YA Corner: Enduring to the End, book-style

I’ve been reading the Bronte sisters lately, rereading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and tackling Villette, perhaps followed by the The Tenanant of Wildfell Hall.  That means not a lot of time for other reading, but luckily I generally find the classics worthwhile, and I sincerely enjoy these particular classics.  It’s got me thinking about staying power, school, and the future of our current YA favorites.I’ve been thinking about which contemporary YA novels will still be read and appreciated 200 years from now.  It’s fascinating to be reading something that’s lasted so long.  I’m reading books that were written by people who couldn’t have imagined the world we live in, and yet their work is still enjoyed and studied.  I’ve also been wondering which titles will simply fade into the obscurity of thousands and thousands of reams of printed matter, not to mention the avalanche of instant text available in our internet-soaked world.  What’s going to last, and is what lasts really what’s best?

I think the studied aspect has a big something to do with what makes the long-term cut.  I don’t know when universities (and high schools) started studying the Brontes in earnest, but I know they are frequently studied, and that certainly has added to their endurance.   Shannon Hale has a great piece on her site about balancing the teaching of classics with more contemporary novels, and I agree with much of what she has to say.  We should invite the best of current YA lit into classrooms alongside Gatsby, Huck Finn, and Austen’s heroines.  But which titles?  That’s a big decision, one made by teachers, but also by vocal parents and school boards that are often the gatekeepers for what is deemed worthy for classroom study.

Beyond that, what we bring into the classroom is frequently not the same as what sparks the imaginations of young readers.  What captures the imaginations of young readers is often lost to the ages, partially because it doesn’t make it to the classroom.  (I might be really wrong about that.  Jane Eyre was a best-seller when it was published.  If you know the truth about this one way or another, let me know.  Go ahead, I can take it if I’m full of deluded notions.  I’m getting used to it.)

I am honestly curious about this.  I wish I had a little crystal ball and could foresee the literary future of today’s YA authors, LDS or otherwise.  Which is why I pose this question to you: What current YA novels do you believe will stand the test of time?  Among the talented LDS (or not, if you wish) authors publishing now, who are the Poes, the Brontes, the Dickens, the Harper Lees and the Hemingways?  And perhaps even more interesting, which titles and authors deserve to be read 200 years from now, but will likely slip into obscurity?

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8 Responses to YA Corner: Enduring to the End, book-style

  1. Wm Morris says:

    I think it’s impossible to forecast for three reasons:

    1. The education landscape is likely to change dramatically over the next 50 years
    2. Technology atomizes culture and allows subcultures to develop and endure in a way that they couldn’t pre-electronic era that means that a) cultural products don’t die if they aren’t big-C Canonized and b) multiples canons are developed around the subcultures.

    But if I had to guess, I’d say that Shannon Hale has the a very good chance to be fairly widely read 50-100 years from now.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Of course its impossible to predict what will happen in 200 years, but its also fun. I doubt that the serialized novels will be taught in classrooms, picked up much, or even written 200 years from now. Yep, I’m talking HP, Twilight, Fablehaven, etc, even if they are free electronic (or whatever) reads. No matter the quality, its too much time to invest on a single school project. Now the films may studied in the classroom, but that’s not the question. I’d expect to see film as a significant part of an English curriculum in the future.

    My daughter, who is beginning her sophomore year in college, picked up Jane Eyre this summer and loved it. She turned up her nose when I suggested it and other historic works like it in the past. But along comes the film… So again, I suspect film will have an impact. Jane Eyre sure wasn’t taught in my high school in the late 1970′s or in her recent HS experience.

    Books. Yes, it seems they’ll need a social and historic context, but which will survive will depend as much on what happens this year as in 100 or 150 years. There must be some underlying angst that propels them along, year by year. So yes, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is likely to last another 150 years bc prejudice will last. Huck Finn, on the other hand, is already being stomped out in classrooms bc of political correctness and how PC adults are driven to distraction by the “n” word. Will it resurge for youth? Probably not if the teachers can’t bear to have that word read aloud.

  3. Macha says:

    I definitely think that Harry Potter will last, while Twilight will simply die (or maybe that’s just a hope).

    Lois Lowry’s novels are definitely classics, especially her trilogy of The Giver/Gathering Blue/Messenger. I can see those lasting through the next century.

  4. Most of what is taught in high school English classes wasn’t published as young adult fiction–Jane Eyre, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, the list goes on. And I don’t think that teaching it to young adults qualifies it as YA fiction, in the sense that YA fiction exists now (as fiction written about young adulthood primarily for readers in that age group). I say this not to be contradictory, but to point out that a genre still in its infancy may not have evolved to the point where we can pick out a title and say “this is going to last for generations.” I’d like to think that the reason I like the YA books I do is because they are great and enduring literature, but as William says, who knows what the educators and kids of the future will be like?

