Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hot Topic: Does a YA novel have to be accessible?

Not long ago, I reviewed JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta. I had an unpleasant reading experience the first time around because of a problem I personally had with the structure, although I enjoyed my second reading much more. I mused in my review:
"I think a book is fundamentally flawed if you have to read it twice before you can really get into it. I’d have been more impressed if Marchetta had found a way into the story that retained some of the cryptic, tragic character, but in way that made me care from the beginning."
Adele of Persnickety Snark wrote a reaction piece to my review on her blog When You Find Yourself Stumped, sad and perplexed that I didn’t love the novel as much as she did.

Her post brought up some thought provoking points about how we react to negative reviews of books we loved and it is well worth checking out. But what prompted me to write this post today is a comment that the author, Melina Marchetta, left on Adele’s post about my review:

"Although I disagree passionately with Lenore when she states that a book is fundamentally flawed if it has to be read twice, I will own up to the fact that Taylor is difficult and, at times, a very unlikeable protagonist."
Now I don’t at all consider this a case of an author arguing with a review, especially as she states:

"I think an important thing for us writers is that there is intelligent dialogue about our work, regardless of whether a blogger likes our books or not. The reviews written by yourself and Lenore are intelligent, if not sometimes harsh. But I like the world of harsh intelligent reviews better than a world of no reviews at all."
But it did get me thinking about my statement. Because OF COURSE there are books that we have to read twice (or more) to really get into. I don’t think many people start reading ULYSSES by James Joyce thinking that they are going to understand everything the first time around. And the same goes for a great many books (the so-called “classics” especially), which become richer and deeper to us the more we spend time with them.

I realize now that my statement above stems from my expectations of what a YA novel in particular should be. One of the reasons I enjoy reading YA so much, and read so much of it, is because of how accessible it is. In general, writers for children and teens spend a lot of time crafting novels with an immediate hook to capture reluctant readers, tight pacing to keep them interested, and a clear structure to keep them from getting confused.

JELLICOE ROAD is not so accessible. But does its’ lack of accessibility mean it is flawed? Can’t YA aspire to something more? Something, that like a classic, benefits from multiple readings? Obviously the Printz committee thought so when they named JELLICOE ROAD the best book of 2009.

Indeed, I think it's about time to adjust my own expectations. Obviously, less accessible YA is not going to work for everyone (especially reluctant readers), but I'll certainly be reading YA with a more open mind in the future.  Even if I have to read a book twice.

What do you think?


Amy said...

I love this post, Lenore! Good for you. And yes I think YA can be many things and shouldn't be boxed.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Thanks for hashing it out with me on Twitter Amy :)

Blueicegal ♥ said...

To be honest if i have to read a book twice to get into it or understand it then there is something wrong there, I rely on a good book flowing for me, where i get lost in it at once, but i haven't read this book, if it is something quite unique then maybe i would be willing to re read it twice in order to gain a better understanding of it, To be honest though i don't have the patience, but like you mentioned maybe i should open myself up more to what i feel a book should be like in order for me to like it, awesome post.

Amanda said...

I love that you guys are all so polite about this. There's been so much drama lately that politeness is wonderful.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Blueicegal - I'm sure there will still be novels in the future that confuse me and that I will consider flawed, but I'll try not to automatically consider a novel to be flawed just because I have to read it twice.

Amanda - It feels nice to be polite :)

Carla said...

I agree with Amy, this is such a thoughtful and articulate post. These are the kind of posts I love, where there is room for discussion on a subject that affects us all.

I will admit to feeling a little perplexed when you first read Jellicoe Road, but in hindsight that may just be because I was unable to see past my love for the book to really appreciate your insight.

Jellicoe Road is a book I had a lot of trouble getting into. the first 100 pages or so really threw me as a reader because I found the story line to be so completely left field and my brian wasn't processing the information I was getting because I didn't quite understand the plot line. However, i think it really really helped that this was not the first Marchetta book I had read, because I already knew then that I loved her writing and the way she crafts her stories together, so even though i was VERY confused, I kind of knew the story had been told this way for a reason.

