YA Shame and Stigma

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Please note, the quotes from Facebook are used with the author's permission. Any emphasis (BOLD formatting) in those quotes is mine, and you can follow the links to view the quotes in their original context for as long as the wall post is available to the public. I have left out other commenter's names in quotes, but they can be seen on the original Facebook post.

EDITS: Isaac took down the original wall post, which is fine with me, but the comments are below and I have it saved as text and screenshot as well. I didn't get the somewhat backhanded apology post saved. I encourage anyone who tweets, comments, or otherwise contacts him to please remain civil. Some of us are adults, it's up to you to decide which ones of us those are ;)

To be fair, when I said I was doing "a blog post" he may not have understood just how many devoted readers that post would have. In one day the post and the podcast have received over 3200 views, many comments, and lots of tweets. Thanks to all who have commented and shared this discussion.

I also want to make it clear, I still hope people will read Warm Bodies. I liked it. You might, too.

My post:

I came across an interesting post on Facebook yesterday by author Isaac Marion. Marion is the 31-year-old author of the debut novel Warm Bodies (Atria, 2011), about a zombie named R who, during a routine meal begins experiencing flashes of memory and emotion as he consumes a young man's brain. Labeled by some reviewers as a "zombie romance", the movie adaptation of this book "about being alive, being dead, and the blurry line in between" is due out in February 2013 from Summit Entertainment.

The post that caught my eye was this:

At least one Barnes & Noble store has Warm Bodies in the "Fiction" section instead of "Young Adult". Funny that the big corporate chain store everyone talks trash about understands its books better than most the local indies...
"At least one Barnes & Noble store has Warm Bodies in the "Fiction" section instead of "Young Adult". Funny that the big corporate chain store everyone talks trash about understands its books better than most [of] the local indies..."

Something about this seemed dissonant to me. It's not like that time Borders insisted on shelving Neil Strauss's Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life in Business: Personal Finance instead of Outdoor Sports: Survival Skills. I had, after all, learned about Warm Bodies from Maggie Stiefvater, a popular YA author. I'm certain I'm only one of thousands of readers and bloggers who was convinced by her glowing recommendation. I not only bought the book; at the time, I was still a merchandising manager at Borders, so I ordered in copies (though I was not supposed to) and handsold them, some to teens and others to adults.

I did know that the novel was considered "adult" as opposed to "young adult", but after reading it recognized elements that would make it an appealing crossover. I made sure it was shelved and displayed in the adult Fiction/Lit section as the Borders subject code specified, but occasionally when I had extra copies I'd throw one on a rotating zombie endcap in YA, next to books like Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry and The Forest of Hands & Teeth by Carrie Ryan. In Borders parlance, we referred to this as cross-merchandising, intended to draw sales from anticipating more than one display where a customer might browse for an item in the store. Lesser-known and first-time authors typically benefit from this arbitrary arrangement by having their book placed next to those of authors who are already established and popular; this placement was in addition to having the store's last remaining copy spine-out on the shelf where it belongs in its normal category.

I also blogged about it here, on a blog which primarily reviews books for young adults and younger. I really liked this book, and I used multiple channels of influence to try to get people to read it, for no other reason than that. While I harbor no illusions that I had anything much to do with its success and movie deal, if you look at the comments on the review I did convince a few YA readers to read it who otherwise would not have picked up the book.

After a few comments on the thread, Isaac replied:
"This YA thing is going to be a rash on my eyeballs for this book's entire run..."
"Since it seems impossible to correct, I guess I'll just have to practice not ranting about it."
It became apparent to me he felt ashamed, or more likely annoyed, to have his book associated with the YA category. A reader also noted that she found the book in the Horror section and would not have picked up the book had it been in YA, validating Marion's fear that readers who otherwise would have read the book are being alienated by the young adult label. His subsequent comments made it clear to me that he did not know much about the genre in the first place:

"I don't know who started the idea that it's a YA book but it drives me crazy. There's one character in the entire story who's younger than 20 (Julie, 19) the writing is not simplified for a young reading level at all, containing lots of big ol' fancy words like "loquacious" and "sepulchral", and there's nothing teen-specific about its themes. Not to mention the copious amounts of "adult content". I would love to know what about all that screams "YOUNG READERS" to book stores..."

