Michael Cart on libraries, and “What is YA?”

I first spoke to Michael Cart, former president of YALSA and a columnist for Booklist, when I interviewed him for my New York Times essay a year ago, and I was instantly enamoured by his knowledge of and passion for YA literature. Recently he interviewed me for a podcast that’s up now on the YALSA blog, and it was wonderful to talk to him again.

Michael is a beautiful writer—here is a quote from his book Passions and Pleasures: Essays and Speeches About Literature and Libraries. It’s the best quote I’ve ever read about the beauty and power of libraries:

“I’ve loved libraries ever since I was a kid who felt he was the only one of his kind in the world. Because the library provided the only place where I felt I belonged. It provided my own personal community. It was then, as now, a place of light—and enlightenment—in the darkness. A place of warmth in the cold, of shelter in the storm; a place of sometimes necessary refuge and sanctuary; a place of civilization, of a center that can hold when elsewhere things are falling apart; a place of unfettered, uncensored access to information and ideas in all their myriad varieties of form and format; a place of equalizing opportunity; a place of commonality and community where we can all congregate, commune, discover, and celebrate our common humanity. Thank God for it.”

One of my favorite parts of this podcast is when Michael starts talking about how we define YA literature. He says: “It’s a fascinating time in the evolution of young adult literature, and frankly, I’m supposed to be an expert in YA, and I’m not so sure anymore that I even know what that term ‘young adult literature’ or ‘young adult novel’ means. It’s a question that one is asked all the time by people who are interested in YA, by writers and librarians and educators and teens themselves…and I’m struggling with my own re-definition of YA. But it’s wonderful. I think it’s glorious. It’s opened up the field dramatically. And I think it has really been the making of young adult literature. And it has also made possible the advent of the literary novel for young adults. In the past that would’ve been a sticking point, because your book for example is very reflective…it’s told in the first-person voice of your protagonist Mia, but it’s all about how she deals with the various stages of grief, and in that sense it’s a very interior novel which would not have been terribly welcome in young adult literature less than ten years ago.”

“I’m not even sure how welcome it is now,” I said, “since I’ve had three different YA authors tell me they thought my book wasn’t YA. Because of the short story structure or because it’s such an interior novel.”

Michael said, “Tell them Uncle Michael says that’s hogwash! It is a YA novel, but it’s a new kind of YA novel. It’s in the vanguard of the new YA novel. For years and years people regarded that term ‘young adult literature’ as an oxymoron—but not anymore. It does seem to me—as I have said to you several times—YA is presently one of the most dynamic areas of publishing. It’s not the easiest field to work in however, because it is changing dramatically, and nobody is quite sure what it is, nor are they quite sure how to market it or how to sell it.”

Seriously—he is wonderful.

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