Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sticking My Neck Out On The 'YA' Fallacy

I have a feeling some people are going to turn just a little red at my next statement:

'The Hunger Games is not young adult fiction'.

What? It's published by Scholastic, the same company that published Harry Potter. It's being called YA, shelved as YA, marketed as YA. What business does some crazy writer in Virginia have in saying that it's not YA?

I'm calling out the industry and saying that it is not young adult fiction.

Okay, why? Some of you are probably thinking I'm trying to say it's, what, too good to be YA? Bullshit. I adore Harry Potter. I absolutely love Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, which is as YA as it comes. I love good young adult fiction and am not embarrassed to be caught reading it on public transportation. (Or comic books, for that matter. I had a good laugh at 'Read Comics In Public Day'...for me that's otherwise known as 'Wednesday').

Okay, so on what am I basing my insane assertion?

'The Hunger Games' is not young adult because it is not about young adult things. Maybe that's one way to put it. Uglies, for example, is emphatically about struggling to grow up, wanting to grow up, and the shallowness of beauty and (in the fourth book, Extras) fame as goals. As for Harry Potter - it follows the grand tradition of the English 'school story' - books set in boarding schools and about growing up. A good mundane example of the same would be Enid Blyton's Malory Towers stories. J.K. Rowlings simply combined the school story with the hero's journey and classic good versus evil fantasy.

The Hunger Games is not about growing up. Katniss is already an adult in all the ways that count at the start of the stories. She does not start out a child and become an adult, as both Harry Potter and Tully Youngblood do. She IS an adult. She's a provider and a breadwinner, she's the 'man' of her family. What is it about?


It's about the price and cost of war. On society. On the individual. Even 'just' war. The war between District 13 and the Capital is completely justified. But by the end of the third book, the characters we are about are pretty much all either A. dead or B. suffering from PTSD. Even the children. But then, haven't we always sent our children off to fight our wars for us?

The Hunger Games is not in the same subgenre as Uglies even though they are both shelved as 'Young Adult Science Fiction'...and even though they are both set in post-apocalyptic future America.

It IS in the same subgenre as another classic novel that may or may not be made into a movie next year:

Ender's Game.

Ender's Game is about the horror of child soldiers. It was originally published as a novelette in Analog in 1977. It won a Hugo and a Nebula. It's recommended reading...for marine officer candidates, or at least used to be. And although it did win an award for teen reading, if you look at it in Amazon it's shelved as 'space opera' and tagged as 'military science fiction'...which is where it should be shelved. Most people do not think of Ender's Game as YA because it's not packaged that way. Weirdly, it was cut from NPR's Best YA Fiction Poll as not being YA. But The Hunger Games made the cut. Card himself said outright that Ender's Game was never intended as young adult fiction, although he doesn't mind that teens read and enjoy it. It's published by Tor, which is not a young adult imprint.

The Hunger Games is intense. It's so intense that on finishing reading it my husband said he was looking forward to Elizabeth Moon's newest military fantasy (highly recommended) as something lighter and more cheerful. I found Mockingjay a roller coaster ride of emotions and a full understanding of the trauma of war (it's a complete coincidence that I'm posing this on 9/11 - I was waiting for the husband to finish the book to get his opinion). War destroys innocence, literally and metaphorically...and the tributes are a metaphor for that, as is what happens to the victors. War does nothing good and positive and in the end, as justified as District 13 was in fighting, they too fall into the trap of the victor when they propose one final games. War destroys minds. It tears people apart.

It's my opinion that The Hunger Games and its sequels are the best anti-war novels of recent time. They deserve to stand next to Joe Haldeman's Forever War (a different take on the fate of the veteran). I hope that the popularity of the film will pull the books out of the young adult ghetto and put them in the hands of the parents. On the other hand, perhaps it IS the children, the future leaders who need to read it.

So. Why the heck has The Hunger Games been classified as young adult? It's actually fairly simple. It's a sad fact of the publishing industry at present, and something I've seen myself, that if your protagonist is under 18, the industry classes your work as 'young adult'. I've written pieces not intended as young adult but with teenage protagonists and I inevitably get told 'send it to a young adult magazine', so I've seen this myself.

And this has to change. Not every book with a young protagonist is suited to teenagers and will be enjoyed by them. I don't know for sure whether Suzanne Collins did intend the books to be adult fiction and was funneled into YA by industry suspicions...hopefully one day I'll have an opportunity to ask her. But I'm afraid that is exactly what happened.

In the mean time, if you haven't read the books, read them. Enjoy them. And take heed of them. We live in a world where people are quite willing to send other people's children (sometimes literally in parts of Africa) to fight for causes that are far less just than getting rid of a form of slavery. And there are so many times when the underdog has won, and promptly set up the next oppressive regime. The 'one final hunger games' is never one and it's never final.