Was the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan worth fighting?

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Update: The Obama Administration has expressed an interest in open peace talks with the Taliban.

The 12 year long U.S-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan reaches a turning point today. Afghan forces are now the primary group responsible for providing national security. American and NATO military forces will now operate in a supporting role. It also opens the way for their full withdrawal in 18 months.

AP: “This is a historic moment for our country and from tomorrow all of the security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at a ceremony marking the occasion, held at the new National Defense University built to train Afghanistan’s future military officers.

Karzai said that in the coming months, coalition forces will gradually withdraw from Afghanistan’s provinces as the country’s security forces replace them.

In announcing the fifth and final phase of a process that began at a November 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Karzai said “transition will be completed and Afghan security forces will lead and conduct all operations.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the coalition will help militarily if and when needed but will no longer plan, execute or lead operations.

Alliance training since 2009 dramatically increased the size of the Afghan National Security Forces, bringing them up from 40,000 men and women six years ago to about 352,000 today. After transition, coalition troops will move entirely into a supporting role — training and mentoring, and in emergency situations providing the Afghans backup in combat, mainly in the form of airstrikes and medical evacuation.

Foreign forces will continue to support Afghans on the battlefield when they require it, but the Afghan army and police will be responsible for planning and leading military operations against the insurgency.

Today’s Question: Was the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan worth fighting?

  • John O.

    No. We did not learn from history when the old Soviet army got whupped there. Six months (or less) after the last coalition troops leave, it will revert back to what it was.

  • reggie

    No. At tremendous cost, we learned once again that we can’t “win” a land war against ideologically motivated foes. We didn’t win hearts and minds in Vietnam, we didn’t win hearts and minds in Iraq, and we certainly haven’t won hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Chinese government follows in our wake and rents, leases, or buys the resources and economies of the developing world. We’re like the demolition crew that clears their way.

  • Bill

    No, and obviously with the recent waring in Libya, and now arming “rebels” (terrorists) in Syria, and next Iran, we have not learned anything. These wars are for corporate control and the Rothschild banking system.

  • Sue de Nim

    It could have been, if Bush hadn’t taken his eye off the ball and dragged us into Iraq. I remember feeling a sense of optimism about Afghanistan in the aftermath of the invasion. Americans were curious about Afghan culture. National Geographic had a special issue about Afghanistan. Ordinary Afghans reportedly appreciated our help in ousting the Taliban. There was a sense that we were on a trajectory toward a good partnership with the new government. Then we left them to twist in the wind while Bush-Cheney went in pursuit of another shiny object. I was proud of what my country was doing in Afghanistan, and I have never been more embarrassed for my country than when we invaded Iraq.

  • Jim G

    No, it’s not worth the twelve years of war, lives, and treasure spent in this botched war. This war started out as the “Good War” against the true believers in terrorism. Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that planned and carried out the attacks on 9/11, was effectively neutralized when the Taliban quickly were booted from power by a coalition of tribal leaders financed by the CIA and led by American Special Forces. But, we needed to focus on securing Afghanistan and completely root out Al-Qaeda, but we took our eye off the enemy when our ineffective leaders unfortunately chose to widen the war to Iraq.

    So instead of focusing on Afghanistan which was not a target-rich country with no natural resources to readily exploit, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush decided to shift the focus to Iraq which happens to have an abundance of oil, thereby guaranteeing an extended war in Afghanistan… a war which continues to this day. This is one of the biggest blunders in American history. We have bankrupted ourselves and broken the lives of over 35,000 American causalities with the additional loss of of 2,238 American lives and an another 1,098 Coalition lives lost by our allies. The Afghanistan War didn’t have to be this expensive in lives lost, disrupted, and treasure spent.

  • This just in… The White House is “open” to direct peace talks with the Taliban. What do you all make of this?

    • david

      Too little too late.

      • What if some agreeable terms can be reached?

        • david

          There won’t be. Neither side will hold up their end of the bargain as soon as it suits them to do otherwise. And its just making it more expensive. Both these failed wars dreamed up by warlord bush and vice president halliburton will cost the us tax payers 4-6 trillion dollars. That could be over $43,000 per tax payer. I don’t have that kind of money, and I won’t gain bupkis from any deals made with the Taliban. Screw the Taliban and Afghanistan. They are not worth spending any more resources on.

