independent readers

July 6, 2009 at 3:33 pm (reading, thinking) (, )

Yesterday I was in Borders trying to find Lirael, the sequel to Garth Nix’s faboo Sabriel that I devoured at the end of last semester instead of spending my time more productively translating Plato’s Apology. Sabriel was awesome, pretty much everything I could want in a novel– in brief, a teenaged necromancer with a pale skin and black hair and a glowing, rune-covered sword battles the forces of evil with a bandolier of silver bells that send the dead back to where the dead should be. And a talking cat. YES! Despite falling victim to what I consider to be the most overused of fantasy tropes (which I will not discuss here due to the fact that to talk about it would be a Serious Spoiler for future readers) I found it extremely pleasing to my sensibilities and I am anticipating hearing Nix speak at World Fantasy Con this October.

This post, however, is not about Sabriel, nor is it about my disappointment that Borders didn’t have Lirael. Instead, it is about book marketing and something strange in Borders.

The subject of this post might be something quite old in the world of book marketing but it is news to me because I usually don’t shop at Borders. I usually order everything online, mostly because I purchase research materials that are rare or out of print and Abe Books and Amazon’s independent sellers tend to do better for me. But after hearing from an author friend that it’s better to buy books from places like Borders (or, of course, independent booksellers if you have one) so they’ll be sure to carry author’s next works, I decided to go.

Thinking that Sabriel would be considered Young Adult fiction, I walked in the general direction of the children’s area only to find that instead of finding Young Adult, I found a section called Independent Readers. It contained some famous youth-oriented fantasy books (Harry Potter, etc.) marked with an indicator of age level. Despite the problematic nature of ranking books according to age due to some mythical idea of when books are appropriate for young readers (which is a whole ‘nother post), I figured this was NewSpeak for Young Adult and commenced looking around only to be baffled by an absence of Nix. I found J.K. Rowling, I found Philip  Pullman, I found C. S. Lewis. No Nix. So, thinking perhaps that Sabriel was in with the grown-up fantasy, I trekked across the store. I found Gaiman, I found Maguire, I found Pullman (same books, fancier, more adult-oriented covers), but still Nix was nowhere to be seen.

Frustrated at that point, I addressed one of the employees. The young man in question gave me the “are you daft?” look that disaffected bookstore employees and baristas everywhere give to customers who ask them questions (from my porch I shake my cane at the world, disturbing many a cat), and led me to a different section of the bookstore, the Young Adult  section proper.

There I did find Nix (though not the Nix I desired) and a host of other books, including Gaiman’s Stardust, an entire ocean of the Twilight series in hardcover, and Libba Bray’s corseted Gemma Doyle novels. For the life of me I could not figure out why these merited their own section apart from Rowling and Pullman, since the literary stylings of Stephenie Meyer’s novels are, shall we say, less complicated than, for example, The Amber Spyglass, and her subject matter is, perhaps, less profound (“Did the cute boy come to school today?” versus “What is the nature of the soul? What is death? What makes children different than adults?”). The same for A Great and Terrible Beauty, which is also less emotionally and syntactically complicated than Pullman (but which I genuinely enjoyed after purchasing it solely on the basis of its cover).

Then it struck me: the thing that StardustSabriel, Twilight, and the Gemma Doyle books all have in common is that they all have sex in them. Though the sex scene in Sabriel is mild, it is still present and accounted for much moreso than the mention of sexuality in His Dark Materials (though they perhaps get points for mentioning genital mutilation and being children’s novels) or in any of the Narnia books. Due to grad school I have been severely behind on all fiction reading, and most notably my YA reading (which is sad, because YA fantasy novels are generally my favorite), so few of the other titles were familiar to me, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. And the less it made sense, given that I know that as a kid (or as kids seem to be called these days, “independent readers”) I would have been a heck of a lot more disturbed by the death and violence in the Harry Potter books and the Pullman novels than any of the makeout-sexy-time in the YA novels in Borders. Except for Twilight, but this is neither the time nor the place to discuss that particular grab-bag of oddness.

