Setting: the Library, 9:30 am.
Man: “I hated this YA novel. It was, like, about vampires.”
Me: “Vampires? What? That book is about flesh-eating water horses from Celtic mythology.”
Man: “Yeah, but…flesh-eating horses? That’s so…vampiric.”
I had just arrived at the library for a meeting with our Teen Advisory Group when…this happened. The week before, this man had asked me for a good YA novel, so I had recommended The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Naturally, his reaction disappointed me–not just because the strengths of the book were not to his taste, but because he saw the book through the lens of an entirely unrelated book. There’s really no comparison between Twilight and The Scorpio Races, other than their strong settings. How are fleshing-eating water horses ‘vampiric’? Is it just because they eat people? Does this mean were werewolves and sirens and tiger sharks are also ‘vampiric’? This was a well-read man who devours speculative fiction–but he clearly had pre-conceived notions about YA fiction.
I’ve also heard the plot of The Scorpio Races (early 20th century Scottish teenagers race Celtic water horses for prize money) characterized thus: “Oh, that sounds just like The Hunger Games! Teens being in danger and stuff. In an arena.” There’s really no comparison between these two books, either. Really. They’re nothing alike- where one is serious, the other is funny. One is Dystopian; the other is Historical Fantasy. One is written like a screenplay, the other like a modern ballad. For heavens’ sake, one is a trilogy and the other is a standalone!
These are just two examples I’ve experienced of YA stereotyping. It’s trendy for readers (and non-readers), most of whom are unfamiliar with YA fiction and its genre conventions, to see all YA through the lens of Twilight, The Hunger Games or a combination of the two. Granted, there have been some knock-offs, but there was YA before, there is YA after and it’s not all the same.
YA certainly has its tropes–sarcasm, middle-class white girl romances, moral-relativism, insta-love, unlikely paranormal pairings and near-future dystopias with unrealistic “hooks”–but that doesn’t mean all YA is the same.That doesn’t mean the genre is all stereotype and cliche. It DOES mean that there are genre conventions; for example, coming-of-age plots (including romance) and dystopian or fantasy settings. Good and bad YA use the same conventions, but good YA uses them more skillfully. This is true of every genre.
Let’s make sure we reviewers and book-talkers don’t add to the misconception that all YA is a Twilight-Hunger Games remix. I’m guilty of this myself, at times. But I’m determined to be both honest AND kind to this genre. It’s often a gateway for new readers and new writers. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize it or expect good writing–in fact, I would love to see more far-future sci-fi and morally-complex shadings in the genre. There are excellent veteran writers and readers who also love the genre and are looking for ways to improve the quality. But there are also many out there who just like to feel superior by criticizing what they don’t understand. Let’s set them straight.