Not long ago Andrew Smith wrote this awesome Tumblr piece about the problematic ways that adults insist on categorizing, or “boxing” young adult literature. Andrew Smith (in case you just landed here from Mars) is a highly acclaimed YA author whose new book, Grasshopper Jungle, just came out. The Tumblr piece is here, and I would make it required reading for the entire internet if I had such power.
I can’t stop thinking about this piece.
That’s mostly because I AGREE WITH EVERY ONE OF ANDREW SMITH’S SENTIMENTS. I feel like I have to mention that up front, because I’m about to say some things that might, at times, make it seem like I do not agree with Smith. But this is one of those unfortunate moments in life when things are simply not that black and white and this is not a case of he’s-right-I’m-wrong. Rather, this is a case of HE IS DEFINITELY RIGHT AND I AM TRYING TO RECONCILE SOME OF THE WORLDLY PROBLEMS ATTACHED TO THE FACT THAT HE IS RIGHT.
In other words, this post isn’t going to fit nicely into a box.
This post is also, apparently, going to be filled with capital letters, as I seem to be in that mood right now. (I’m in that mood a lot. Let’s just be honest.)
So. Andrew Smith wrote this amazing Tumblr piece about how society likes to put literature, particularly YA literature, into boxes. It’s a great read. Especially this quote:
“In the past ten years or so of my writing career, I have been frustrated by all the boxes people hold up to categorize the canon of Young Adult literature. Here are the worst ones, the boxes I’d like to set fire to:
· Boy books/ Girl books
· Age level (This book is for grades 10 and up! Squee!)
· Male author/ Female author
· LGBTQ books/ Straight (“normal” kid) books”
I read this and immediately thought THAT’S EXACTLY RIGHT. Then I started making a mental list of the many ways my first book, Here’s to You, Zeb Pike has been “boxed” since it came out. I mean, there’s the fact that about 90% of the blogs that have reviewed it exclusively review books with LGBTQ characters. Or the fact that the only Goodreads group that seems to have noticed it exists is a YA LGBTQ group. Or the fact that whenever people ask me what the book is about, they won’t stop looking at me until I put the poor thing into as many boxes as possible. If, for instance, I say, “it’s a contemporary story,” they keep their eyes locked on mine until I add things like “aboutaboy” or “aboutaboystrugglingwithhissexuality” or “aboutaboywho’sneglectedbyhisparents” or “aboutaboywho’safreshmaninhighschool.”
I think the reason I reacted with such YES THAT’S EXACTLY RIGHT when I read this post is that I have been incredibly frustrated by the sheer amount of boxing that has happened with Zeb, especially around the main character’s sexuality. This book is, for me, about so much more than just a character who’s gay, or has neglectful parents, or is in high school. It’s about everything from self-confidence to the importance of family to how much the weather in Vermont sucks in October.
I haven’t liked the fact that the only thing some people see when they look at this books is “GAY TEEN.”
So there I was, reading Andrew Smith’s piece, and reflecting on the fact that I don’t really like how boxed this book has been, and how glad I am that someone much more clever than myself put this into words far better than I’ve been able to…and this line of thinking, of course, led me to imagine a world where books were never boxed or categorized
Which, of course, is where things get complicated.
One potential problem in this world: ensuring kids have access to diverse literature. I’m a middle school curriculum director. Last year, I compiled a book list for a 6th grade curriculum with some utterly brilliant teachers. And it was a killer list of books. Until some very awesome person went, “um, are you going to teach any books with lead female characters?”
I’m glad someone took a moment to put our list of books into a few boxes and notice such a huge diversity gap in that list. I want to make sure my students are constantly being introduced to a wide variety of human perspectives on life, and that may not happen if I don’t take a minute to consider which perspectives they have and haven’t seen.
Another potential problem: sometimes we have to acknowledge the boxes books have already been put in if we want to get those books out of their boxes.
This one’s a little harder to explain, but I’ll try. (C’mon, brain.) I write a lot about the importance of getting LGBTQ books into schools and school libraries. This is definitely boxing on my part, but it’s very intentional. There are so many schools that, either purposely or subconsciously, keep books off of shelves and out of curriculum because they've placed these books in “the LGBTQ box.” If we don’t acknowledge that those boxes exist and that this censorship exists, it stands to reason that this “quiet boxing” will continue and these books will remain out of classrooms and school libraries…despite the fact that a) this is doing a horrible disservice to children and b) all of these censored books are about much more than just an LGBTQ character.
And it’s not just schools that are boxing books—it’s the publishing industry as well. Here’s to You, Zeb Pike is published by Harmony Ink Press, which deals exclusively with LGBTQ YA literature. HIP was founded in response to the low number of books with LGBTQ characters that are currently succeeding in the publishing marketplace. Do I think it’s ideal that a company like Harmony has to exist? No offense to my awesome publisher, but no. In an ideal world, perspectives from all types of people would be evenly spread in bookstores. Am I incredibly grateful that Harmony exists? Yes. (And not just because they put up with my email tardiness.) I’m grateful that they exist to fill a void in a marketplace that has boxed a bunch of books and put them in a proverbial garage.
At the end of the day, though, Andrew Smith is absolutely right: by constantly putting books in boxes, we are sending the message that to kids that people belong in boxes. I’ve definitely been heard uttering things to my students like, “I think the guys in this class will like this book a lot.” I was once in a classroom where the books were shelved with such labels as “Books for Athletes.” This doesn’t make me or my colleague bad teachers. We were just doing our best to get kids interested in putting away their PSPs for a few minutes. But it does make us guilty of sending the wrong subliminal messages to some pretty impressionable minds. And as Smith reminds us, once you put something in a box, “the box can’t be destroyed.”
We obviously need to stop sending the message to kids that books, and therefore people, need to go in a box and never come out and once you are there this is the only box you can ever be in. Which means we all need to be much more aware of how we over-box books, or box them unnecessarily, or make a book out to be nothing more than a box it’s in. And if we MUST put a book in a box, we need to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons.
Hopefully we will someday become a society where the only boxes young adults ever put a book in is the “I LOVED IT” box. I think I’ll like that world a lot.
And in the meantime, you should go read Grasshopper Jungle, so I have people to discuss it with when I finish.