Thinking About A Definition…

I read a lot of YA–duh, this whole blog is about YA. But I don’t only read YA. In fact there’s a lot of contemporary adult fiction that’s sitting in my house waiting for me to read it, and I look at it longingly, and then pick up another YA or middle grades book because my kids need the exposure to books more than I do.

This week, however, we had a snow day. While I expected us to simply pivot to online instruction, I was pleasantly surprised that we had a day off. And I took full advantage of that day. I had the novel, We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, sitting on an end table in my family room since October just begging me to pick it up and read it. Thursday was the perfect day to do that. And so I curled up on my couch with a mug of tea and the book and started reading.

From the opening pages, I was immediately sucked in. I could go on and on about the great endpapers or the thickness of the paper or the smell of the book or the tight barely cracked spine of the hardcover, but I won’t. Instead, I was immediately grabbed by the strong sense of place in the opening chapter. The novel begins in summer of 1989 in the White Mountains at the University of New Hampshire. The heat is oppressive. The dorms aren’t air conditioned. The food is terrible. The characters are surviving on soft serve ice cream and Captain Crunch. And in those first pages, I was immediately transported back to Cromwell Hall, Fall 1989. The oppressive heat and humidity of the dorm. The terrible food. The fact that we only survived because of the soft serve machine, Captain Crunch (and it was a really good day if we had Crunch Berries) and dinner rolls.

I could say I love this book because of the nostalgia I feel for the waning year of the 80s. But I think it’s more than that. The writing immediately put me into the story. I especially liked the use of the first person plural narration. This is a book that begs for a discussion. Like a Danvers onion, there are many, many layers to this book. What it’s not is YA.

Sure, the protagonists are teenagers. Sure it’s coming of age. But these things don’t make a YA book YA. YALSA’s white paper on the evolution of Young Adult Literature makes the point that the definition of YA lit is ever evolving. However, one thing is clear: YA is writing for teens (12-19) and seeks to help them find their place in the world.

We Ride Upon Sticks does not seek to help teens figure out their place in the world or even provide role models for the reader.

I’m sure there’s someone out there who might argue that Katniss Everdeen doesn’t help kids find their place in the world as we don’t ask our children to fight to the death for our entertainment. But I would argue that person is too literal and close minded to even be a reader. Look at the world our teens have to navigate daily. They are surrounded by images of what teens should be–many are conflicting–and then we pile on teen influencer after influencer to the mix, adding even more conflicting messages. And then there’s Katniss–a character who is able to navigate a world full of conflicting messages with grace and power and just general badassery. Now tell me she’s not a role model for our kids?

But I digress.

Because of the year and the first person plural narration, We Ride Upon Sticks reads almost like a looking back–adults reflecting on this field hockey season, doing a post mortem to figure out what exactly happened. In some ways, it is a coming of age book as many of the characters are trying to figure out their identity separate from what either their parents or society wants them to be. However, the narration almost turns this quest for identity into a quest for a group identity and maybe not an individual identity (although I am rooting for Julie Minh to find her own self separate from her parents and the team–I still have 150 pages left to read in the book. So my thoughts might change). No one is being presented as a role model. Nothing in this book is being touted as a way for the reader to try to make sense of the world they live in.

In a nutshell, the only thing young adult in this book are the teen protagonists. And a teen protagonist doesn’t make a book YA.

As I think about a few of the YA books, I read and thoroughly enjoyed this fall, a post is forthcoming that will elucidate my definition of YA for all of you, Dear Readers. For now, I’m going to head back to 1989 and the Danvers High School Field Hockey team’s winning season. And just live in that world for a little more time.

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