What Would The YA Canon Look Like?

Another day, another terrible “best YA books ever” listicle. It’d be easy to sit down and hammer out what a “real” “best YA book ever” list might look like and it’d be even easier to sit down and lament about the authors and titles missing from this list. I mean, this particular list doesn’t include Robert Cormier or Judy Blume or Laurie Halse Anderson and about half of it includes books which aren’t even YA to begin with.

These lists, especially when they rile us up, make me think about how young YA is as a category of fiction. We know it got its footing in the ’50s and ’60s, in part because that was when culturally, “teen” became an age group that meant something. “Teens” had different needs, wants, urges, and expectations thrust upon them, and for the first time in history, this period in one’s life began to take on new meaning and shape in the wider world. It was natural that a category of reading began to take shape that explored the curves and angles associated with teenagers and adolescence.

Fast forward to 2005 when, thanks to books like Twilight, YA as a category began to grow exponentially. It wasn’t that YA got a start here, but rather, this is where YA became a place where money and energy was really being devoted in publishing, and subsequently, in the wider reading arena.

Because YA is such a young category and a distinction that is in and of itself up for grabs (what does “YA” really mean anyway?), there’s not a clear canon of essential reads. There are, of course, bestsellers and books that made a huge impact, but you can’t point to something and call it YA Canon in the same way you can point to books like The Scarlet Letter or Ethan Frome or Moby Dick or The Red Badge of Courage and say those are part of the Western Canon.

And because we can’t point to something so easily and readily, we crave some kind of listing to make accessing this treasure chest of fiction accessible and understandable. The Western Canon makes sense to us because it’s something we can point to culturally and make meaning of, even if that meaning is full of problems and challenges. It’s in those problems and challenges our rich discussions emerge.

In the YA world, we look to these “best of” lists for this sort of discussion. But since so many of these lists are so myopic, it’s impossible to have a thoughtful, impassioned conversation about YA as a whole because we cannot get a grip on the scope of it nor do we take a dive beyond the titles we’ve come to know and love in the last ten to fifteen years. Of course, long time readers and those who have been advocates of adolescent fiction for decades have more to work from and more to draw from, but they’re not chiming into these particular conversations because these particular conversations are boring.

So what would the YA Canon look like?

I could come up with a list. But my list would be completely skewed toward the books I’ve read and toward the books I’ve seen in my lifetime or heard about. It wouldn’t, for example, include some of the traditional Problem Novels that populated the category when it first began. It wouldn’t include titles that were wildly popular in the ’70s or ’80s or maybe even the ’90s. Not because I don’t think those titles matter, but because those titles have been out of print or fell to the wayside as YA entered a huge new golden age in 2005 and forward. Even with the efforts people like Lizzie Skunick have put forth in bringing some of these older titles back into print, because YA hasn’t been studied or advocated for on a scholastic, academic, or similarly-serious level until recently — and it still sees itself maligned as a special interest or “cute” thing to study, rather than something wholly worthy of intellectual discourse — so many of those titles remain heart-favorites to readers and many more have simply fallen to the wayside because they haven’t been taken as seriously as they should.

We don’t respect teenagers culturally, so it’s not a surprise we don’t take YA literature — stories primarily featuring teen-age protagonists — seriously. But we need to be. We should be excited about the growth of a real canon, and we should be having discussions about the merits of some books over others in ways that elevate them into a great public sphere. Slowly, we’re getting there, thanks to things like the Young Peoples Award through the National Book Award.

But it’s still slow. And it still overlooks what came before.

In thinking about a YA Canon, we should be talking and struggling with tough questions. We could all agree, for example, that John Green would be part of it. But which of his books is worthy of inclusion? Is it Looking for Alaska, which was critically acclaimed right out of the gate? Or would it be The Fault in Our Stars, which was a cultural phenomenon?

Do we include Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or do we include Wintergirls? Would a book like Twilight or a series like The Hunger Games merit a place in the YA canon? Are they “literary” enough or should they be included because of what they did to change the landscape of YA publishing and reading, setting off a tipping point?

Which of the books in Walter Dean Myers catalog do we include? Sarah Dessen’s? Would we put the later volumes of Harry Potter, which are decidedly more YA than Middle Grade, into the canon? How far back would we want to dig? Do we want to represent various “eras” of YA in a canon? And more, because of the on-going conversations we have around topics like diversity and sexuality, how do we strike a balance in representation? How do we even know what a balance might be? What is “balance” anyway? Would we include books by authors like Ann Rinaldi, even though now we acknowledge and understand how problematic they might be critically? Should we include them because of that?

These are the sorts of questions and discussions that fuel so much discourse. Why is it that we know about Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and study that in literary education but we don’t offer the same attention to George du Maurier’s Trilby, which brought us the likes of trilby hats, Svengali, and other cultural references and ideas and was one of the most popular books of its time? We have these debates in the classroom and in serious literary circles because we can.

But we don’t yet have the sorts of language to do the same thing with YA. And because we’ve yet to take these conversations seriously, we continue to be bombarded with uncritical lists of best-selling titles that, while fine and enjoyable and solid now, won’t be books that people resurrect in 40 or 50 years because of their enduring themes or impact on YA literature as a whole.

Tell me: what would you consider essential titles in the YA Canon? What criteria would merit inclusion or consideration for inclusion? What YA books should be read and analyzed in freshman or senior literature classes in high school and college 50 years from now?

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