Thursday, January 29, 2009

Does 'The Oxford Project' count as Young Adult literature?

I’ve never thought about “The Oxford Project” (Welcome Books, 2008) as being a Young Adult book. It’s a work of photojournalism in which photographer Peter Feldstein and journalist Stephen Bloom collaborate to tell the story — in words and pictures — of how a small Iowa town changes over the course of more than two decades. I’ve always thought of the entire project as being extended, Iowa version of Australian writer Peter Carey’s short story, “American Dreams” (“The Oxford Project, Sept. 25, 2008).

But it seems that the people over at the Young Adult Library Services Association — a division of the American Library Association — read the book very differently. They’ve selected “The Oxford Project” as one of the 10 books this year they’re recognizing with an Alex Award, an award given to books that interest teens.

The award makes sense when I keep in mind how Joel Shoemaker described Young Adult literature in an interview last summer (“Getting books into teens’ hands,” Aug. 27). Shoemaker, the librarian at South East Junior High in Iowa City and a former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, said he’s always looking for “something on the border, something on the edge, something that’s going to push the limits.”

In its blending of photos and transcribed dialogue, “The Oxford Project” conflates a number of different genres as it tells a patchwork of interconnected stories. The book doesn’t require a reader to plow straight through its hundreds of pages. It instead offers a chance for readers of every age to choose which stories and photos they want to know more about. And it provides teenage readers with a chance to contrast what people look like in their teens and what they end up like in their 30s — no doubt a very scary revelation to the adolescents skimming along.

Shoemaker’s comments also help explain how “The Oxford Project” could earn this award even if Feldstein and Bloom didn’t have a Young Adult marketplace in mind.

“When Robert Cormier wrote ‘The Chocolate War,’ he didn’t know he was writing a book that would change YA literature,” Shoemaker told me last summer. “He was a newspaperman from the east coast and was as surprised as anyone to find out he was a YA author. He spent the rest of his life writing critically acclaimed, interesting books that teens would read.”

The members of the Young Adult Library Services Association seem less interested in rewarding publishers who pander to teens and more interested in finding books that make a strong connection with readers who just happen to be teens. They’re working to recognize good books that can resonate deeply with adults and teens — albeit on different levels.

That’s what we want for literature,” Shoemaker said, “To change readers.”

Congratulations to Feldstein and Bloom for finding a broader audience than they may have intended, and congratulations to the Young Adult Library Services Association for constantly being on the look out for good books whatever their original audience might have been.

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