    • kim

      My first question is, is “the Taliban” actually an organization with a hierarchy and command structure where you can negotiate with “leadership” and make agreements that will actually be honored by all concerned. I’m not saying it’s not, I really don’t know, I kind of thought we were dealing with a lot of war lords and tribal groups here and negotiating might involve more than a single entity. Negotiating with the Taliban might be fine, but where’s it going to get us?

    • Jim G

      I’ve never seen anyone talked to death, so let’s talk about the peace we should leave these people with when we leave.

  • david

    Nope. Biggest waste of nation resources ever.

    • Starquest

      Iraq was a far bigger waste.

  • Wally

    It was well worth it for the defense contractors, prosthetics manufacturers, and for the Taliban, who used it to engender more hatred, and more recruits for their war against the “Great Satan.” I agree with “John O,” that Afghanistan will probably revert to what it was before the war. The Taliban or some similar group will rule–women will be property, and they will continue to export opiates and violence. I hope I’m wrong with that, but won’t hold my breath waiting for “freedom and democracy” to bloom in this chaotic tribal state.

    As to peace talks with the Taliban. It will probably go as well as “talks” with N. Korea. They make “concessions,” we give them goodies, they renege, we hold more talks, they make more concessions, we give them more goodies, they renege, and ’round and ’round the insane merry-go-round goes.

  • Starquest

    The Afghanistan war was completely misguided anyway. It should have been limited to a retaliation, just a few months. But our leaders failed and here we are. We learn nothing from history. The idiotic Soviet war over there is cited as one of the factors for the collapse of the USSR.

  • kim

    I don’t even know where to start with this. Maybe the “war against the Taliban” was worth fighting. I’m not sure it was well done and I’m not sure it was the “right war”. Actually, I’m pretty sure it WASN’T well done. There are somethings our leaders seem to be incapable of learning. Like, most small countries don’t like being invaded by big countries, or anyone else. Nothing unites a people like an outside attack. That even works here, and 9/11 is a great example. It’s hard to fight a war against the people of a country like Afghanistan or Vietnam for that matter. No battle lines, no uniforms, “the enemy” fades back into the landscape & is hard to pursue. “Winning” there involves “hearts and minds” more than anything else & you can’t accomplish that if you’re dealing with “them and us”.

    At the time, it was mostly political theater. We were wounded and leadership had to do something to avoid appearing weak. Some of that made sense. The end game was not well thought out and I’m not sure we aligned ourselves with the right factions. Oddly, it seems like the kind of people best suited to running the country are the same kind of people our leadership may not like, because they ought to be people not easily manipulated from the outside. They ought to be people concerned with the long term best interest of their OWN country, not ours.
    When we went into Iraq, I remember telling a good, and conservative, friend of mine,”Buddy, I hope you’re right, but I don’t think you are. In the long run, I’m afraid this is going to be a lot like a dog chasing a bus, ‘Once you catch it, what are you going to do with it?’ “. We have never had the “I told you so.” conversation. I like him too much and really wish I’d been wrong. As it stands now, I surely hope some good comes of all this, because I’d hate to think it was a waste. Maybe at least, this time, we’ll learn something and act smarter in the future.

  • Gayle

    Considering that over 98% of the Afghanistan population had no idea about “9/11” (because of illiteracy and lack of access to the media), and the tactical assumption that all are guilty (Donald Rumsfeld’s strategy to “bomb them back to the stone age” and our boots on the ground and the hired guns we brought in had the approach of kicking in the doors and dragging the men out), it’s not surprising that we failed to win their hearts and minds. In fact, we did much the opposite – we galvanized the country against the United States, and built a layer of distrust and hatred that we could never overcome.

    Considering that of the 19 terrorists that took part in the 9/11 attacks, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, 2 from the United Arab Emirates, 1 from Egypt and 1 from Lebanon and that Osama Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia and that the Taliban was largely supplied and financed by Pakistan, I’m not sure that a war on Afghanistan was the right call in the first place.

    Was the war on Afghanistan worth it? No – it was a misguided, poorly planned and poorly executed attack on a country that for the large part was clueless as to why they were being attacked. Would a war on the Taliban been worth it? Perhaps, if we had waged war only against the Taliban, and gotten cooperation from the Afghanistan, Pakistani and Saudi governments, with a plan that included when enough was enough and now it’s time to go, maybe. But as executed, we are worse off in our relations with Afghanistan and the mid-east than before.

