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Young adult literature: what does it all mean?

| September 5, 2017 | 0 Comments

Title: Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index Author: Julie Israel Publisher: Penguin Books ISBN: 978-0-141-37642-4 Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index (JLHI), by Julie Israel, can serve as a fantastic teaching and learning tool for high school English teachers and librarians and all their more senior students.


It’s this student cohort that publishers are drawing in by calling them Young Adults. JLHI is a YA work of fiction. In the “shout outs” on the book’s inside covers, publisher Ben Horslen says: “YA fans are going to love this one” and marketer Hannah Bourne opines that she “[adored] Juniper: feisty, vulnerable and honest – a perfect YA heroine”. What exactly is a “young adult”? I would have guessed that the term refers to anyone between the age of 20 and 30. I think Rita Meade, a children’s librarian in Brooklyn, New York in the US, who says: “I was ‘officially’ taught in graduate school that YA is literature written with readers from ages 12-18 in mind,” is stretching it a bit.

When I was a teen (between 13 and 20), I was reading Ursula K. Le Guin, Daphne du Maurier, Margaret Mitchell and Tolkien, (all the while getting my first taste of adult classics on our home bookshelves.) I wonder if I would even have been allowed to read what constitutes YA literature today. But JLHI is a different sort of book altogether, in which a thoroughly modern Juniper Lemon and her parents (only seen occasionally) are grieving the rather nasty – underage drinking is involved – death of her sister in a car accident.

Then Juniper uncovers a clue that may uncover exactly why her sister died. You can share all this information with your class before or after you’ve asked them to read the text. It could all be a fascinating group work project. Everyone will learn something new, like who’s reading what and why, and how your students see themselves and the world. Do they think they’re young adults?

What does being an adult mean? What do they think author Michael Cart, writing for the American Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), of which he is a former president, means when he says: “The term ‘young adult literature’ is inherently amorphous, for its constituent terms ‘young adult’ and ‘literature’ are dynamic, changing as culture and society – which provide their context – change”? You can also share with your students a brilliant article by Vivian Parkin DeRosa, written for the Huffington Post in June 2017. Right away, she tells us: “I’m a teenager and I don’t like Young Adult novels.” Then she presents her arguments. A lot of YA books I read have main characters who read like they’re in college already. They rarely rely on family, they smoke, and they go on crazy road trips.

I admit this is a really tricky one for writers to capture, because most teenagers THINK that they’re 20-somethings. But teenagers aren’t really secure with their identity, and they don’t have enough experience to be convincingly written as adults. If you’re going to write teenagers with an adult edge, make sure you’re still making them vulnerable. DeRosa also believes there’s way too much generalisation in YA literature. “For some reason, ‘preppy’ girls and ‘geeky’ girls have been pitted against each other in fiction. These labels create an immediate image in your head, which is why writers use them. Stop. It’s lazy.” DeRosa’s equally frank about the way YA writers present their characters. “Writers put a lot of effort into voice to make sure their narrator sounds like a teenager.

Maybe they could try making them look like actual teens, too. Give your main characters diverse body types, different styles, and create a new definition of perfect.” The young critic is also fresh when she talks turkey about YA love, “Do I really have to explain this one? Love triangles are unrealistic and clichéd,” and YA slang: “Using slang in dialogue is like ringing a massive bell and shouting, ‘I don’t know how teens actually talk!’” “YA tends to treat teenage relationships like they’re going to last forever,” complains DeRosa, adding, “The book is almost over, and one by one, every plot issue is tied up with a bow and set to rest.” Further, DeRosa says to YA authors: “Let your characters have flaws.

Really. You can have a ‘strong female character’ without having her be perfect. Most teenagers are a complete mess.” And, “not all teens are adorable, wise-cracking, defiant, sarcastic little squirts. Save the sarcasm for one character.” After all the general discussion, now let the debates about JLHI begin. What do your students think of the names of the main characters, Juniper Lemon and her love interest Brand? What does Juniper actually look like? How do we know? Is she in school or at college? What age is she? (Look at the book’s dialogue here.)

Do you and your friends have these kinds of conversations? Is she a likeable person, realistically portrayed? What do you make of her project? How did you find the book’s ending? Some of your students will certainly have read 13 Reasons Why; The Fault in Our Stars; My Sister’s Keeper; Before I Fall, If I Stay and Between. So now’s the perfect time to ask them why millions of teens around the world are so into books about death. The answers may surprise you.

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