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From the September/October 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

An Interview with  Patty Campbell

by Roger Sutton

inner of the 1989 Grolier Award for her service to young adult librarianship and a columnist for The Horn Book Magazine from 1993 to 2007, Patty Campbell has looked back at almost thirty years of columns and speeches and selected the best for her anthology Campbell’s Scoop: Reflections on Young Adult Literature, published by Scarecrow Press. Patty and I go way back, and I thought this new collection offered an opportunity for us to talk about how YA literature has changed from new kid on the block in the 1970s to queen of the publishing schoolyard in 2010.

ROGER SUTTON: ALA’s youth services divisions seem to be in one of their periodic paroxysms about defining the difference between a child and a young adult. What definition of YA works for you?

PATTY CAMPBELL: That’s the basic question, isn’t it? Before you can evaluate, promote, and defend something, you have to know where it begins and ends. My working parameters of the YA fiction readership have always been ages twelve to eighteen, with a decided preference for the upper part of that range. But I hasten to add that nobody is too old to read young adult literature, a delightful fact that we are just now beginning to admit. However, quite a few people are too young to read it, regardless of reading ability, as many librarians and teachers have found to their sorrow. Furthermore, there are many age- and maturity variations within the genre. The definition of the YA novel comes out of its own nature and is not determined by the designation of the publisher.

“So what is that definition?” I can hear you ask. In Campbell’s Scoop (and in my Horn Book column of July/August 2000), I was at some pains to pin it down. I wrote, “The central theme of most YA fiction is becoming an adult, finding the answer to the internal and eternal question, ‘Who am I and what am I going to do about it?’ No matter what events are going on in the book, accomplishing that task is really what the book is about, and in the climactic moment the resolution of the external conflict is linked to a realization for the protagonist that moves toward shaping an adult identity.”

RS: How would you distinguish between a coming-of-age novel about adolescence and one that is for adolescents? Or would you?

PC: Certainly I’d make that distinction, and it’s fairly simple. A coming-of-age novel about adolescence is told from the point of view of an adult remembering, and the action in a YA is in the turbulent psyche of the adolescent, with all the limitations of understanding and experience that implies.

But this is not terribly helpful in making general boundaries beyond individual evaluations. The border between YA and what The Horn Book calls “middle school” is particularly muddled. I must confess to some irritation at ALSC in the past for their tendency to trespass on what we YA folks feel is our turf instead of exploring the riches of their own under-twelve territory. For instance, the Newbery Medal winner and honor books are often YA titles (The Giver, Hope Was Here, Missing May, A Year Down Yonder, After Tupac and D Foster, and others). If you think that means I’m campaigning for lowering the Newbery age qualification to twelve, from the current upper limit of fourteen, you’re right.

RS: It’s a long time — and way — between Go Ask Alice and An Abundance of Katherines. How and why do you think YA fiction became so sophisticated?

PC: I’m not sure, Roger, what you mean by “sophisticated.” If you mean “sexually explicit,” then today’s crop is no more so than some of the books of the seventies (with an occasional exception).

RS: What I mean is the increased proportion of YA that is “literary” and that is for sixteen-year-olds and up — Margo Lanagan, for example, or The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.

PC: I don’t agree that we’ve had an “increased proportion” of YA books with originality of form, literary style, and grace. There have been a few such books every year of the genre’s life, perhaps fewer numbers in the past, because there are now more books overall, but proportionally no more now than then. Of course Octavian Nothing is a brilliant work, but so was The Chosen, published in 1967, The Chocolate War in 1974, Calling Home in 1991, Make Lemonade in 1993, and many others. The sophisticated book is the exception. But if you’re talking about the sophistication of the general run of YA lit this very year, I have only three words to say: vampires, werewolves, and zombies.

RS: Back in 1987 you asked, “Are teachers and librarians…ready to take the graphic novel seriously?” It appears they are. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the graphic novel and traditional YA literature?

PC: It sure took them a long time to take it seriously — about twenty years. But now we have a new generation of librarians and teachers who are visually literate, and who have only dim memories of the scary reputation of the “underground comics” of the sixties. Definitely the graphic novel has become a genre respected as literature, and a significant addition to young adult fiction. However, I have to admit that I find them, with very few exceptions, wearisome and difficult to read. I, like most of my age-mates, am strongly oriented toward print, and stopping every other sentence to figure out a picture frustrates me. Also it seems to me that what the graphic novel does best are subjects that are grotesque and terrifying, both in fantasy and reality — and this is meant as praise, not criticism. Witness some of the greatest, like P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, or Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen, or Gareth Hinds’s rendering of Beowulf, or the classic Maus by Art Spiegelman. I say this despite the counter-example of the Printz-winning American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, which would, it seems to me, have been more subtle and complex as a print novel.

