by Rebecca Valley
I wanted to write a short editor’s note before the launch of our first Droplet review, a series which seeks to highlight quality young adult and children’s literature from under-represented authors. Specifically, I wanted to talk about why I am choosing to write critically about YA, and the role YA plays in the literary world.
I’m a middle school librarian by day, and when asked what my favorite book is my go-to answer will always be The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster. (In fact, I was asked this exact question at work today, and gave this exact response.) There are a lot of reasons this book always rises to the top for me, but for a long time I assumed it had to do with comfort – The Phantom Tollbooth is the book I read when I want to feel safe, when I need to laugh, when life is grey and I need a gentle reminder that the world has more to it than the tedium of the every day. Lately though, I’ve been realizing that there’s more to good young adult novels than just the comfort of the familiar. At its heart, I think quality young adult fiction is able to crack open the most confusing and difficult parts of the human experience, and simplify them down to their component parts for easy digestion. It does, in essence, what literary fiction also attempts to do: document, analyze, and criticize the human condition, but for a younger audience.
A recent article in the LA Review of Books introduced me to Ursula Nordstrom, the publisher of Margaret Wise Brown, Crockett Johnson, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, and dozens of other influential and treasured children’s authors. The books Nordstrom published were meant to be representative rather than instructive; she published books for children that mirrored what they experienced, rather than demanded they follow the rules.
This is where the heart of the argument lies, I think: in rule-breaking. Nordstrom was a kind of rule-breaker in her time – she was a queer woman in the 50s, a decade that valued moral uprightness and nuclear (straight) families – and many of the writers she published were queer too. This isn’t to say that Nordstrom’s sexual orientation defined her taste in literature – but, I do think that coming at the world with a perspective that doesn’t fit within the social norm often allows you to make room for other kinds of alternative perspectives. Nordstrom’s rule-breaking opened a rather contrived genre into new, and broader, points of view. It completely changed the face of children’s literature.
In her interview with the New York Times, the new director of the National Book Foundation Lisa Lucas said that her goal for the foundation was to focus on inclusivity – of race, of region, of class, of sexual orientation. She wants to do this, she said, because focusing on only one aspect of inclusivity fails “to connect people, which is what literature does.”
Lisa Lucas seems to be continuing a legacy that Ursula Nordstrom left behind – one which focuses on offering alternative perspectives, focusing on any and all aspects of the human condition, refusing to shy away from the uncomfortable or the complicated. This is important, because historically stories were created to teach us. They were told to help us learn about the experiences of others. Young adult literature is a pivotal aspect of children’s education – alongside multiplication and the periodic table are these stories, which pick apart aspects the more social aspects of our world that children often haven’t experienced yet.
I expect a lot from young adult literature, because historically it has offered a lot. So many children’s novels do more philosophical and psychological work than works of contemporary literary fiction, and in a way that’s more accessible and easy to comprehend. Lisa Lucas said in so many words that literature connects people. This is the principle that Drizzle is founded on, too. I am choosing to highlight books of young adult fiction by diverse authors because I think the world is a better place when children have access to diverse perspectives. I believe this kind of story-telling must be part of a child’s education, because it teaches empathy and understanding.
I hope this review series can help advocate for work that introduces children to new ways of seeing the world. This is important work. This is work that can change the way future generations come together, the way they communicate with one another. It is work that will influence future generations of writers and readers. Change is a long game, and it won’t continue unless we come together to teach future generations how to be better than we are. And what better way to teach than to tell a good story?