I do not think it's a bad thing for readers to have to read the book twice to really take something away from it, but like you previously stated, reluctant readers would be unwilling to do so. I suspect had you not known a lot of people who loved Jellicoe Road then you wouldn't have picked it up again. Which would be really unfortunate but understandable.

Katie said...

I think this is a really interesting topic. Generally speaking, I won't continue with a book if I don't find it to be "accessible" within the first 50 pages or so. There are so many wonderful books out there! Why should I have to struggle my way through one I'm not enjoying? I suppose that might make me lazy.

There have been several books that I have stuck with despite struggling and, as a result, I was richly rewarded. The Book Thief, for example. I was more than a hundred pages in before I liked the book. It was like I suddenly fell into rhythm with it, if that makes any sense. I kept at it, however, because deep down I just had a feeling this book was special. But was the beginning of The Book Thief flawed or was I too rigid in my expectations? Maybe it was a slow and awkward opening. Maybe I didn't approach it with an open mind. I don't know.

Still, I think it is perfectly reasonable that a YA book can benefit from multiple readings. To say otherwise would imply that a YA book could never be a classic or great literature. However, I think that book better be pretty damn special during that first read. Special enough to convince a reader that they have something to gain from a second read. I'm inclined to agree with you in that, if you read a book twice and still think it's flawed... well... maybe it is flawed. That's not to say it wasn't literary but I don't see what's wrong in saying that a lot of people found the book to be frustrating/confusing/boring so maybe it could have been executed better.

Take my opinion with a grain of salt, though, because this philistine has never and probably will never make it through Ulysses.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Carla - I have thought a lot about my reaction to Jellicoe Road in the meantime, and I think if I knew in the beginning that the stuff in italics is what Taylor is "sneaking a read of", that would've gone a long way to easing my irritation on that first reading. I was totally stumped as to why all of that was in there and how it related to Taylor.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Katie - I agree that you don't need to stick with a book you aren't enjoying - life is too short! But if it is a book like Jellicoe Road or The Book Thief which so many people love, then it may be well worth your while to keep at it.

Oh, and I'll admit, ULYSSES totally intimidates me.

Brooke Reviews said...

Reading the same book at different points in your life can bring out different meanings in the book. You can think a book is just OK at one point in your life, and a year later you connect with it on a different level and really enjoy it.

I think re-reading is important, and wish I had the time to do it more often. A book isn't there for just one time enjoyment, it can be read many times...just like movies can be watched many times. :)

Emy Shin said...

This comment does not pertain to JELLICOE ROAD, as I haven't read it yet, but with my experience of reading in general.

I think there's a marked difference between having to read a book twice to get into it and developing a deeper understanding of a book through repeated readings.

For the former, I probably won't be reading it a second time, because I can't imagine re-reading a book I did not like (and probably will not finish the first time around) unless it is required for class.

For the latter, even though I may get more out of it through repeated readings, I will still have enjoyed it the first time around. For example, Megan Whalen Turner's THE QUEEN'S THIEF series is one I have re-read many times, and each time, I've always found layers I missed the first several times around.

I hesitate to say that lack of accessibility equals an inherent flaw -- but for me as a reader, I am much less likely to re-read something I couldn't get into originally. And a book can certainly benefit from multiple readings without being inaccessible in the first reading. The two don't have to be exclusive.

Brooke Reviews said...

Oh, I also get frustrated when I'm not understanding something. I usually put the book down and let it sink in then I'll back up in the book and start reading the confusing part again.

I haven't read Jellicoe Road, but with what you said about the italics would irk me too. It's like books that have a glossary of terms that are in the back of the book, and you read the whole book going "huh" only later to find the glossary.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Brooke - So true how our understanding of a book can vary based on life experiences and even mood! A book that seems flawed to us at one point may not seem so if we reread later. But how often do we give books we didn't really connect with another chance?

