published under the “Young Adult” label I would never have found The Book Thief, Australian native Markus Zusak’s second novel and one of the best I have read recently. The origins of YA literature can in part be traced back to Sarah Trimmer, an eighteenth-century children’s literature critic who introduced the idea of “books for children” (under age 14) and “books for young persons” (ages 14-21). By the mid-twentieth century, publishing houses caught up with this concept and started marketing novels for the emerging adolescent crowd.  This in turn led to a snowballing effect as schools, booksellers, and librarians created so-called “YA” sections distinct from both the regular fiction titles and the children’s books.

Yet defining the boundary between adult fiction and young adult fiction can often be murky at best. Even if a main character is not quite an adult, does that have to direct a novel’s marketability towards teenagers? Knopf chose to market Zusak’s novel towards a younger audience, at least in the United States, but for a story set during the Holocaust in which Death serves as the narrator for the entire 550 pages, I can’t help but think there are themes which might be lost on younger readers.

And then there is also the prose, without doubt representing a fluidity of language with a compelling twist that had me hooked from the first chapter when Death introduces himself:

—Of course, an introduction.

A beginning.

Where are my manners?

I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough, and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.

At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I’ll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps.

The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?

Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see—the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax.

And with that introduction, I could not put down the story of Liesel, a child abandoned by a mother who cannot afford to care for her in the early days of Hitler’s Reich; the Hubermans, the childless couple who take her in; Rudy, the neighbor boy down the street with whom she falls in love; and Max, the Jew who eventually finds his way to Himmel Street. As the world collapses around her, Liesel sees not the events of the world—although Death reminds us of his increasingly busy schedule—but rather her great secret: she cannot read. Books are burned in Nazi Germany and 1938 gives way to 1939 with the coming storm of WWII, but we see Liesel discovering the magic of words and the beauty of language even as Death is the one who notes her progress.

Young adult? Hardly. Worth reading? Absolutely.


Laza's picture
Laza · 14 years ago
Oh wow. Great post. This is a huge sore spot for me. I’m a huge YA fan, lit and genre. When I tell people that, I get such weird stares. Yes, I am 25 and read YA. I tell people it is a category and not an age group. Many times, there are books that are clearly written for young people. But just because a book is written about a young person, doesn’t mean that the book itself is juvenile. There are some really amazing YA books out there, and I often find myself thinking that the new YA books are better than the new adult fiction books that get all the buzz. The Book Thief is definitely one of them. I believe I’ve read that it wasn’t marketed as YA in Australia. Anyway, this is a great post, and a topic worthy of lots of discussion!

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