WHITNEY: Books spanning the age gaps between children and adults

When my daughter starts rubbing her eyes and pulling books of the shelf, I know bedtime is near.

As she and her attention span grow, story time is becoming a bigger part of our everyday routine, and not only at bedtime. The more time we spend reading, the more I wonder how what we’re reading might play a role in our daughter’s life as she continues to grow.

According to Mother Jones, in August Facebook analyzed 130,000 responses to a status meme asking users to list the books that have most influenced them. Perhaps you’ve seen it? “Don't take more than a few minutes, and don't think too hard,” the request read. “They do not have to be the 'right' books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way."

The responses showed something surprising. The Harry Potter series topped the list, followed by “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” The list goes on, flushed out by many books most likely to be read in English class. The common thread: They’re almost all targeted to young people, even if they don’t necessarily meet the criteria of young adult fiction.

With this study in mind, I turned to Tirzah Price.

You might know Price. She works at Great Lakes Book and Supply here in Big Rapids and is working on her masters’ of fine arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s also the brains behind thecompulsivereader.com, a popular blog devoted to young adult fiction and the publishing industry behind it.

So when I had questions, I had a feeling she could answer them. She did, and her responses have given me even more to think about. Read on to see what she has to say about the impact of books on the lives of young people.

WGB: Why do you think the books we read at a young age tend to be so impactful on us? Is there something special about the way fiction is written for young people, or is it a matter of being more impressionable when we're younger?

TP: I don’t think that there’s any one answer to this. From a craft perspective, books written for children and teens have to be tighter than books written for adults tend to be. A young reader is much more likely to give up reading a book that isn’t immediately compelling than an adult is. These books need to have really engaging characters and plots, and they need to deliver on what they promise. (I think this is why so many adults are also starting to pick up YA fiction — the stories tend to just be better.)

I think, to a certain extent, we are more impressionable readers when we’re younger. The books we love and connect to growing up become touchstones of our childhood. These days, reading is also such a social process and technology makes it very easy to connect with others through the books we read. Most people of my generation grew up reading the Harry Potter books, which is a sort of connective tissue for many of us. Someone once said something at a lecture that I really love, and it’s that kids and teenagers aren’t foolish enough to think that the person they are now is the person they will always be. I loved that because I think it speaks to the essential truth of why these books for kids are so good—they have the ability to reach us on an emotional level and challenge us to think beyond ourselves.

WGB: You're an adult whose specializes in reviewing young adult fiction. Which books impacted you as a young reader?

TP: As a kid, I adored everything historical fiction. “Little House on the Prairie,” “Anne of Green Gables,” and the Mandie mysteries were probably my favorites. I would read anything as long as it wasn’t set in the present.

Somewhere around age 11, I discovered Tamora Pierce’s fantasy series, “The Song of the Lioness” quartet. I was really fortunate that my first experience with fantasy novels was with a series of books about a young woman who determinedly, brazenly defies stereotypes and gender roles to chase her dreams. It really set the tone for all of my subsequent fantasy expectations. After discovering Pierce, I read as much YA fantasy as I could. Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy was a favorite.

I was hooked on “Harry Potter” from almost the beginning, of course. I loved C.S. Lewis, as well. I’d say that I really started reading YA when “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” came out. I still remember going up to the library desk as a timid 12-year-old and asking the librarian if they had it. He showed me the YA section and my world expanded. Meg Cabot was my first favorite YA author.

So, I grew up while YA books were still really coming into their own. I’ve been blogging for almost 10 years, and it’s really fascinating to look back and see how dramatically the landscape for children’s writing has shifted. I think there are always the runaway hits, like the “Percy Jackson” series or “The Hunger Games” or “13 Reasons Why” that people always cite as favorites. The new wave of YA books being made into movies certainly encourages reading.

WGB: Ruth Graham at Slate wrote that adults should be embarrassed to read YA fiction. Many people responded, some noting today's YA fiction is a lot more sophisticated than, say, past generations' Nancy Drew or Sweet Valley High books. What's your take?

TP: I wrote a response to Ruth Graham on my blog at the time: thecompulsivereader.com/2014/06/what-i-wish-writer-of-that-slate.html

Criticizing something because it’s originally meant for teenagers is symptomatic of a larger issue our society has with belittling people because they are young. It needs to stop. I believe that most people who criticize YA don’t understand just how complex and varied the category is. There are so, so many brilliant books out there.

No one should make you feel ashamed of what you read. My hope for anyone of any age is an open mind to any book, no matter where it’s shelved or who its intended audience is. And if anyone wants some great, literary YA recommendations, just come in to Great Lakes and I’ll be more than delighted to suggest some titles.

As Anne Ursu once said, “I can’t help but think that people who can’t find a single YA or children’s book worth their time also have serious issues with empathy.”