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On Categorising Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein

When I went to university, I got a library card for the local library –  not the university library but the public library, because ever since I’d been able to read I got my books out of the public library.  The year was 1982, and the town was New Haven, Connecticut.  I walked into the children’s book section and couldn’t find half my favourite books.

It took me a while to discover that they were there but in a separate section of their own, labelled Teen Fiction, Books for Teens, Teen Reading, Teen Titles or something similar – something that separated these books from both adult books and children’s books.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The New Haven Public Library had fantastic children’s and teen sections in 1982.  In my memory these two sections took up the entire basement.  They had the entire collection of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (about twelve or thirteen volumes). I’d never realized there was more than one.  They had all Alan Garner’s books, which I used to use as a measure of quality in any library. He wasn’t very well known in the United States but he’d been my favourite author for many years because I’d started school in the part of England that is the setting for most of his books.

This was the first time I’d ever encountered the ‘teen’ books being separated from the ‘children’s’ books and I didn’t like it.  Alan Garner’s books were split up.  Half of them were in the children’s section and half were in the teen section.

You know what?  I STILL DON’T LIKE IT.  I think that organising books by their intended age is ghettoization.  It leads to further micro-classification that I just flat-out object to.  In the local library in the city where I live now, two of my favourite authors, K.M. Peyton and Robert Westall, have their books split not just across two sections but across separate shelves labelled Horse Stories, Times Past, War, Supernatural, Family, and probably something else I’ve forgotten.  When I first read Peyton’s books, I read them all because I found them next to each other on the same shelf.  I’d never have gone looking for horse stories.  I read them and I loved them because I loved that particular author.  I think that breaking up books into this many categories creates narrow-minded readers.  There is no incentive for the lover of ‘humour’ ever to look anywhere else for reading material than the limited ‘humour’ shelf.  There is some very funny science fiction out there but they’ll never discover it.

My own fiction is split up in my local library because Young Adult is now its own section.  I have a series that is split in my local library: the first book is in Times Past and the next two are in Young Adult.  I get that we are trying to encourage readers to explore their tastes, I get that we are trying to encourage teens not to feel that they’re reading below their level.  I still think it is idiotic to split a series across two different library sections.

So. Teen fiction?  Young adult fiction?  Some books are more difficult than others. Some books are better than others.  Pioneering readers shouldn’t limit themselves to one narrow category.  The same goes for a writer.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

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Writing Teen Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I thought about this issue when my old school friend opened a bookstore, Main Point Books, in Bryn Mawr. As teens we read a lot of adult literary fiction as well as the likes of Judy Blume. I encouraged her to put the YA section adjacent to adult fiction (and apart from children’s books) to enable both adults and teens to crossover. When I was helping out in her store, I noticed that there was a lot of crossover browsing. Teens also prefer not to be lumped with little kids. Some books, like The Giver, could be either YA or MG so those got shelved in duplicate in YA and in children’s. I do see the argument in separating out age appropriate books for young children. It would be silly, though, to divide any series into 2 sections!

    November 15, 2013
    • I was chatting with a librarian on twitter who said they divide the Harry Potter series over two sections in her library, splitting it at around books 3 and 4. So not even the triumph of global success stops it happening.

      I should have maybe thought about the difference between age divisions and genre divisions when I wrote this… but I actually think the urge to subdivide, for whatever reason, is connected. I mean, the Dewey Decimal system is essentially subdivision.

      November 17, 2013

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