Quite a few works of "serious" fiction meet YA criteria as well. Explicit sex scenes have been out of fashion since the 1970s. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is narrated by a teenager; Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by a child. The most popular literary novels of the last decade — The Corrections, Middlesex, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay — are straightforward stories with plot to spare. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time — sex-free, narrated by a teenager — was published in its native England in two editions: YA and adult. In the US, it was published as adult fiction, but is now a mainstay on high-school syllabi.
Every adult genre is represented in the CPL's teen room. Adult and YA themes are the same, too — anyone who believes that seeking and enjoying books about the very worst parts of life is exclusive to children should consider the current New York Times adult bestseller list. This month, Room, a book about a woman locked in a room and raped repeatedly by her father, shared the list with The Mill River Rescue, a book about an abuse survivor whose husband dies, and Blind Faith, the novel of "a woman [who] finds no closure after a man is executed for the murder of her husband and son."
When I pressed Escobar for the real difference between YA and adult lit, she sighed and paused for a long moment. "When I was growing up, I moved right from the children's room right to the sci-fi/horror collection in this library," she said. "I wish that I could have the reading experience that these kids have.
"[But] tons of adults come in this room. Clearly there are some books that everybody wants to read." Sometimes, adults feel self-conscious when picking up YA titles, she says. A number of patrons have told Escobar that certain books are "too good" to be YA novels. She hates that.
"Whenever anyone says teen writing is crap, I tell them to read the first paragraph of a James Patterson book out loud," she said.
At a party I attended recently, a high-school English teacher told me she felt no such shame. She said outright that she and her students find "literary" fiction boring. "I don't want to read about sunlight hitting a windowsill in 30 different ways," she said.
Even as the lines blur between adult and YA fiction, the ghost of E.D. Hirsch — and the specter of cultural literacy — still loom large.
The outcry against two recent articles about YA lit is evidence of this: even though, or perhaps because, writer after writer constantly reassures adults that YA literature is worthy literature, a decent number of fans still rankle when anyone implies it's nothing less than sacrosanct.
This June, Meghan Cox Gurdon enraged YA enthusiasts with "Darkness Too Visible," an article in the Wall Street Journal in which she suggested that the dark themes popular in today's YA titles are corrupting the minds of our nation's youth. Thousands freaked: journalists and librarian bloggers wrote rebuttals arguing that reading about suffering helps children surmount it; #YAsaves, a Twitter game in which people shared how YA books changed their lives for the better, trended globally.