Hyperthermophilic autotrophic iron reducers, anyone?

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Never let it be said we are not wide and adventurous readers. One day Alice Through the Looking Glass, the next day Proust. We do have our individual preferences though, one of us being drawn towards mournful Scandinavian literature about loneliness and struggle, the other towards literary fiction in all its surprising forms. That is not to say we don’t also love funny books, silly books, books written in the voices of animals, books written in the voice of babies or dying men. If it’s well written we’ll read it and take what is on offer. After all we are writers of rather odd books and happy that readers are willing to take a chance on them.

We were therefore quite interested when a friend drew our attention to Ruth Graham’s article in Slate magazine last year entitled Against YA : Adults should be embarrassed to read children’s books.
slate.com/articles/arts/books/2014/06/against_ya_adults_should_be_embarrassed_to_read_children_s_books.html
I’ve seen her article described as ‘click bait,’ i.e, designed to be provocative and attention-grabbing, but not particularly well thought out.
Young Adult books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way, she says, and Young Adult endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes from weeping or cheering ; it’s clear she sees YA fiction as a genre rather than what it is, a readership of literature comprising many genres.

Graham does not strike me as a particularly wide reader. She supports her case about the predictable nature of YA by her reading of The Fault in our Stars by John Green, which has also been made into a film. If one were of a suspicious nature one could think it might suit a journalist to watch a film rather than waste time reading a book. But who am I to say that? This book is about a relationship between two young people with cancer. One of them dies at the end of the book. This did not make her cry. This causes her to dismiss the book as lightweight. She then goes on to talk about what she requires from an adult work of literature: weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters and big ideas about time space and love. She cites Submergence as a novel she has read recently that provides these things to her. Perhaps this is the kind of thing she likes, which is a quote from Submergence:
She had to come up with methods of counting the methanogens, the hyperthermophilic autotrophic iron reducers, and the peculiar states and leagues of archaea and bacteria. She had also tried to identify the boundary which separated the living part from where there was no life and to understand the percolation between existence and nonexistence…
Hmmm, really?

Just off the top of my head I can think of four books that I would rather read, and have read, all of which can be described as Young Adult, and which prove insights into unfamiliar worlds, poetic writing, inspiring adventures in science, and a philosophy that is both subversive and gripping.
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pullman’s answer to Milton in which he argues against Original Sin and the Catholic Church, which he characterizes as The Magisterium. A young boy and girl travel through a vast series of parallel universes in the company of witches and armed polar bears, accompanied by their daemons, animal companions that act as a kind of external soul. Fascinating, powerful and beautifully written. A film was made of the first book but it is rumoured the Catholic Church put a stop to films of the next two books.
Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter published in 1909. I only found about ten years ago this story of a young woman, Elnora Comstock, struggling for an education and fighting a battle to save the Limberlost swamp in Indiana. She comes from an impoverished family, her mother is hostile to her aspirations but Elnora is clever and resourceful. She studies the moths in the swamp and funds her studies by selling to collectors. She wants to play the violin but every talent she wants to fulfil represents a battle with her mother. Gene Stratton Porter also fought to save the Limberlost Swamp from development. It is extinct now, but Porter was one of the first worldlife photographers in America, let alone the first female wildlife photographer. She also became a film director and producer.
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge. Hardinge is the prize-winning author of about eight books. In Cuckoo Song the protagonist is about eleven years old and the story is set in a strange version of England between the two wars and in a time of Daimler cars, steam trains and governesses. It is also unsettlingly creepy. Triss, the heroine, knows she has had a mishap in a pond with two dark-suited men watching her, but why do her parents and little sister seem so strange, and why does she possess a raging hunger that can only be satisfied by eating the heads of her malign china dolls, and why is the only person she can trust Violet on her motor bike? Triss finds she is a kind of changeling, in the wrong body, in the wrong time, with the wrong people. This gripping story arrives at a conclusion that is a balance between freedom and loss.
Messages for Sun by Julie Gittus is a re-issue of her popular and prize-winning Saltwater Moons. This charming novel is highly relevant to the teen emerging into adulthood, but also enlightening to the parent of such a person. Sun has always been such a delightful, easy girl. She enjoys school, loves to write, and is about to succeed in her final exams. Why then does she start lying to her parents, betraying her best friend, becoming involved with one boy while drawn to another? In this book set in a sunny surfy world the traumas of adolescence pull us in. As Sun puts it at the end of one of her poems,
A cloud shadow glides over the house
The room darkens

In answer to Ruth Graham I say this: YA fiction is not stereotyped bland fiction with happy endings. It is not a genre, but a vast library of books in many genres, written for a particular readership. Within that library one can find safe predictable fiction as one can find in mainstream adult fiction, but can also find amazingly inventive, thought provoking and challenging writing from all parts of the world. We should read when and as it pleases us.

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8 thoughts on “Hyperthermophilic autotrophic iron reducers, anyone?

    1. Philip Pullman — read “His Dark Materials” aloud to our younger daughter when she was 10 or 11 years old (we read aloud until her later years of high school, every night). I liked it a lot, especially the daemons, the steampunk qualities, and the language. Then we did the second book, and after that I decided not to read the third one — his willingness to sacrifice the dimensions of his characters to his ideas about the Church annoyed me. The Girl of the Limberlost was my favorite when I was 10 — I collected butterflies also, and identified with her in so many ways. When I went back to read the stories to my daughters 40 years later I found that she was very prejudiced against Asians, virulently, and ended up not reading the books aloud. I hadn’t been aware of those dimensions of the books when I was younger. I think that Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula Le Guin, most of the science fiction authors from the 1950s and 1960s (I haven’t read much since), Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, and many others have readable, complex stories, often with excellent senses of humor.

      Thanks for your comments —

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  1. I think the magic of children’s literature and I mean literature can never be a closed cupboard. In fact the sense of widening the imagination is so important for all of us. The places we can go is often limited to reading about them and being immersed if their world. I recently read a children’s book called Wonder recommended to me by an 11 year old. Limiting oneself to categories can often dumb us down.

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    1. I like your emphasis on the fact that children’s books (and I include YA in that) can be literature and that the best writers expand our imaginations and knowledge of the world. In fact just like The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge’s latest book, which includes debates about The Origin of the Species, murder, Victorian social mores, phrenology, and treatment of left handed children among many other things.

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