A Teaching Moment
Posted by: Keir Graff
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.
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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.