  • mike482

    No. Our goal was to capture or kill bin Laden, not engage in nation building. That role is for the United Nations. We need to be institutionalizing and internationalizing global problems. America can’t solve global problems. We can advocate to our allies and at the UN that the world address them, but we cannot solve them alone.

  • JQP

    Worth it… for whom? … we went to Afghanistan get rid of Al Qaeda and , didn’t and fostered the growth of the Talib. Then we went wandering over to Iraq based on a steaming pile of lies to basically achieve nothing there but the strengthening of Al Qaeda.

  • Nick

    The author of The Fault in our Stars is John Green, not John Greene.

  • Stacy

    My father recently moved out of his house and gave me a big box of my books left from when I went to college. I’ve started to reread my high school favorites, and I am amazed at how much I still like them. I get value out of them even now.
    As an adult, I don’t think I attach to characters like I did back then. I’ve been startled by the intense love I still feel for the protagonists in each book.
    Currently reading: Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce

    • kellybarnhill

      I ADORE Tamora Pierce!

  • Kevin

    “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. Thought it was a great book when I was a youngster. Got me interested in many more books in a similar vein, “1984”, “Brave New World”, etc.

    • kellybarnhill

      I love THE GIVER too. And I taught it back in my teacher days in the Minneapolis Public School system. However, since the protagonist is just turning 12, it does place it in Middle Grade territory, and not Young Adult.

  • Chris

    Lord of the Rings? That gets my vote. I must have read that series a hundred times, it definitely influenced my life as an adolescent (and as an adult!)

    • meansteve

      A classic of high fantasy! But not young adult literature.

  • danmar

    The Golden Compass and the rest of His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman is by far our family’s favorite. An absolutely fantastic story with strong female and male leads that truly transcends.

    • nic joy


      • Anne

        Absolutely true. But this series is Middle Grade.

        • Elizabeth Karre

          The culmination of the third book is sexual awakening so maybe we can quibble on it 🙂

        • danmar

          I think this would be an example that confounds genre boundaries. Yes the protagonists are young, but it also includes several subplots with adult characters and themes. Add in its critique of Narnia, religious themes and coming of age love story and you have something with plenty of depth for any age.

  • kellybarnhill

    Most of these books are not YA. They are Middle Grade. It is an important distinction – one that has been pointed out in the comments of earlier posts. While there is quite a bit of overlap in the audiences for both genres, they are not the same. In fact, I believe that the guest on Monday explained the difference between Young Adult novels and Middle Grade novels. As I recall, she explained it very well.

    Mr. Green’s novel, Mr. Alexie’s novel and Ms. Hinton’s novel are all Young Adult. The Wresting Game is difficult to categorize – but given that it won a Newbery, it usually lands on MG lists, not YA. The rest are Middle Grade novels. Sorry to nit-pick, but these distinctions do matter. The experience of a fourth grade kid is VERY different than the experience of a teen. The two types of novels explore VERY different territories. It’s important to read deeply and broadly and well, and I feel that conflating and co-opting genres does not speak to nuanced reading habits. Just my two cents.

    • meansteve

      The distinction between MG and YA is not nit-picking. The current
      obsession with YA literature is best served by a real understanding of
      what defines YA as a genre. Only four titles on this list fulfill the
      definition of young adult literature. If MPR is interested in a real
      discussion of YA (like the one yesterday with Mesrobian), then MPR ought
      to present actual YA titles, not simply books that are enjoyed by young
      people of varying ages between 7 and 17.

      • kellybarnhill

        Good point. Mean Steve is wise.

        • Swati Avasthi

          Yes, mean Steve. If mpr is going to brand something as YA literature then it is important to understand what the brand is. When you use a category like “YA lit” and then say that Miller says that she doesn’t know what the Printz, it is quite revealing that they are using language they don’t comprehend. The ‘Biz” is comprised of publishers, librarians, writers, teachers, and yes, kids — many of whom do understand the difference.

          • kellybarnhill

            Yeah. That was pretty telling, actually.

            And it was troubling how dismissive both Miller and Curtis were when presented with information they did not know. And oddly defensive, too. It doesn’t make for good discussions, unfortunately. Pete was incredibly kind and patient, as always. I hope the listeners at home learned more than the moderators did.

    • Charlotte Sullivan

      Thanks for this, Kelly and Steve. This may be obvious, but the reason the distinction between MG and YA is so important is that these books are designed to address the needs of readers at particular developmental stages. The job of children’s writers is to enter the mindset of a young reader and present a world that is relevant to her.

