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W&L's Suzanne Keen on What Constitutes “Teen Lit”

The success of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel that was just released as a movie to considerable buzz, has raised an interesting question about just what constitutes young adult (“YA”) or “teen lit.”

Washington and Lee English professor Suzanne Keen waded into this issue earlier this week in a post on the blog “Hogwarts Professor: Thoughts for Serious Readers.” Last month, as the literary world observed the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, Suzanne credited the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling with renewing students’ interest in Dickens’ work.

In this case, the questions posed to Suzanne were these: Is Oliver Twist a YA publication?  Is Jane Eyre “teen lit”?

Her response? No and yes.

From the historical perspective, her answer was no, and she wrote:

The earliest form of “teen lit” or “YA” in the English novel tradition is boys’ adventure fiction, often thought to have been initiated by Robert Louis Stevenson with Treasure Island (1883). (Though there are a few earlier precursors.) In the 1880s and 1890s, adventure fiction took off as a separate mode of fiction aimed at a younger audience.  It always had adult readers–this is not a new phenomenon!

Jane Eyre (1847) and Oliver Twist (1837) predate that development. They were aimed at an adult readership that included children.  Dickens especially wrote with his read-aloud audience in mind.  Children and illiterates heard his stories read aloud by literate friends or parents.

But, she adds, “In subsequent marketing/pedagogy: yes. Both the books become ‘teen books’ when they are frequently taught to teens.  This happens even today.  Both Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time have migrated into the YA canon (taught in middle schools and high schools) after initial publications aimed at serious adult literary readerships.”

All of which leaves another question open: Have books such as The Hunger Games blurred the lines between “young adult” and “adult”? Does it matter?