This topic has been on my mind for a while and cemented when I was at a writing conference a couple of weeks ago. One of the panelists asked a really great question: What makes a book considered horror? Many thoughtful answers from the audience were given and lots of people nodded their heads in agreement. Then he gave us the *real* answer: because that’s the shelf they put it on at the book store. It was an answer I hadn’t considered before. Every story written, especially in genre fiction, is classified as one thing and marketed that way. But any good book better have many different elements or it risks falling flat with readers. It’s a safe bet that a crime story has some elements of horror. So do many fantasy novels as well as contemporary ones. And what about romance? Every story could use a sprinkle of it.
That was the ah-ha moment for me about book labels. I have always struggled with them, especially when people ask what market I am writing for. What’s the difference between Young Adult and New Adult? Or Middle Grade and Juvenile? Fantasy can be Epic or Urban but isn’t it all just Fantasy? Even Science Fiction can be space opera or hard science. It can be overwhelming when all you want is a good book you’ll enjoy. Bottom line, the only thing that makes a book Young Adult is because that’s the shelf we find it on at the book store. It’s been a while since I’ve relied on the library to acquire reading material but I’m pretty sure there’s only three main sections: Children, Fiction and Non-Fiction.
With this realization, I no longer find it necessary to defend or criticize anyone’s choice in a book because it is considered Young Adult. I’m not even sure how it has became such a heated debate among people but it is, in every circle of friends I have who are readers. I hate to admit it, but I’m guilty of uttering the words “I don’t read Young Adult”. Even though I devoured the “Twilight” series when it was new and couldn’t wait to get the last one on release day. (Writing that sentence makes me feel like an alcoholic admitting I might have a problem.) Say what you will about the writing, but the story was fresh and new at the time and well told. I wasn’t the only person at the time sleep-deprived because we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the story until the wee hours of the morning. So why, in the later years when they were making the silly movies that barely did the books justice, did I feel slightly ashamed to have liked reading them? Because the series had been labeled as Young Adult and now every adult who liked it felt a twinge of something. As an adult, the label Young Adult tells us “you’re too old to enjoy this”. Shame on all of us who bought into it! Stories are stories and should appeal to you based on how you feel during and after reading it. Nothing more.
The other side of the coin is also true. Why should we limit what kids read by dumbing down fiction or skipping the real life elements just because those parts might make us uncomfortable if kids read them? I cut my teeth on hard core science fiction and horror with L. Ron Hubbard and Stephen King long before I was out of elementary school. I stole my mom’s smutty romance novels almost as early. The Adult and Horror labels they would all fall under now scream at kids “you aren’t allowed to read me yet”. As a parent I even bought into the inherent censorship that comes with these labels, much to my chagrin. I wonder if I went to the school library today if I’d even find those kinds of titles on the shelf? I know I’m going to find out!
Call me a crazy mom but I’m going to let my teen, who has just discovered how much she loves books, to read anything she wants to try. Because where would I be as a reader, and as a person, if my parents had limited my options back in my own formative years based on ridiculous labels? Do I hope she will take advice from me on whether I think she will like it and allow me to covertly keep her as innocent as I can for as long as possible? Of course. But I’m also not naive because I was thirteen once, too.
I understand the need for classifying books so readers have a general idea of what they are getting based on the shelf they are sold from. But let’s get beyond the labels meaning anything more than that. Every story will not appeal to every reader, and every book could be classified different ways. Just find a good one you love and read it proudly! I promise to stop judging fellow readers based on what they like to read and instead rejoice that there are enough readers in the world to keep all of us aspiring authors motivated to create and publish more stories to enjoy.