Lenore Appelhans said...

Emy -

"And a book can certainly benefit from multiple readings without being inaccessible in the first reading. The two don't have to be exclusive."

Very true!

Brooke Reviews said...

Sometimes we don't give books a second chance unless we are forced to. Like for school or something. I think it's probably a good idea to see if there are other people out there that feel the same way about it, and if not maybe give it another go. :)

La Coccinelle said...

I don't think a YA book necessarily needs to be accessible. Like any other book, some people will get into it and some won't. If I can't get into a book after a first reading, I don't think that necessarily makes it fundamentally flawed; it may just be that it doesn't mesh with my preferred style. It's flawed, yes... but on a more subjective level.

bibliophile brouhaha said...

Excellent post! I'm currently reading a book right now that I am having difficulty getting into. It doesn't take away from its value as a YA book, nor does it detract from the quality of the writing. It's simply a completely foreign setting that I am having problems connecting with. I understand what you are saying.

-Linds, bibliophile brouhaha

Donna (Bites) said...

I think that any book, YA or otherwise, that acts like a required taste with the reader is inherently not a good fit for the reader. It's one thing if you love the book and go back and read it a second time only to love it even more. But if you read it once, go meh, read it again and then start to understand, there might be something lacking there. That doesn't mean the book is fundamentally lacking. It just means it doesn't resonate with the reader.

Anyone that says something is an acquired taste I just look at all googly-eyed. If I didn't like it the first time around, why am I going to keep going at it until I do?

Alison Can Read said...

Normally I would say that an inaccessible book is a flawed book. Well, maybe not flawed - but not as skilled as a literary novel that is also a page-turner, which actually happens on rare occasions.
But I make an exception for Jellicoe Road. It was an incredible book that made no sense at first, but on the second read made complete sense and was extremely readable.
So many YA novels are dumbed down with flat stereotypical characters who speak with the current slang. Marchetta was brave to require the reader to think. I like that she trusted teens' intellects enough to think them capable of a difficult novel.
Coincidentally, I posted my review of Jellicoe Road last night on my blog, and I discuss this very issue. (not trying to be spammy by linking to my post; it's just a review I'm particularly proud of)

Amused said...

Great post and lots of great points brought up here. I think that, while many adults may be willing to reread a book to get into it and get the meaning, a YA's book typical target market, a young adult has such a short attention span that would be highly unlikely. It needs to hook them, and hook them quickly.

Amused said...
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Amused said...
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Laura @ I'm Booking It said...

I don't think an inaccessible book is inherently flawed, but I'm having some trouble with the notion of an inaccessible YA book.

My personal opinion is that such a book shouldn't be categorized as YA. That level of reading is an adult skill-- one that many teens have mastered, certainly. I have trouble imagining that the primary audience for such a book would be teens.

I haven't read Jellicoe Road, so I have no opinion as to how any of this applies to it.

I am enjoying thinking about it, and will now go read the other comments :-).

Mari - Escape In A Book said...

Very interesting post, Lenore. As you know I just finished the book mentioned yesterday and I loved it. For me this is about different taste. I almost never read realistic YA but Jellicoe Road actually made me want to pick up more novels in the realistic genre.

I think that certain novels needs to be read twice but I honestly have to say that if I'm to re-read a book it has to be because it gave me something the first time around. So that I can discover new bits and pices from the novel that I didn't quite catch during the first read. No matter if it is classic or modern literature, written for young or old readers.

I admire you for reading a book twice when you didn't enjoy it the first time.

Sarah Laurence said...
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Sarah Laurence said...

Fascinating post and discussion! I do admire you for taking the time to read a book twice and to write a thoughtful critical review. I now want to check out Jellicoe Road to see why it’s controversial. I agree with Emy that there is difference between reading to get into it versus to develop a deeper understanding.

