A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof published a list of favorite children’s books. Few of his selections were books from the last decade–many were clearly his own childhood favorites, pitched to his contemporary readership. The column got us thinking about what children and young adults are reading right now–if they’re reading anything at all.
We spoke to Bethany Strout, an assistant at Writers House LLC, the agency that handles, among others, Stephenie Meyer, creator of the explosively popular Twilight series. She’s also a long-time appreciator of young adult literature. Below, read her thoughts on reading and adolescence, and get some expert recommendations.
How did your interest in books written for young people develop?
Well, I was a young person who read. And then somehow my taste in books never quite changed.
Today, I read a wide range of books–adult fiction and non-fiction take up a huge part of my bookshelves–but young adult and middle grade fiction has always been my favorite. I’m honestly not sure why that is, though I’ve thought about it a lot. I think part of it is that I find young adult books to be both simpler and more subtle than many adult books. That is, from a reader’s point of view, they’re usually less overtly focused on “the language” or “the themes” or “the epic sprawl”, but in their spare, unassuming prose are able to so perfectly capture the breadth of humanity. Although, while that was a very nice answer, I don’t think that quite covers it–there are plenty of wordy and great YA authors as well (Francesca Lia Block comes to mind). Again, I should emphasize this is from a reader’s point of view, as I fully believe young adult authors put the same amount of time, talent, and mental energy into writing as adult authors do.
What did you like to read when you were younger?
This list could actually go on forever.
Books that I read constantly when I was younger but don’t read now are:
The Baby-Sitters Club, all the various Sweet Valley iterations (I still read the Sagas, but that’s it!), books by Ann Rinaldi (or any historical fiction. I read a huge amount of that growing up, but rarely turn to it now), the Usborne Puzzle Adventure series, Encyclopedia Brown…
Books that I read when I was younger and still read now:
anything by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, E. L. Konigsburg, Paul Fleischman, Blake Nelson, Someday Angeline, by Louis Sachar, My Sister Sif, by Ruth Park, Beyond the Labyrinth, by Gillian Rubinstein…(most of these I’ve actually re-read in the past two months)
The Twilight series is incredibly popular right now. What do you think accounts for its success? Do any boys like it?
This question has had so many hours of analysis devoted to it by journalists and teachers that I’m not sure I can add anything. In fact, I think the obsession with figuring out the “why” of it is more interesting than the “why” of it itself. The main consensus among journalists seems to be that girls (and their mothers!) are attracted to a story centering on unconditional, non-threatening love. There is danger in the Twilight series, but there is never any danger that Edward will harm Bella physically, sexually, or emotionally.
However, I don’t think that accounts fully for the astronomical success Stephenie’s series has found. There are plenty of YA/middle grade books with similar forbidden love stories, and even more where the main characters don’t have sex. Ultimately, I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question. I can say that the first book in particular is a gripping read–I remember that I had a birthday party to go to the day I started it, and I almost didn’t go because I couldn’t put the book down. And if you’re invested in the characters by the end of the first book in any series, chances are you’ll continue reading to find out what happens to them. I also think part of it was a snowball effect–I know a lot of people who read them “just to find out what all the fuss was about.” And who then got hooked.
The incredible thing about these books is they really seem to cross all age and gender lines. While the main readership is undoubtedly female, boys read them, too–just last week I passed a man on the street carrying a copy of Eclipse along with his morning coffee. And as I mentioned above, these books seem to resonate strongly with both girls and their mothers, which gives them something to share.
What else has been published for children or young adults in the last few years that you’d recommend?
There are a bunch of books I would recommend–I should note that my recommendations are probably weighted towards books that my agency represents, both because they’re great, and because I often don’t have time to read much else.
Savvy, by Ingrid Law is at the top of my list. This is truly a modern classic. Law has a beautiful, timeless voice that makes Savvy read like an American tall tale as she follows the story of a remarkable family and their outsized talents, or savvies. I would also recommend Destroy All Cars, by Blake Nelson. Blake Nelson has long been one of my favorite authors, because he realistically and hilariously captures teenage voices in a way no other author does. DAC is part manifesto, part bittersweet coming of age story, introducing readers to high-schooler James Hoff as he rails against Consumer Americans, deals with the dissolution of his family, and tries to recapture the girl he loves. A book we don’t represent, but that was excellent, was Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobigraphical The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. A National Book Award-winner, True Diary tells the story of Junior, a 14-year-old Indian who tries to balance life at a nearby white high school with life at home on a Spokane reservation.
What single book do you think schools should always be required to teach?
I don’t think I can answer this question. The efficacity of books as teaching tools relies so much on the population their being taught to, and the personalities and experiences of the teachers themselves.I can’t imagine a one-book-for-all solution.
As the internet becomes more and more pervasive among young people, what–if anything–do you think will keep kids reading books?
Another topic of intense preoccupation among publishers! I don’t know the answer to this. I personally feel that books as objects are sort of wonderful, and provide a tactile experience not offered by a computer. I also think that as a reader you can feel a sense of ownership with a book (and, by extension, with the story contained within the book) that is more difficult to come by on the internet. But ultimately, I think there will always be an important place for great stories, whether in book form or on the internet.
The Best Kids’ Books Ever [New York Times, 7/4/09]
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