Essay: YA Novels and Other Fine Literature by Margaret Gelbwasser

by Rebeca on April 6, 2009

Essay: YA Novels and Other Fine Literature by Margaret Gelbwasser  

 When I was in my twenties, I thumbed my nose at “chick-lit.” Friends recommended favorite novels, and I thanked them for their suggestions but rolled my eyes on the inside. After all, I had a BA in English literature and was going for an MA in English, with a writing concentration. Those silly books were beneath me. Then one was picked for my book club-and I loved it. The book was chock full of symbolism, beautiful writing, plenty of discussion points and characterization. I would not have classified it as “chick-lit,” but since the book appealed to women and had women as main characters, the gods of marketing wanted to package it in a pretty pink box and put a dress on it. After reading that novel, I shook my hair out of its bun, traded my fancy coffee for Dunkin’ Donuts, and did not let a book’s imposed label ruin the reading experience.

Fast-forward ten years.

I have recently completed my first young adult (YA) novel. Are images of the eighties Sweet Valley High series filling your head right now? Are you pushing your glasses down the bridge of your nose to give that condescending look more impact? (Hi, Karma, nice to see you.) But before you dismiss the whole genre as frivolous or introduce me to “real” literature, ask yourself, “What would J.D. Salinger or William Golding do?” You may not classify Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies YA literature, but today’s book world does. That alone, should give you a glimpse into today’s teen lit.

So what it is YA? Good question and not one with a simple answer. According to Wikipedia, “fiction written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents, roughly between the ages of 12 and 18.” Sounds simple enough…until you read further for the characteristics of this genre and its comparison to adult literature. One major defining characteristic of YA literature is that the protagonist is a teenager. Would that mean that any book with a teenage main character is automatically YA? Some would argue yes and bookstores do not help clear up the confusion when they place adult novels such as The Lovely Bones in the YA section. Wikipedia further muddies the waters with this explanation “The distinctions between children’s literature, YA literature, and adult  literature have historically been flexible and loosely defined….Some novels originally marketed to adults have been identified as being of interest and value to adolescents and, in the case of several books such as the Harry Potter novels, vice versa.” To avoid an explanation like “I’ll know it when I see it,” I consulted another site, They had this as part of their definition: “Anything young adults are reading of their own free will.” Talk about erasing all boundaries.

Although what can be classified as YA is murky, it can be agreed that the YA literature of today is crossing more limits than in the past. Today’s books have worlds with homosexual characters who are not just in the book as a lesson but because they are representative of today’s teen world; protagonists who have had abortions, been raped, who self-mutilate, who are transexual, heroin addicts, and religious fanatics. They explore the world around them with beautiful language, deep thoughts and wit and usually do not have the all-knowing English teacher guide them to an epiphany. In fact, much of today’s YA does not end in a tidy epiphany but rather with the protagonist’s angst still as raw as at the start.

It is easy to stay skeptical, but if you are willing to branch out, push those glasses higher up on your nose, and recognize YA books as the literature they are, below are a few of my favorite titles to get you started. Read them, give these books a home on your shelf beside the “classics” and don’t be surprised if the characters befriend you, keep you up at night, and leave you wondering about them long after you read the last page–just like real literature meant to do.

1. If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

2. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

4. Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

5. King Dork by Frank Portman

6. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron


Margaret Gelbwasser


About Margaret Gelbwasser

Margie Gelbwasser is a freelance writer who writes about teen issues, education, parenting, and the writing craft. She has recently completed her first YA novel, INCONVENIENT–out in November 2010 by Flux books–and is at work on another set to be published in 2011. Please visit her