      As was mentioned on the show yesterday, kids do prefer to “read up”–typically by about 2 years (depends on the reader). However, as Carrie pointed out, the developmental concerns of a YA book will simply not match those of someone significantly younger. We enjoy an abundance of MG, tween (middle school age between MG and YA), and YA literature. One might argue that with the wide range of sophisticated and literary books at all these levels, young readers truly don’t need to stray into books aren’t developmentally relevant to them.

      I grew up on classics, like Carrie. But in some ways they didn’t serve me well; they were concerned with the issues of midlife. Had I enjoyed more books suited to the questions I was asking and the new challenges emerging for me–I suspect I would have read more voraciously during certain periods of my youth. I loved books… but I think I would have read more. We now have so much to offer young readers–especially if we can identify which books best suit a particular reader’s developmental level.

      Thanks for featuring this subject. I’d love to see a follow up on middle grade and picture books. We have a rich community of children’s writers here–and many of us are actively following this coverage!

  • Steve B

    There are only four YA titles on this list of choices.

  • Mary Olson

    The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were outstanding. I also loved Watership Down.

    • meansteve

      All great works. But none of those are young adult novels.

  • Elizabeth Karre

    I think a lot of people hear “young adult” as “young person” and think the YA label applies to all children’s books when, in publishing speak, it refers to books about the adolescent experience (usually ages 12-18). If you’re looking for books for your kids, you don’t necessarily have to remember the various labels (middle grade, tween, young adult)–any librarian or good bookseller can steer you in the right direction to pick books for your kids based on their ages, interests, and any sensitivities you have. But MPR should have made it clearer to the audience that they were looking for novels about adolescence (the age at which you enjoyed the book doesn’t matter). I worry this list will really mislead people.

  • Lauren Hebert

    There are so many good ones… Could you post the whole list?

  • Pete Hautman loathes this list. Read blog post here.

    • And good news! Pete is joining us on the show tomorrow,

    • kellybarnhill

      I’m wondering how you get “loathe” from this. That’s not at all what he’s saying. Read it again, maybe?

      It’s frustrating for book lovers – and book creators – when MPR does not bother to be thoughtful, well-informed, or to even use the correct terms. It is possible to have good, insightful and meaningful discussions about great children’s literature. Indeed, I have them all the time. This, though? It ain’t it. Pete, in his blog post, is telling MPR to do better. And, you know what? I believe that you can.

  • Kristi

    Obviously JK Rowling belongs on this list, but I’m really bummed it’s not The Half Blood Prince. That’s the REAL coming of age book in the Harry Potter series.

  • Elizabeth Karre

    C’mon, can we stop with the hyperbole? I thought MPR was better than that. If you read Pete’s blog post, he doesn’t “loathe” anything, rather he’s talking more about the MN kidlit community response to these kinds of shows that betray ignorance from MPR staff about the industry of children’s literature. If MPR is going to use industry jargon like “YA,” please define it for your audience so they can try to participate within the parameters. Sometimes it feels like MPR just wants to use buzz words without caring about the actual meaning of those words. What MPR assembled (because the audience was confused) was a list of novels people remember enjoying under the age of 18 or that they’ve seen their children enjoy or books that people perceive to be about or for children. YA is narrower than that (exactly what the definition is is a fabulous thing to discuss!). Pete’s personal reaction to this effort by MPR–as stated in his blog–was actually pretty positive.

    • kellybarnhill

      Nicely said.

      • Tune in at 11:50!

        And I am going to break it to you now, Kelly. A MG novel will win this poll.

        • kellybarnhill

          Yes, I knew that going in. And, of course, I LOVE middle grade – I read it, I write it, I write about it, and I buy it in bunches. But I do think that a quality conversation about children’s literature broadly needs to do the work of really understanding and separating the sub-categories. We wouldn’t include “Goodnight Moon” in a discussion about YA. Of course we wouldn’t. For those of us who are in these discussions all the time, the line-blurring between MG and YA is similarly inane.

          And, to be clear, those of us in the children’s literature community are TICKLED TO DEATH that this conversation is happening at all. We, by our natures, are book evangelists, and are passionate advocates for children’s literacy and the primacy of children’s books in imaginative and intellectual development of kids. We are fussing at you BECAUSE WE CARE. And we have high expectations. This is MPR, after all.

          Thanks. Looking forward to today’s discussion.

