Home » Big Publishing, YA » Are You There? It’s Me, Reality: Grit Returns to Young-Adult Novels

Are You There? It’s Me, Reality: Grit Returns to Young-Adult Novels

23 October 2016

From The New York Times:

Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, I kept a copy of Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” in its classic lavender-tinted paperback edition, tucked away in a closet in my playroom with the vague intention of returning it to the local library, someday. As months went by and I read and reread the novel upward of a half-dozen times, it became clear that I would never give it up. I imagined thousands of dollars of fines accruing and ultimately an arrest followed by some period of detention. Wasn’t the involvement of law enforcement the only proper response to an abject refusal to relinquish something so precious?

. . . .

For women who grew up in the 1970s and early ’80s — nurtured in the fictions of Ms. Blume, Paul Zindel and Norma Klein among others, writers for whom an urbane brand of social realism was the only reasonable métier — the arrival of the “Twilight” franchise a decade ago, with its enormous success, signaled a gloomy period of regression for the young-adult novel.

. . . .

Now, though, the appetite for paranormal lunacy has abated, and issue-driven fiction set very much in a universe of urbanism’s chief concerns is having a renaissance. This week, “All American Boys,” a novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement, appears on The New York Times’s best-seller list for young-adult books. The story follows the beating of an innocent black child by a white police officer who thinks he has stolen a bag of chips.

In a similar vein, “The Hate U Give,” to be released early next year, chronicles the story of a 16-year-old prep-school girl who witnesses a police officer shoot her unarmed best friend. A movie version of the novel, by Angela Thomas, is already in progress. And right now, prominently displayed at Barnes & Noble in Downtown Brooklyn, is “Bright Lights, Dark Nights,” a novel about racial profiling set against the backdrop of drugs and violence.

. . . .

The recent upheavals in the economy stemming from the financial crisis, the rise of racial tensions and the increased animosity toward immigrants that the current election cycle has fed and exposed have arguably made this new catalog inevitable. The world has intruded in the lives of children in so many ugly ways. Even an amused tone does not preclude political currency. Consider the coming book “June the Sparrow and the Million-Dollar Penny,” which is meant for children between 9 and 12. In it, an orphaned girl who lives along Central Park discovers one day while she is sitting in Gray’s Papaya that her fortune has been decimated in a Ponzi scheme. She is then forced to move from an apartment in the Dakota to an actual Dakota (South).

Some of these books take place in unnamed cities so that they can feel universal to their readers. “The American Street,” highly anticipated and arriving this winter, is a novel set in Detroit but is meant to evoke Bushwick, Brooklyn, during the 1980s when it was a desolate and untamed place. The author, Ibi Zoboi, is Haitian and grew up in Bushwick, and she wanted to tell the story of an immigrant girl coming-of-age in a place where she must navigate a community plagued by crime and addiction.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Big Publishing, YA

27 Comments to “Are You There? It’s Me, Reality: Grit Returns to Young-Adult Novels”

  1. Isn’t there room for both grit and escapism in our reading?

    • This week, “All American Boys,” a novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement, appears on The New York Times’s best-seller list for young-adult books.

      There’s a hotlink in the article that takes you to the relevant best-seller list. Only one problem: All American Boys doesn’t appear at the link at present. Very odd.

      • BTW, the Top 5 on the YA list consist of a Star Wars (Clone Wars cartoon) tie-in, followed by dystopian science fiction followed by two fantasy novels followed by a non-fiction book on technology. Doesn’t exactly advance the thesis of the piece re: “gritty reality fiction.”

    • There is.

      Nothing wrong with grit, especially if it gives people characters they can relate to based on their own life experiences.

      When they’ve had their fill of grit, they’ll turn to escapism reading for a break.


    • Yes. But the problem I’ve encountered is that writers who want to read and write grit and “realism” seldom have any tolerance at all for escapism. I experienced this on a fantasy writers forum I used to frequent. There were many writers who would loudly and constantly argue that there needed to be more grit and realism and just couldn’t countenance any other kind of writing. To them, more “grit and realism” necessarily meant that other things had to go away. In Fantasy. It was a bit mind boggling.

      • I’ve seen what you’re talking about often enough that I immediately get suspicious when I hear calls for more “grit and realism,” especially in fantasy / sci-fi. I’ve become convinced those people just don’t have imaginations in the first place, and they’re against any writing that would require it.

        For a while they had me questioning if I misunderstood the fantasy and science fiction genres, since that mundane mentality seemed to be everywhere. Fortunately I discovered Honor Harrington and Miles Vorkosigan around that time, which kept me afloat as a reader, and gave me hope as a writer.

        The weird thing about the “gritty and real” mentality is that it tends to reflect a very simplistic point of view, reflecting very little insight. Those stories somehow insult your intelligence even as the writers insist they’re catering to it.

  2. Ugh. I know some love it, but the ‘grit’ and ‘realism’ in young adult fiction was the reason as a kid that I quickly skipped over it and went for entertaining adult fiction.

    And really, why not room for both? It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

    • I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I hated all those gritty and real young adult books everyone was always pushing. I never did read “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret”, which possibly made me the only girl born in 1980 not to.

      If these real world problems are pushing into kids’ lives so hard, I would think lots of kids wouldn’t want to read about it too. They should have the option of escapism, I agree.

