Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Childhood, Revisited

By Melissa

It's no secret that I enjoy -- no, love -- middle-grade and young adult fiction. This is not a passion that I have always had. It's not that I didn't read as a child; I did. A lot. But after I got through the usuals -- Little House on the Prairie, Harriet the Spy, Anne of Green Gables, the Ramona books, Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing, and probably others I can't remember -- I read a lot of junk. Or, what I would now consider junk. Then, by the time I hit 7th grade, I'd left YA fiction behind for Piers Anthony, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe (my morbid phase). From there, it was the Agatha Christie obsession that lasted for several years. And by the time high school hit, it was mostly reading for English classes; I'm not sure I read for fun between 10th grade and sometime in college.

It wasn't until about 10 years ago that I discovered all that I had missed.

It started innocently enough, in a conversation with a friend who asked if I'd ever read Beauty by Robin McKinley. No, I replied, I hadn't. She loaned me that, along with Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, and I was hooked. Soon, I was picking up children's books from the library (my oldest at the time was still a baby) and the bookstore and devouring them. Because I realized something: these books, these kid's books, were good.

I think somewhere along the line, I was convinced that books for young adults, for children, were considered immature, and if you were an adult (or wanted to be), then you needed to get out of the kids section. I think this is a common perception; I have been asked numerous times if I read middle-grade and young-adult fiction because I'm "prescreening" books for my kids. My blog has been dismissed by some because I read too many kids books. (Ironically, it's also not that respected in the kidlit world because I review adult books, too. There's no winning.) The assumption is that there just can't be anything in these books that I, as an adult woman, would enjoy or be satisfied by.

Yet, I have often found that it is the adult books are less than satisfying. Authors that write for adults--or at least, those that want to get noticed by big-name reviewers--tend to either get lost in the words of the book, rather than developing characters or storylines; or, they heap on so much "adult" stuff (sex, language, violence), that in the end I'm left wondering where the story was. For me, for the type of reader I am, the story and the characters are critical to the success of a book. I enjoy a beautifully written book, but the words themselves rarely draw me in (perhaps this is partly a result of my education in journalism rather than English). For me, it's all about the story.

And the truth is, some of the best stories out there are being written for children and young adults. There's the obvious examples of J.K. Rowling or Philip Pullman--or, going back a few years, Roald Dahl. But it goes deeper than that. Ann Rinaldi spins convincing and interesting historical tales, usually featuring some strong and admirable heroine. Christopher Paul Curtis tells stories of being black in America that are engaging and challenging at the same time. Rick Riordan has come up with a brilliant idea of bringing the Greek myths to life (even though his series has the obvious Harry Potter comparisons). And Francis Hardinge's debut book, Fly By Night, had me hanging on every word until the end.

In addition to the stories that are being told by current authors, I've managed to discover jewels that I passed over as a child. I never read The Hobbit or Treasure Island (I was too judgmental; they were "boy books"). I rediscovered All-of-a-Kind-Family and The Westing Game. I found out what choice opportunities reading The Mixed of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Tuck Everlasting and Railway Children were. Or the challenge in reading The Devil's Arithmatic.

Yes, my life wouldn't have ended if I'd never read any of those books. But, my life wouldn't have ended if I'd never read How Green Was My Valley or Zorro either. The point is that my life was enriched by reading those books. They brought me something that I, in turn, wanted to share with my family and friends. They had the power of a good story, well told.

And in the end, that's what has brought us together as people since the beginning of time: the ability to tell stories and learn from them. Whether or not they're supposed to be for kids.


DesLily said...

Excellent!! I too find myself reading more YA books then others anymore... and I'm 63! Hello?!
and truly, the bottom line is that the authors of these books seem to tell stories better!

If you haven't read Cornelia Funke's books of Inkheart and Inkspell.. add them to your list! (movie comes out next march)

Kathleen said...

Amen! I feel the same way. I'm reading Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier right now which is YA fiction and it's awesome! I recommend it, I know you'd love it!