The Pulitzer Argument

A bookstore in Lourdes's new home, Uruguay.

On April 17, 2012 – the day after The Pulitzer Prizes were announced – Figment.com posed an interesting question on their Twitter page: “Do you think a YA book could ever win the Pulitzer?” This was prompted after noticing that this year’s winners did not include one for the “Fiction” category – the first time since 1977.

I was immediately intrigued by this query and wanted to follow the discussion but there was not much of it on Twitter as the topic was quickly and mercilessly devoured by newer, shinier posts. But it has been loitering in my brain, demanding attention and some further examination.

So here it goes.

Young adult literature has the potential to introduce one of its own as Pulitzer worthy. But, there is a monumental issue in its way: public perception. Right now in the mindset of the general population young adult literature is simply an outlet for teens (and now adults) to escape into worlds of the dystopian, the fantasy, and the paranormal. These genres are fantastic and worthy of acknowledgement, but they are simply shades of YA. The general population thinks they are YA and this is wrong. I have read innumerable news outlets writing on how the YA novels “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Mortal Instruments” series are being turned into films but there is little discussion of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Fat Kid Rules the World” which are already on film but do not have mainstream support. The latter even has a Kickstarter campaign underway to fund the marketing and distribution of the film.

For me this signifies that one of YA’s most important genres is being ignored and/or pushed aside – literary YA. Now, I know that you and I notice these types of novels, read them fervently, and note how they are awarded prizes every year. The problem is that those outside of the YA community do not see this or know it is happening and those within the YA community are just now having more say in the conversation. Example:  Lev Grossman recently commented on how YA novels “emphasize strong voices and clear, clean descriptive prose” and are in fact “not better or worse” but “just different” than adult literary fiction. (This is the great thing about YA – it endlessly surprises you with its richness in content and in style the deeper you dive, especially when one actively decides not to compare it to adult literature but rather judge it on its own merit.)These comments are even more interesting and important when they come from a revered book reviewer. But more needs to be done.

In order for there to be a Pulitzer opportunity to arise we must, as a community, endeavor to change the public perception of YA. Simply having some great YA novels make the NY TimesBestseller Listis no longer enough, markedly when they are lumped with children’s “chapter books.” The award-worthy material is already present in YA, as has been showcased with the ALA Youth Media Awards, but YA needs to move onward. In order for Pulitzer judges to take notice, the YA community needs to make them notice. I’m not saying the YA community is not already doing this, but I think that it is becoming more and more clear that YA is no longer ours. YA is now being heavily dictated by what sells or what has the potential to be a film or a franchise or a television show. It was not like this ten years ago. I am elated that people are reading YA but are they actually reading young adult “literature?”

This all boils down to one question: Do we take young adult literature seriously? Do we read it to distract ourselves from the daily drudgery we call our lives and basically tune out for 30 minutes every night or do we read it to expand our minds, our hearts, and our knowledge? Because deep down I know that YA is not solely about teenagers and their youthful, semi-complicated, at times dramatized, lives but about the human experience. And if this is not serious Pulitzer worthy material I do not know what is.

Lourdes Keochgerien, YA Consultant & ReaderDFTBA

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