    • Yup. ‘Books About Issues’ never appealed to me. Why would I want to read about a girl living in suburbia when I could be reading about a girl slaying the undead?

      • I was gonna say, we had those when i was growing up.

        It’s not like this is a new thing.

      • Exactly! A girl slaying the undead or tripping the time continuum is way more fun. Bonus, many of the “issues” that are pushed as subtly as a sledgehammer to the forehead in those “real” books can still be dealt with in escapist books. Power and control for teens is a continuing issue and escapism provides some outlet for those needs.

    • Ashe Elton Parker

      I recall reading 1–ONE–girl-book. In it, the MC and a friend or two did this creative little exercise of thrusting one’s elbows back to the chant of “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.” As one thoroughly disillusioned by my body, I didn’t want such things, and I didn’t finish that book or pick up any other similar book for pubescent/teen girls. Thankfully, shortly thereafter, I discovered Star Trek and the books that came with it and happily began the process of drowning myself in escapist fiction.

      Personally, if my reading is to come with a message, I prefer the message to be accompanied by a hefty dose of fantasy or science fiction. Or, occasionally, I’ll take a mystery of some sort.

      Nowadays, I try to write fantasy and science fiction with interesting characters, with a specific audience in mind. Readers will probably not discover the messages I insert. If they do, I hope they had fun with the book regardless. Yeah, I’m one of those reviled S J W writers, but I write what calls to me.

  3. I see the NYTs is still stuck in their excuse for ‘reality’, the one where they ‘think’ they have something worth saying — and that anyone else ‘cares’ what they have to spout off about.

    And I ‘love’ how it starts with someone steals from a library so others can’t read the book they think so much of …

  4. Seems more like a surge in one-sided proselytizing.

  5. I’ve had my fill of supernatural. I read Stephenie Meyer, Sherrilyn Kenyon(whose stories I love), and others and one day I picked up a Sarah Dessen novel. It was a breath of fresh air to read a story about real people with no superhuman powers- unless you count the power of love and forgiveness.

    Also, given the tension from all angles that we are currently experiencing, an adult fiction or YA novel centering on those issues, isn’t such a bad idea either. My opinion.

  6. I just read a gritty novel aimed at my 9 year old daughter (recommended by her school) and decided she can read it when she’s in high school. It was an excellently written, realistically executed piece of historical fiction called The War that Saved My Life. The opening chapters contain graphic physical abuse of a child by her mother. It’s gut-wrenching to read. It’s a Dial Book for Young Readers.

    When I suggested that the subject matter might be difficult for young readers, the librarian, who made the list of recommended reading, mentioned that the children in the book are 6 and 10 as part of her argument for why it was appropriate. The kids in To Kill A Mockingbird are young, but we give that to eighth graders and high school students. I looked at some of the other recommended books and many are very gritty; so gritty that I think only 20 years ago they would have been targeted to older readers. Now, they are marketing them to much younger readers.

    • “It’s gut-wrenching to read. ”

      If it is this for an adult, it will be so for a child, even more so, for children hav far less emotional experience and compartmentalization in latency.

      Your instincts are, imo, accurate. Plenty of time to scare/distress, gutwrench later, if one so desired… later.

      We’re country people so not sure what flies in other cultures, but have heard some say, ‘my kid loves gore and slice and dice nonstop. ‘ Sure. We also like chocolate. Proportion I think, is good for balance.

      I gave my children and give my grands, adult books. Also read to them alot. Right now, we’re on Heart of Darkness; my grands are young adults, and know the treachery of some… heart of darkness is a fine book to discuss from different points of view. As is Moby Dick, as a crew of people of profound differences, culturally esp.

  7. I want to take the author of this piece and the author of the “boys don’t read correctly” piece and lock them in a room together. The door will be programmed to open only when they say, “Hey, maybe the problem is US!”

    Yes, I am evil. I accept this.

    • You forgot the half-bricks to help them hammer things out. 😉

      • Bricks are good, Allen. I agree. They need to be in a locked room.

        What is it with people forcing their “ideals” on kids? Teach them right from wrong (not to kill, steal or lie), to accept and love each other, and let them decide what they’ll read and when.

        Kids are stronger and smarter than most give them credit for. People like this one in the OP aren’t helping our children.

  8. Now, though, the appetite for paranormal lunacy has abated, and issue-driven fiction set very much in a universe of urbanism’s chief concerns is having a renaissance.

    And that’s progress?

    • “Urbanism’s chief concerns” – as seen from a New York corporate corner office on the fiftieth floor.

      “Beaten by a white cop” – “shot by a white cop” – guess what: 1) with the makeup of most urban police departments these days, it’s about a 50/50 chance that if you encounter a bad cop, they’re either Black or Hispanic, not white; 2) you are far more worried (if you are at all aware of the environment) about getting caught in the cross-fire of the Black and/or Hispanic gang-bangers (or shot because your brother/sister/father/mother is one themselves).

      As usual, the wealthy, lily-white, commute in from Connecticut townhouse, New York publishers are “riding the wave” of the latest ethnic/racial violence for all they’re worth.

      • Yep. Let’s teach those kids about living in gang land! Show them how to die right, love right, hate right! It’s not like this stuff shows up in their news feeds every day, or anything.

        People in Ivory Towers, USA. Geez.

  9. NYT’s best selling list, a list that the NYT’s thinks are best sellers.

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