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The evolution of YA: Invented by librarians

Learn how the Young Adult genre came to be in another of my favorite installments from PBS’s “It’s Lit!” series.

While we see the YA label everywhere now, it wasn’t put into use until the mid-twentieth century, partially because it wasn’t until around World War II that teenagers were even considered their own marketing demographic; before that, everything had been divided into two categories, Child or Adult.

“Books for Young Adults” was a term coined by librarians in 1944 as they gathered and made lists of books from both the Child and Adult categories that would appeal to adolescents—and “Young Adult” has stuck as a genre ever since.

TL;DW: “It’s a bit reductive to be dismissive of Young Adult [fiction]. First of all, it’s not just a niche genre. YA is remarkable for its wide appeal: 55% of YA books purchased in 2012 were bought by adults between 18 and 44 years old... Not only does YA shape younger audiences as readers, it is a genre that helps give its audience a lexicon for understanding that there is a complex world between childhood and adulthood.”

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Dear Stephenie Meyer,

Like a lot of girls circa 2005-2008, I read the Twilight series. I was a few years older than the demographic of pre-teens to fifteen-year-olds the series was marketed to, but I got aboard the hype train. And eventually, the hate train.

With its sparkly vampires, do-nothing protagonist, stalker-y hero, and predictable plot lines, Twilight was and is an easy target for criticism.

But so are a lot of things. So, why did Twilight and its author Stephenie Meyer get SO. MUCH. HATE. when other, equally mindless entertainment with equally problematic role models got a pass? In short, people find it easy to hate on teen girls and things teen girls like.

This video essay exploring the topic and offering an apology to author Stephenie Meyer by YouTuber and author Lindsay Ellis (okay, I know I’ve posted frequently about Ellis but idc, great content is great content) kind of blew my mind when I first watched it, and it opened my eyes to some of my own internalized misogyny.

Not that Twilight hate is super trendy anymore, but I can safely say I have jumped off that bandwagon, and I hope this helps folks, myself included, be more aware of jumping on any similar bandwagons in the future. (I mean, I’ll still enjoy a meme now and again, I’m only human.)

Let’s let teenage girls like things, without the heaps of shame.

TL;DW:After a while, the ‘it’s problematic’ argument starts to feel like a lazy excuse to hate on a popular thing teenage girls liked rather than good faith criticism. … Why was Stephanie Meyer so loathed? She didn’t do anything! She wrote a wish-fulfillment book. It’s not great, but it’s far from the worst of its genre.

Yes, Twilight is silly. A lot of pop culture is silly. Imagine the same level of vitriol being leveled at the equally silly Fast and the Furious franchise. Both are dumb cheese, but they are dumb cheese targeting different markets. So why is one dumb cheese the object of so much pearl-clutching over who’s a good role model, and the other [is just fine]?”

For similar content on why we should collectively ease up on teenage girls, check out my post on poet Olivia Gatwood’s piece “When I Say That We Are All Teen Girls.”

Review: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Review: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

©St. Martin’s Press

The genre: Sci-fi

The gist: First contact novel set in an alternate 2007. An American girl serves as an alien species’ sole interpreter for planet Earth.

The background: I wanted to read this book because I’ve been a fan of author Lindsay Ellis’ insightful and funny Youtube video essays for years (I’ve even featured some of her work for PBS on this blog). With a graduate degree in film, and as an observer of media and pop culture, she has a keen understanding of storytelling tropes and techniques, and I was excited when she announced she was putting out her first novel—a series, in fact, with book #2 coming out in fall 2021.

Axiom’s End was officially released July 21, 2020, but with the pandemic going on, I guess bookstores said “fuck it” and I wound up getting my hands on a copy the day before.

The tea: There were things I really liked about this book, and there were things that I wanted it to do better.

The dynamic between the protagonist Cora and the main alien Ampersand was nice, but I don’t know how earned it was; the trust just seemed to be there despite their different backgrounds, and it felt like they got too close too fast. The descriptions of aliens and the worldbuilding around their civilizations were well-thought-out. I really enjoyed the philosophical discussions the characters (human and alien) had about culture, life, and language. The dialogue read as realistic to me (one of Ellis’ MFA focuses was screenwriting) and the pace was good. Especially at about halfway through, I couldn’t put it down.

Also, the cover art is sick.

As for what I wanted more of, I wish the writing had made me feel a stronger connection to the characters or concerned about what happened to them. I didn’t really feel the tension of what was at stake for Cora and her family, only between Cora and Ampersand. There were also some minor inconsistencies that threw me, which I’ll chalk up to editorial oversight.

Finally, it’s mentioned early on in the novel that Cora studied linguistics, and I was a little let down this didn’t come into play in a significant way when she became an alien interpreter; maybe it will in the books to come.

The wrap-up: I went into this knowing that long-form sci-fi without dystopia isn’t totally my thing, and I still found it an enjoyable read, if a little disappointing. The subject matter is interesting, and Ellis’ exploration of the theme of embracing “the other” is a fresh take and kind of heartwarming.

The rating: ⭐⭐.5 / 5

There it was. Not everything could be explained, at least not with the limits of spoken language. But there was something comforting to it. Their mutual inability to understand each other leading to a place of understanding.

—Lindsay Ellis, Axiom’s End
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“Ugh, the book was better.”

PBS’s “It’s Lit!” series is great at boiling down huge concepts into a tight five, and this video is a case in point.

As someone who has a blast comparing film adaptations with their literary source material, this exploration of the topic nails what can sometimes be hard for book-lovers to succinctly express.

TL;DW:Books are, by their very nature, more personal. When you’re reading a book, your brain is essentially acting as director, casting agent, cinematographer—Is it any wonder that people get protective of the books that they love being turned into a major motion picture? No! It’s as if a middle man has stepped in between you and the literal movie of your dreams.

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“Why did they make me read this in high school?”

If you’ve ever wondered why some books get put on higher pedestals than others for seemingly no reason other than the fact that your teachers and professors told you they were important, crack an egg of knowledge on yourself with this video from PBS’s “It’s Lit!” series.

TL;DW: “So, who decided what’s important in the Western literary canon? Well, historically it’s been … old white men.

… But our day-to-day lives and our understanding of people outside of our own limited worldview has changed, and with that, so too have the types of voices that now get published and elevated.”

This is one of many great videos from the PBS “It’s Lit!” series on YouTube. They’re hosted by of one my favorite YouTubers, Lindsay Ellis, who also has a ton of killer content on her personal channel about film, television, books, and musicals.