At that point, I could no longer help myself and jumped into the conversation, to try to suss out why the YA label was so objectionable, trying to make the point that the emerging adulthood themes in Warm Bodies, as well as the viral effect of Maggie's recommendation may have caused some people (and, unfortunately, indie bookstores) to believe Warm Bodies was a YA novel. Marion responded:

"The problem that I have with YA as a genre is that no one wants every book with young characters to be called a children's book--that would pull thousands of classics off the adult shelves--so the only useful definition I can imagine would be books that are specifically geared toward kids in terms of content, style, and complexity--ie, books that are simpler and more easily digestible than adult books. Otherwise, why draw that distinction? Why limit the audience instead of just leaving it open to the reader's judgement? The only function the YA label can really serve is to warn adult readers, "Stay away from this if you want substance." Which is really unfortunate, because no doubt a lot of substantial books get buried by this label."

I found this bleak perspective surprising, especially coming from a mainstream published author. I often hear YA disparaged as no more than a marketing ploy the publishing industry came up with in order to sell more books, though this opinion I typically hear from people with little professional book knowledge. To tell the truth, even those who read it often, the authors who write it, and the educators and librarians who study and promulgate it, seem to have a really hard time defining what YA literature even is. It's not simply material written for an audience aged 12 to 17 years; a guideline on the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) website notes an expanded definition including persons as young as ten and as old as 25. A recent study from Bowker says that 55% of buyers of YA books are adults over 18, and that 78% reported that the purchase was for their own reading. If age of audience is not the dividing line, what is?

To say they are less complex, easier to digest, and lacking in substance is too simplistic. Not only are there YA novels of quality to which those descriptions do not apply, there are also adult novels that do deserve those labels. And as with any genre, the cream rises to the top. Take Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief, for example: award-winning, slated for a feature film, and on the New York Times children's bestsellers list since its US publication in 2006, it's not one of "a lot of substantial books... buried by this label". Let's not even talk about The Hunger Games.

I also have trouble believing that the YA label has turned away more readers than it has garnered for his book. Below the professional quotes on the author's Reviews page, two of the three blogs quoted are YA blogs (the third is defunct). The studio that is making the film adaptation, Summit, owes much of its fame to the success of the Twilight film franchise based on a series of young adult novels written by Stephenie Meyer. Meyer also blurbed the book, saying “Isaac Marion has created the most unexpected romantic lead I’ve ever encountered. I never thought I could care so passionately for a zombie.” One might speculate based on Summit's purchase of other YA-audience adult books like Stephen Chbosky's Perks of Being a Wallflower, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, as well as optioning Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus) that the studio also bought rights to Warm Bodies partly due to its YA appeal. A commenter on the thread shared the fact that she bought the novel after spotting it in the YA section of a bookstore; another learned about the book from the entertainment site Oh No They Didn't, which reported that Summit was touting the Warm Bodies film as a "Zombie Twilight".

Okay, so I'll admit, with all of its shortcomings, perhaps the Twilight series is not necessarily the best brand to align yourself with unless your only interest is making a lot of money. However, that still does not appear to be the issue. Marion continues:

"That is what I'm saying--it's for ALL audiences. And to me, the YA label says, "This is specifically for kids." Otherwise, what purpose does it serve?"
"I just think it's a ridiculous, pointless category. "Children's" is a useful category because it tells people it's written at a young reading level and doesn't contain any objectionable content. "Adult" is a useful category because it tells you it's not "Children's". YA is a useless category because teenagers and twentysomethings can and SHOULD read whatever the hell they want."
(Aside: I actually agree with that last part--though lots of book-banning censorship-happy adults would probably not.)

The only purpose I can see for the YA label is to insult authors who thought they wrote a book for grownups.
...Everything has its place, but having your book placed in a category for people who are "too young to read (or in some cases to understand) the full mature themes in a lot of adult books" when what you thought you wrote was...an adult book with full mature themes...is very frustrating. And that's exactly why it's not an inclusive genre, because--at least to the outside observer--it appears to promise books without mature themes, which isn't interesting to people who WANT mature themes.
Here we come to the root of the problem: the perception of YA by people who are unfamiliar with the genre. The author admits in a private message that his attitude is based on the general public's negative view of the YA label:

