March 30, 2011

Books for young readers draw plenty of adults, too

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Lisa J. McClure, associate professor of English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is an expert in young adult literature, but she’ll freely admit Harry Potter caught her by surprise.

“Kids were lining up at midnight to buy these books,” she said, referring to the extended store hours many bookstores offered in order to sell (most recently) “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” as early as possible, beginning at midnight on the official release date.

The lines -- long lines -- were dotted with homemade wands, wizard hats and Hogwarts scarves, mostly in Gryffindor scarlet and gold. The spectacle was remarkable for two reasons: one, all this fuss was for a 759-page tome categorized as young adult literature; and two, because the eager crowd included many adults, also be-wanded, hatted or scarved.

A similar albeit somewhat smaller extravaganza greeted later book releases for the four-book “Twilight” series, the seemingly ubiquitous love triangle story featuring a high school girl, a vampire and a werewolf.

It might be easier to understand how these book series are coaxing even reluctant young readers into the library than it is to understand why so many adults are reading them so avidly even though they are not the target audience.

McClure said there are several likely reasons for the expanded market for some young adult literature, and one of those reasons is, very simply, marketing, and another is Hollywood. Blockbuster movies always seem to spawn a host of related merchandise, everything from video games to head-to-toe apparel, posters, action figures, and these days, Facebook pages and interactive websites.

A darker reason for the runaway popularity of some young adult fiction, though, McClure said, is suspicion.

“There is a level of wanting to share in a child’s interests, and there is a level of wanting to know what they are reading,” she said. “The Harry Potter books, for example, are full of magic -- some parents want to know what that’s all about, they want to know what it means that their child is reading about magic.”

McClure said it is testimony to the power of the written word that parents and other adults challenge books more often than video games or movies.

“It seems when it comes to reading, that’s when the (official) challenges (filed at libraries and school districts in order to attempt to ban a book) come,” she said. “The difference is that, with a challenge, parents aren’t just deciding what their own children have access to -- they want to decide what the community in general can access.”

Having adults involved in reading young adult literature may, she said, lead to fewer challenges, or at least to fewer uninformed challenges. For example, J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, made the American Library Association’s “Most Frequently Challenged Authors” list three years in a row, from 2001 to 2003. “Deathly Hallows,” certainly a darker book than the comparatively blithe “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” appeared in 2007 and Rowling is not on the list that year.

Many of the books on the class list for McClure’s ENGL 481: Young Adult Literature have been on the challenged-books lists.

“These books deal with real issues,” she said. “The authors are honest and the writing is powerful. One of the reasons I’m so committed to teaching Young Adult Literature is that, while you can say that the themes are dealt with in other works of literature, and that’s true, there is something about the way these authors treat them that does not hold young readers at a distance.”

The complexity of the issues and themes in many current works of young adult literature is also the very thing that attracts older readers.

“I think the books in this category are often better now,” McClure said. “The genre has grown. There are conscious efforts to attract boys, and efforts also to create powerful girl protagonists.”

McClure isn’t saying anything against classic, older works of young adult literature. Indeed, her syllabus is full of them, right alongside currently popular books such as “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins. However, she is saying that the complexity of the genre has kept pace with the complexity of the world.

She noted that ”young adult” is a relatively new categorization for literature. That, she said, is due to the relatively recent concept of recognizing adolescents as their own peer group.

“Adolescence didn’t really exist as a concept until the Industrial Revolution,” she said. “And then at first it was a sociological concept. Now we know it is a distinct developmental stage. And this is the group for which young adult literature was created. If you look at the genre as a whole, you’ll find they run the gamut, from the cheesy to the really good.”

McClure pointed out that “really good” is “really good” no matter the category of literature. She said her college students, encountering some of these works for the first time, are amazed at how adeptly a book for young adults written in the 1970s speaks to them today.

“These books can serve as a bridge to the classics,” she said. “And some of them are classics.”

McClure said another possible reason for an adult audience for some of these young adult books is that some of the books cross genres. Some fantasy novels, for example, might be equally at home on a young adult shelf as in the fantasy/science-fiction section of a bookstore or library.

“The really wonderful thing about adults reading young adult literature, besides just the enjoyment of the reading itself, is that it becomes possible to have whole new avenues for discussion with children and with young adults,” she said. “Some of these books deal with issues that trouble adults as well as young adults. Some of them are more playful and engage the ability to believe. And some of them do both.”

And some of them, seemingly, get adults to read as well as children.

For more information about the Department of English at SIUC, visit Undergraduates have the opportunity to specialize in several areas, including rhetoric and composition, literature, creative writing, pre-professional study and teacher education. The graduate program offers a master of arts, a master of fine arts, and a doctoral degree.