Welcome to Selene Castrovilla's blog!

I'm an author spreading the words. Read about my books at www.SeleneCastrovilla.com

Monday, January 16, 2012

Method to my Madness Monday: Ripping the Labels From Literature

I have long felt that labels hurt humanity. I feel the same about books.

I had a Facebook message conversation with a reader recently. She mentioned that she reads both adult literature and young adult literature. I remarked that before there was a “YA” category, literature was just “literature.” And frankly, I think we were better off.

Is The Catcher in the Rye strictly a young adult novel? Is The Member of the Wedding? To Kill a Mockingbird? Jane Eyre? You get the idea...So many of our great novels feature a young protagonist, and with good reason. Coming of age is perhaps the most difficult and important thing we do in our lives. And yes –young people should read them. But so should older people. Not only because we’re still struggling with the lessons and experiences of our youth (we are) –but more importantly, because these books are about humanity.

We should always read books about the human condition.

Literature is literature. It doesn’t matter if it’s about a teenager or an old woman. What matters is if it’s well-written. Period.

Most people who read The Old Man and the Sea are not old men, and are not on the sea.

None of us will ever live near Wuthering Heights. (In place or in time.)

To say a reader need be in similar circumstances to the characters in a novel is absurd. One of the most glorious things a book can do is take us to a different world. And why would we want to segregate ourselves to books in our "comfort zone?" If we are white, should we only read books about white people? If we are women, should we never pick up books about men?

One of my favorite books is As I Lay Dying. I’ve never experienced a lifestyle like any of those people’s (thankfully) – and I wouldn’t want to know them in person. They were all pretty horrible. But I felt their pain. They were human. So human.

To attach a YA label to a literary novel is a disservice to the book and to its potential readers.

Literature has enough problems in this country. It doesn’t need this extra handicap.

When people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a writer.”

Of course, they ask, “What do you write?”

I say, “I’m a novelist, and I also write about the American Revolution.”

I don’t say “I write teen novels” – because though the protagonists are teens, and teens can relate to them, so can everyone older. I wrote the books in my late thirties, and somehow I managed to relate. Go figure.

Nor do I say that I write “picture books” about the American Revolution. Because that puts me in The Cat in the Hat category automatically. My books are illustrated, but they are not for the kindergarten crowd. My publisher deems them for “ten and up” –and “up” has no limits. Adults love my books, because they are well-written and well-researched, and they show a human side to the revolution not often revealed.

My WIP features a forty year old woman, but it goes back in time and follows her childhood. Can  children alone relate to the youngest years? Can teens alone relate to the teen years? Should we chop up the book and market it to different audiences?

But we live in a marketing society, and the labels are piling up. I can’t fight them – I can only write on, and pray that my books find their way into the hands that need them. Because good literature is something needed –to enrich our souls, and to remind us that we are not alone.

Maybe we could use one more label: “human books.”


  1. This is a great post, Selene. I agree with everything you've said here. Whenever I tell people I write for kids, they seem to think it's something anyone can easily do. I think I'll take your tack.

  2. Very true, Selene! I read to experience a different world and a different perspective. I read to experience fantasy or live out dreams. I read to escape and I read to learn. I read for personal growth and I read for pleasure. It is the human experience. And, it's a shame how many people miss out on all this because they limit themselves to a label or genre.

  3. Yes, it's terrible how little respect some people have for children's books. The celebrities aren't helping.

  4. Although I agree with you regarding the mislabeling of books such as in the case where, say, the protagonist is in his or her teens, I think the act of labeling a book can be useful.

    For instance, when I was 14 yrs old, I visited a bookstore to find a good book to read. I was lost in the mass of books - or "literature," as you say - and didn't think I could read any of them. That dented my confidence, and had me keep my distance from books and bookstores. But when I was 19, I decided to put aside my reluctance, and go ahead with a few classics that I had searched on the internet - on the basis of labels. I went ahead and bought a few of them, and have never since looked back.

    The funny element to the whole story is that labels have not mattered to me ever since I started to devour on my early set of classics. The concept of labels vanished, and everything became, rightfully one must say, 'literature'.

    1. I think a label is bad when it's limiting - IE: suggesting only a certain audience. If the tag was by theme, that would work.

      I love how the concept of labels vanished for you - but some people never get past that point. That's what I worry about.

      Certain labels have their place, but like everything else, they are overused and over-relied upon. That seems to be the American way.