RS: Some years ago, you predicted the boom in YA literature, based upon population predictions. Now that that population is shrinking again, what do you think will happen?

PC: If I were feeling lazy today, I could just give you the simple answer that when the teen population shrinks, so will YA literature, as it has in the past. But there are several new factors in the equation that might influence that outcome, both negatively and positively. First is the looming uncertainty about the future of the print book. Some critics are predicting its demise, and others assure us that the book as an artifact, at least in fiction, is too beloved to disappear. Less apocalyptic is the recognition of a growing adult audience for YA lit and the recent trend for adult authors of popular potboilers to become young adult authors of popular potboilers
(I name no names). And perhaps most important are the statistics from bookstores showing that YA fiction is now outselling adult fiction by a large margin.

RS: I wonder if this will age YA books up even more, as publishers seek to capture an adult as well as a teen audience. Right now YA publishing is almost exclusively done within juvenile departments — do you think it’s time it moved out?

PC: A tempting thought. But juvenile editors have demonstrated their understanding of the special qualities of YA fiction and have done well by it; I fear that adult editors, in their zeal for an adult audience and lack of understanding of the essence of the form, would bring about its death. In a way, this “moving out” is being accomplished by the many specialized YA imprints within large publishing houses — HarperTeen, Firebird, Razorbill, PUSH, Simon Pulse.

RS: I sometimes feel like there are too many YA books, often just hardcover iterations of the romance paperbacks that were published in the eighties.
Do you?

PC: Well, I don’t think I’d agree that today’s glut of hardcover YA novels mostly consist of throwbacks to the romance paperbacks of the eighties, but I certainly am with you in feeling that there are too many YA novels published. When I am sorting new books, I often find myself saying, “Oh, another one of those” — books that cover the same old ground of familiar YA tropes. There is the basic New Kid at School, as well as the family that moves into a creepy old house that just happens to have a teenage ghost, and the kid who is unwillingly transported by relatives from/to the city or the country, and the school cafeteria as hell, and the girl who steals her best friend’s boyfriend, and the recently dead sister/friend or a kid who’s planning to be recently dead, and the boy who’s trying to impress a rejecting father, and the stressed-out child of the neglectful alcoholic single mother, and the doomed future society that is saved by a gang of teens (in three fat volumes), and, of course, the bully. In this rising tide of mediocrity, the truly original book is sometimes swept away in the sheer volume of reading required to find the best YA fiction.

RS: What do you think of YALSA’s decision to do away with the Best Books for Young Adults list in favor of a multiplicity of genre-specific lists?

PC: Although I confess to a sentimental regret at the passing of the BBYA list, I think this is a realistic move that was long overdue, and it may not even go far enough. The amount of reading required to do a competent job of judging a year’s output of all YA titles is, and has been for years, quite impossible. Even if a committee member managed, in insane devotion to the cause, to read a novel every single day, that only qualified that member to judge about half of YA fiction for the year. Add to the assignment nonfiction and adult novels with YA appeal, and you had madness. We need to find even more ways to divide up the committee charges for all of these new genre lists, especially fiction.

RS: What book most confounded your understanding of what a YA novel could/should be? For me it was Weetzie Bat.

PC: Yep, Weetzie Bat was that book for me, too — a book that was profoundly fresh and different, and yet utterly true to the form. After I turned the last page, I did a dance of joy. Later I was able to pay tribute to this extraordinary work in the New York Times Book Review, in the opening lines of a review of Block’s third Weetzie Bat novel, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. Trying to convey the shimmering quality of Block’s prose, I wrote, “Three years ago Weetzie Bat burst on the young adult book scene like a rainbow bubble showering clouds of roses, feathers, tiny shells and a rubber chicken. Hardened critics, who thought they had seen all the possible variants of the coming-of-age novel, were astonished by the freshness of Francesca Lia Block’s voice.”

RS: If you could instantly banish one trend in YA publishing, what would it be?

PC: Oh, what a delicious idea! I’d wipe out chick lit, without a moment’s hesitation, as a trend that reinforces every trait I despise — materialism, shallowness, envy, self-absorption. But only if I could do it secretly. I wouldn’t want to be a target for the fury of millions of teenage girls.

Roger Sutton is editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc.

From the September/October 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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