I think authors should feel free to stretch the boundaries of YA, but they should do this while keeping the young reader in mind. The MC doesn’t have to be likable but she/he needs to be someone a teen would like to hang out with. Teens are quick to judge and have competing claims on their time. Most young teen/tween readers haven’t mastered the subtle nuances of adult literary fiction. Not every YA book has to appeal to every child, but it should be understandable with one reading, ideally from the beginning. If not, then the agent or editor could help the author to make those necessary connections to the young reader.

I tested my YA manuscript on several teen readers and adult readers who work with teens before showing it to my agent. The teen readers were really helpful and flagged issues that weren’t apparent to adult readers. Some of my subject matter is new to YA, but the teens liked that. Don’t underestimate teen readers; just try to understand the world from their perspective.

Zibilee said...

What I wonder about is this: Would a YA reader actually read a book twice if they didn't get it the first time around? How much of that audience would be lost if they didn't understand the book the first time they read it? I ask this because I have two teen readers in my house, and often, when they just don't get a book, they will put it down and complain that it was too difficult to understand, not bothering too read it again to clarify things.

I am also one who agrees that while YA shouldn't be put in a box, neither should it be so difficult to understand that you have to read it twice just to be able to decipher it's messages and what's going on in the story. And I know from experience, that some readers just won't bother reading it twice.

Ali said...

Great post. I'm looking forward to reading Jellicoe Road so I can see whether I agree with your review. I'm not a big fan of re-reading, as a rule. But, I absolutely feel that YA works should cross the "accessible" line regularly.

Karen said...

I think that having to read a ya book twice doesn't mean it's necessarily flawed, I absolutely loved "Jellicoe Road", and the fact that it was so deep and puzzling is part of the reason why I love it. A book is no fun if you read it once, and find yourself unable to read it through again. Books like that are books I'd never consider owning. It's only books that truly make you think and connect, that deserves to be read again and again. I don't think such books should only be connected to classics and adult novels. To me, ya is only a genre of topics and writing voices, not so much a structured form of writing. So to me, being accessible isn't necessarily flawed, because it sometimes adds to how much you find yourself loving the book in the long run.

kay - Infinite Shelf said...

What a great post that gives a lot to think about, Lenore. I find that my opinion on the subject is kind of divided.

You asked : "Can YA aspire to something more that like a classic, benefits from multiple readings?" My short answer would be yes, absolutely. Why not! I'm not saying all YA should be written with that purpose in mind: but I think any genre or category of books needs variety. It's good that some YA books can be consumed like a box of cookies, while others will need more effort on the reader's part.

However, a book should at least give you something on the first read. But then, there's also the matter of personal preferences. If it doesn't work on the first read, it can be because of expectations, but it could also be because the reader just doesn't enjoy the book as it is.

There's this general opinion that YA books are lighter, fluffier, easier, kind of a tone down version of adult novels. I guess it's true in many cases and that may be why our expectations are different, but it's good that some books challenge that. (and now, I have to read Jellicoe Road soon! I'm too curious not to!)

Beth F said...

Late as usual, so I have little to add to the comments. But so interesting. Personally I have Jellicoe Road as DNF and didn't even get far enough along to write a DNF post. I'm impressed that you read it through again. I'm more of a mover on.

But every audience deserves the best writing and best plotting and best editing -- from board books to the densest literary novel, from light women's fiction to the most serious nonfiction.

Just my opinion.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

An interesting question Lenore. I'm not really sure of an answer. I mean, there are a lot of great books that take multiple times to read and really appreciate, although I can't think of a YA book where that happened. I do think a book like Mockingjay, although accessible, will benefit from being read again.

Anonymous said...

that is quite wise message. I am looking forward to see more peeps posting in so much informative way.

Jeanne said...

My daughter read Jellicoe Road when she was 16, and she thought it was fascinating; she didn't need to read it twice. There are young adults who long for fiction more complicated than some of the more standard offerings.