Anyways, I wonder if my hunch is correct, and that sexuality is the signifier of Young Adult Fiction these days. If I am right, and sex has become that line in the sand, it seems really weird. I don’t know if it’s my own preference for sex over violence (call me crazy) but it seems weird to me, and really arbitrary. I wonder if Borders got a lot of letters from parents complaining that the makeouts in some Young Adult books were just too adult for their tween? I know that as a kid who grew up before the era of the nebulous “Independent Reader” section at Borders, I really appreciated YA fiction that included both sexuality and violence because those are things that are a part of life, and deserve inclusion in literature for thinking people of various ages. I think the stakes are even higher for YA/Independent Readers, since (dealing with sexuality specifically, since most kids won’t ever need to worry about taking up their father or mother’s sword to battle evil) books aimed at that age group will model for kids what sexuality could look like in the future, and thus I think the best books for are ones that deal with that subject intelligently.

2 Comments

  1. John said,

    Bookstores have always baffled me due to my early experiences in the library. The Lantana Public Library (a moment of silence, please) had, if I recall correctly, two sections: the children’s section and the boring section. The former had Hardy Boys books and things about wizards, the latter had Danielle Steele and the history of the pineapple in three volumes. My mother went to one section, I went to another, and we met up an hour later at the punch card lady, who would tell me that I had too many books and make me take some back. It was a good system, and I was never confused.
    There was also The Bookworm, the local used bookstore that I frequented, which followed the three-room system of categorization: Danielle Steele novels and Dave Barry books in one room, science fiction and fantasy in another room, and the owner’s collection of Playgirl magazines in the room adjoining the checkout counter. (There was also a separate building that housed books that kids needed to steal for their high school English classes, but we’ll leave that out of this analysis.) Again, a simple system: I went to find Star Trek novelizations, my mother went to find Danielle Steele, and the owner lurked creepily near pictures of the Chippendales hunks.
    When I first entered a Barnes and Noble (Borders had yet to arrive, or perhaps had not yet been invented), I was lost. There was a section for history, certainly. But was I looking for “World History”, “Middle-Eastern History”, or “Egyptian History”? Or maybe “Ancient History”? And what about poetry? Was the alternative sexuality part of the poetry section for poems by poets with alternative sexualities, or was it for poems about alternative sexualities? Or was it both? And then they added CDs.
    But science fiction and fantasy, especially anything that was not clearly adult-oriented, was always the worst. CS Lewis and Lloyd Alexander in the kids’ section, but Tolkien in fantasy? No disrespect to JRR, but is The Hobbit really that much more nuanced than Taran Wanderer? I’m sure JRR would have been happier with CS anyway, and not stuck next to the Tekwar novels, or David Eddings.
    I’m not sure why big bookstores are like this, except that kids seem to go for fantasy and sci fi more than other genres, and parents freak their shit when they find out their kids are reading about sex in books that use words like “heaving bronze bosoms” instead of “genitalia” or “privates”. So suddenly there’s a section for books that kind of mention that sex might be happening, and a section for books that don’t even pretend that sex exists, and a section for books that put it all out there. In the older, simpler systems, I generally wound up reading a few books with raunchy parts in them whenever I went to the library or The Bookworm, but- other than having just written the phrase “heaving bronze bosoms”- I turned out fine. (Also I still can’t find my way around a Barnes and Noble.)

  2. molly said,

    Man oh man, The Bookworm! I bought my copy of The Perfumed Garden at The Bookworm years and years ago, and that lady definitely was still working there. And yeah, she was creepy, like a living Harlequin romance novel.

    My library had three sections: the children’s and YA section, which had said books about wizards (or in my world, dragons and maybe mermaids), the boring section, and the kiosks that had books for grownups that were still about wizards, dragons, or space. The kiosks were full of books not deemed worthy to purchase in hardcover, mass market paperbacks beaten to hell with terrible covers on them.

    Those were the ones about heaving bronze bosoms.

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