"that late-teens and early-twenty-somethings who are plenty old enough to grasp adult literature will only read books that condescend to them, so we should add a label to let them know which books will do so...
"I think books should either be written for children--by which I mean CHILDREN, not people who can drive cars and vote and fight in wars--or adults. I don't see the purpose of this vague middle category. Let the reader decide if a book's too lofty and obscure for them. Don't put a label on it reassuring them, "This book will not expose you to anything you aren't ready for." 
Wow, I thought, he's never heard of Meghan Cox Gurdon? She'd tell him there are lots of objectionable adult themes in YA novels that CHILDREN should not be exposed to. I have to argue back that they've both got this backwards: that YA is intended to explore the challenges of changing from child to adult, that YA is inclusive of the interests of both children and adults, and that you shouldn't let a label prevent you from exposing yourself to great books. It's obvious to me that Marion is missing an important piece of the puzzle. Apart from laws which decide when a person is old enough to drive or go to war, to smoke and drink, to vote and fuck, there is no dividing line between child and adult, certainly when it comes to reading, and the nebulousness of that middle area, that blurry line between child and adult is precisely the reader that YA seeks to engage. 

Author and educator Carol Tanzman notes:
Before there was YA, teens read "adult" books. The problem there is that there was very little connection to their "real" lives--what about Ethan Frome is particularly relatable to a 15 year old? YA grew as a specific genre to meet the needs of readers who want and need to see a world that reflects their concerns, wishes, dreams, fears (whether in contemporary/dystopian/sci-fi, etc.). They can then have an opportunity to reflect upon something that interests them as all good literature leads readers to do. Also, since 55% of all YA books are bought by adults, there is a huge crossover that shows that teen concerns are interesting/relatable/familiar to adults.
 Author and teen librarian Tammy Blackwell adds:
I think it's important for teens to feel like there is something just for them, that reflects their experiences. Most of them are struggling to find where they fit in in this world, and YA books reflect that journey and help them find their way. Teens need YA. The YA label isn't an insult; it's an honor.
 Reader (and adult ;) Emily Turner says:
I feel like YA is only an insult if you think writing books for young adults means that they are written more simply, lower quality, less layered, etc. But if you think of YA like a genre, like horror, sci-fi, any other genre, then it's just like what Tammy said -- it signifies the book will have themes that may be of specific interest to young adults. [Marion] is treating YA authors as if they don't write as well as "adult" authors, which isn't true... and perpetuating that also is insulting to teen readers, as if they can't "understand" anything more "deep", even when they are reading "adult" books in their English classes.
All things considered, I still don't think I can convince Marion that

  1. His book somewhat fits the label
  2. Applying the label to Warm Bodies does not mean that his book is simplistic, without substance, and lacking full mature themes
  3. The term YA is helpful in marketing his book to readers who will appreciate it for what it is: a compelling story of an imperfect creature who wants to live
  4. That the label is useful for specifying a genre addressing the "physical, intellectual, emotional, and societal" (YALSA) needs of developing adults searching for their identities (much as his main character, R, is seeking to define his zombiehood and newfound humanity)
Furthermore, he's not the only one with this myopic view. There are many variations on it, too. Last year, Meghan Cox Gurdon inflamed the kidlit world with her Wall Street Journal article "Darkness Too Visible", claiming that YA novels were becoming too dark, and that themes were too mature and inappropriate for young people. Joel Stein of Time Magazine opined earlier this year in the New York Times that adults should only read adult books. To top it all off, another new category is supposedly emerging this year, called New Adult literature, Upper-YA, Mature Young Adult, or College-Lit. I'll admit it, I have more questions than answers when it comes to evaluating the stigma of labeling books as "Young Adult" or "YA".

My questions boil down to these two:
  • What will it take to convince the general public that the term YA is a meaningful label for a valuable genre that encompasses a wide variety of interests and has the same fluctuations in style, complexity, and merit as any other genre of writing?
  • How many people avoided reading or purchasing Warm Bodies because they associated it with the YA label? How many bought it because of it?
Comment, people. I really, truly want to know the answers.

Find Isaac Marion at
Read his blog at Burning Building

Find Warm Bodies on

And if you shelve this book in a store, for the love of Pete, shelve it in Adult Fiction.
Isaac says Sci-Fi/Fantasy would be his second choice.
Do not put it in YA. Just... don't.