A Teaching Moment

Well, Kaavya Viswanathan confessed. Sort of. She did copy language from Megan McCafferty, she said, but the borrowing was “unintentional and unconscious.” Her agent backed her up, saying, “Teenagers tend to adopt each other’s language.” (These quotes are cribbed from the New York Times article; there’s a free article at the Harvard Crimson.) Yesterday I asked, “isn’t teenage life an endless cycle of innovation and emulation, anyway?”

At first I was disappointed that Viswanathan had come clean so quickly – any chance this scandal had of becoming truly exciting hinged on protracted and repeated denials that would become even harder to retract as the evidence against her piled up. But Viswanathan caved almost immediately, although there are signs that she’s trying to head off greater damage with her partial apology: the Times suggests that there are even more copied passages than the Crimson found, and while Viswanathan said that the story of her book is “completely different” from McCafferty’s, the Times dryly notes that both portray young New Jersey women trying to get into Ivy League colleges, and both include campus visits and triumphant commencement speeches.

Maybe this has the makings of a good scandal after all. If, on the other hand, it turns out that Viswanathan has been unfairly accused, I blame the blogosphere.

But there’s another, much more important issue here. Yesterday, in summarizing the story, I confidently informed the uninitiated that the books in question are young adult (or YA) novels. A short while later, YA Books Editor Gillian Engberg stopped by my office to inform me that they are in fact marketed, sold, and reviewed as adult books.

It was a teaching moment.

Indeed, looking more closely at the Booklist reviews of McCafferty’s Second Helpings and Charmed Thirds, I see that they are indeed classified as adult books (somehow we missed Opal Mehta). We do recommend them for YAs (for instance, Second Helpings is “perfect reading for teens”), but they’re adult books.

I did say yesterday that I don’t usually patrol the Books for Youth beat, and now you know why (“Barney Fife reporting for duty, ma’am!”). Gillian did say that the cut-offs for youth, young adult, and adult are tricky, and that’s one of the bigger issues under discussion in youth librarianship today. Indeed, when you see some high-schoolers reading their parents’ tattered copies of Naked Lunch and some stockbrokers with well-thumbed copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, well, I’m glad I’m not the one who has to figure all that out.

(If you’re not a subscriber to Booklist Online, click here for a free trial so you can follow those links.)

I welcome e-mails or comments with insight or suggested reading on the subject of what makes a novel YA or adult. I am curious. It’s easy for me to joke about (and bear in mind that Likely Stories represents only my opinion, not that of Booklist, Booklist Online, or the American Library Association), but clearly the young adult/adult border is not demarcated by plots involving high-school students applying to college and references to buying food at the mall.

It would also be interesting to hear of some examples of books that sound like they’re for high-school students but are are primarily intended for adults – and vice versa.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

14 Comments on "A Teaching Moment"

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  1. Bill ott says:

    My favorite academic satires: Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Michael Malone’s Foolscap. But there are so many others I’m not thinking of at the moment. Like the early volumes of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, for example, the books that deal with Nick Jenkins’ Oxford years-but those are somehow beyond satire while still very, very funny.

    Bill Ott

  2. Keir says:

    My friend Rob has recommended that I read Straight Man. Maybe it’s time for me to get off my duff and borrow his copy.

  3. rbuscemi@hotmail.com' Robert says:

    Alleged friend Rob here. I love all Russo’s work, but the memory of Straight Man lingers most of all. The comedy’s so broad it’s like a Marx Brothers movie. It’s a silly, silly book, but deeply humane. Actually, White Noise is somewhat in the same vein, no? The animal pleasures of a good home and idiot friends and provincialism and the posture of intellectualism and pig-headed-yet-impotent machismo and a full ice box and the mellowness of middle age and a stubborn/terrific spouse and a deep understanding of the cosmic comedy of it all. All of this speaks to me. I don’t really envy the dudes 10 years younger than I am, and it’s these kinds of books that show me why. More and more, I walk down the street and just giggle at everyone. I believe I’ll borrow Amis when Keir’s done. -ROB

  4. Keir says:

    Our General Manager Mary Frances Wilkens thought she remembered that Editor-at-Large Joanne Wilkinson had written a Read-alike on academic satires, and lo and behold, there it was. Way back in September 1, 1997 Booklist, the first issue to feature Read-alikes, Joanne and Bill had used a review of Stevie Davies’s Four Dreamers and Emily to recommend John L’Heureux’s Handmaid of Desire, Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, Michael Malone’s Foolscap, Jane Smiley’s Moo, and…wait for it…Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Booklist Online subscribers can read the full thing here (click here for a free 30-day trial).

  5. mockturtle@lisnews.org' Mock Turtle says:

    I love James Hynes’s books: The Lecturer’s Tale, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror … and of course Kings of Infinite Space (actually post-academic satire, as it chronicles the continuing adventures of Paul Trilby from one of the “three tales,” after he flees academe in the wake of that unfortunate business with his wife’s cat). I found them all not only hilarious, but wonderfully creepy.

  6. Bill Ott says:

    This whole question of the age range of young adult literature-and the retail realities that help determine it-was addressed by Booklist’s Carte Blanche columnist Michael Cart in two recent columns: “What is Young Adult Literature?” (Booklist, 12/15/04)and “New Things and Under the Sun (Booklist, 1/1/05). Michael argues convincingly that today’s YA novel can encompass an age range as wide as 10 through 35!

  7. kweisman@district30.k12.il.us' Kay Weisman says:

    Two titles come to mind:

    Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, was marketed as an adult title, yet it is
    set in an eastern prep school and features only YA characters.

    Looking For Alaska
    , by John Green, is a very similar coming of age
    novel, also set in a prep school, yet it was marketed for YA’s.

    I think both novels have YA and adult appeal.

  8. Keir says:

    I read Cart’s columns this morning over my coffee (BOL subscribers can find them here and here) and found them very thought-provoking. One of my thoughts was that I sometimes worry we’re extending childhood into middle age (historically, 18-year-olds have often acquitted themselves brilliantly when asked to perform as adults). The other was that Cart is right: if the human brain is still growing into the mid-20s, then perhaps YA should be extended that far. But then, as he pointed out, you need new divisions. And his three – middle school, teen, and YA – make sense to me.

  9. Keir says:

    Oh, and Kay, thanks for your suggestions. The marketing does seem arbitrary, doesn’t it? Tobias Wolff’s Old School is another book that, if I’m not very much mistaken, was marketed for adults, but had a lot of YA appeal, too. Maybe they didn’t want to market Wolff himself as a YA author?

  10. I liked reading Richard Russo’s Straight Man as an adult title.

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