    If I assign a fairly arbitrary date of 1950 as the time when young adult fiction as we’d recognize it today began, the books that seem to have staying power all deal explicitly with ordinary problems of growing up–facing loss, change, heartbreak–within a well-realized setting that is easy to picture no matter how alien to the modern reader it might be. Or, maybe, it’s the more alien settings that work best–Jean George’s Julie of the Wolves, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay. If those elements turn out to be universal, then there are a number of LDS authors writing YA fiction today whose books might last a century or more. Though I’d put my money on future generations rediscovering them, the way so many readers rediscovered Jane Austen fifteen years ago.

  5. Melissa makes a good point. If I understand what I’ve read correctly, JANE EYRE was considered quite shocking in its day–because no respectable young woman would behave with such “passion” (aka emotion). It’s tame now, and it’s hard to understand what the fuss was about. But it endures also because the writing is so powerful.

    Perhaps the future endurers will be books that expanded our way of thinking about people and their roles and relationships to each other–things that might be challenging for us to wrap our minds around now, but may seem tame eventually, because they will have done the job of helping us look with new eyes.

    And that may apply to adult fiction as well as YA fiction.

  6. Marilee Clark says:

    William, you’re right. It is impossible to forecast. But I also think it’s worth discussing, partially because I think it begins to illuminate what’s going on now and how the art of language and storytelling is currently changing. Two pretty significant changes have happened in concert–the onslaught of technology and an explosion of literature written for and marketed toward young adults. And they are both so new that they are just at the genesis of their use in traditional institutions like schools.

    Outside of schools, I’m not sure we have much of a shared culture anymore–we live in electronic subcultures, we find our “tribe” and it becomes easy for us to read what our tribe reads, share their opinions, and not worry much about what happens outside. Much easier to do that now than it was 50 years ago when no one even imagined blogs, or tweets or the Kindle. A very intelligent woman posited in an email exchange recently that there is no general audience anymore, so there aren’t any writers that will appeal to and be widely read by a general audience. We’re increasingly “specialized” audiences, and in response writers specialize. They write for their tribe.

    So how does that change the history of literary arts? Where are we headed, and what does that mean for LDS writers? Will a great deal more texts survive for generations, but only be read and remembered by a small subculture of readers? Will less survive because in the avalanche of published material (especially electronic) we are increasingly invested in what’s next and less interested in what’s lasting? And, if all of writing is leaning toward niche markets, can an LDS writer transcend the niche market and have a more widespread influence?

    Oh my, off on a tangent again. I write (and think) like I hike. I find it difficult to follow the trail…

    There’s so much more to say–I think what Kathleen has written has relevance to the common discussion about questionable content in YA lit. I’m going to have to think that through a bit before I comment though.

    And yes, Melissa, most of what’s been taught is not YA fiction (something I found quite aggravating when I was a high school English teacher. Ever try teaching Julius Caesar to 15 year olds?). But that’s changing too. Teachers are bringing YA texts to the table, bless ‘em. So maybe schools will continue to have a hand in creating YA texts that endure.

  7. C. M. Malm says:

    Out of curiosity, I did an informal survey of what relatively modern novels (arbitrarily, written since 1965) are currently being taught in YA lit classes. Here’s the top six (only three of which I’d ever heard of):
    Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders
    Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak
    Meyers, Walter Dean. Monster
    Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War
    Yang, Gene. American Born Chinese
    Lowry, Lois. The Giver

    I also noticed a couple that didn’t make the above list, but that I’ve nevertheless consistently seen being taught over the last few decades: Paul Zindel’s The Pigman and Gary Paulson’s Hatchet.

    Another thing I noticed as I perused YA syllabi was a strong trend toward “teaching” (or is that “indoctrination”?) novels–”contemporary issue”books, historical incident books, multicultural books–with a wide variety of little-known authors. I have a suspicion that few of these will make it into future bookcases, since kids tend to know when they’re being preached at, and react accordingly.

    I did find a number of authors who seem to have a wide and consistent popularity–a variety of their novels (not always the same ones) appear on the syllabi AND I’ve actually heard of them: Judy Blume, Cynthia Voigt, Jerry Spinelli, Sharon Creech, and Katherine Paterson.

    The only Mormon author who came up at all was Orson Scott Card.

  8. I remember being taught JULIUS CAESAR as a 15-year-old, and I think I “got” it. I also remember being frustrated as a 16-year-old because that year the emphasis was on “American literature” so we didn’t get any Shakespeare at all.

    But I’m weird that way, always have been.

    However, it occurs to me that just as ROMEO AND JULIET can be approached as a story about gangs (as in the Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes movie), couldn’t JULIUS CAESAR be approached as a story about a power struggle within a gang? And if not gangs, then certainly cliques?

    Whatever.

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