          • Elizabeth Karre

            Well said, Kelly. If MPR can’t use the terms correctly, who will? And parents will be left confused.

    • I was tongue in cheek when I said ‘loathe.’ He is a cool enough guy to come on tomorrow and talk to us.

    • How do you define it?

      • kellybarnhill

        The publisher puts it right on the book, actually. MG is 8-12 or 9-14 and YA is 12+ or 14+, depending on the content.

        And, of course, there is TONS of overlap in audience. Teens and tweens read up and read down all the time. My fourteen year old – a huge fan of Pete Hautman, by the way – is re-reading all the HP books. For like the ninety seventh time. And my eleven year old LOVED Steve Brezenoff’s new book Guy in Real Life. But in general, Middle Grade novels address the world view and concerns of Middle Grade kids (because these kids they wrestle with how the world works; they wrestle with big ideas – good and evil, love, heroism, friendship, justice; they wrestle with their very real fears). Young Adult novels speak to the experience of teenagers – identity, self-knowledge, the relationship between the individual and the adult world that they will soon inhabit, the choices you can’t undo. And that notion that choice indelibly impacts identity is HUGE for teens and HUGE in YA.

        As we’ve said – these books are DIFFERENT. Because these kids are DIFFERENT. Conflating the books and conflating the experience does not deepen the conversation – it waters it down.

      • Elizabeth Karre

        There are lots of possibilities to choose from and overlaps in the Venn diagram of these definitions. Ask a bunch of people and here’s what you might get:
        -novels about the adolescent experience and/or
        -novels with adolescent protagonists and/or
        -novels marketed to adolescents and/or
        -novels enjoyed by adolescents
        I was caught at an impressionable age and indoctrinated into the Andrew Karre definition: novels about the adolescent experience from an adolescent perspective (not adult nostalgia or wisdom).

  • Heather

    I have refrained from commenting earlier simply because I didn’t want to be a nitpicking curmudgeon. But seriously, the bulk of these books are not YA. I really feel MPR should have done better. This is Minnesota, a state with a thriving kidlit community. The sources on this matter are profound and plentiful and, above all, LOCAL. Anne Greenwood Brown. Heather Anastasiu. Swati Avasthi. Steve Brezenoff. Carrie Mesrobian – WHO WAS ON YOUR SHOW. Pete Hautman. Etc, etc, etc. For real. Do better. You are journalists.

    I wouldn’t enter my cat in a “best dog” contest. Granted, cats are also house pets, but they are not dogs, and as such, do not belong in a contest for dogs.

    Middle grade books are fabulous, but they are not young adult books.

  • david6k

    Hmm. My daughter, about to turn 9, has just finished the last of the Anne of Green Gables books. Great books. I’m in agreement with others that they’re not really what I think of as YA. I mean, doesn’t young adult mean older than 8 years old?
    I think of YA books as not only featuring teen protagonists, but also having plot, writing, or thematic content that would be difficult for younger readers to grapple with. My 13-year-old is currently working on Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I wouldn’t have dreamed of giving to him when he was my daughter’s age.
    Similarly, though it’s not a novel, I would argue that Anne Frank’s diary ought to be on any short list of greatest young adult books.

    • My mind wandered back the other day to a Ray Bradbury story that scared the dickens out of me in 1983 or so….it was about a man who gets embalmed alive. Read it once and it is still scaring me decades later. Not for little children for sure.

  • Charlotte Sullivan

    In the academic world of theory and criticism, YA exists as a part of children’s literature (a subcategory) because all of these categories are distinctive based on the developmental level of their intended audience. YA is clearly a distinct subset (from middle grade) because it reflects the emerging sexuality and social and cognitive development of adolescents. If you’re interested in what academics are saying about YA as a category, you might enjoy YA author and thinker Aiden Chambers’ highly acessable article, “Finding the Form: Toward a Poetics of Youth Literature” from The Lion and the Unicorn (Sept. 2010); this link shows a preview, and you can likely find the full-text version via your library (Project Muse). http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/lion_and_the_unicorn/v034/34.3.chambers.pdf

    The main take-away for concerned parents is to think about what topics teens (not 3rd or 4th graders) are actually facing in school, film, media images, social settings, and so on–and while we’re at it: what did WE face at their age? How might books allow young people to safely test ideas and decision making, to learn from other characters’ mistakes? How might a book start an important conversation with YOU?

    Kids are always looking ahead to the next stage of life; we are nostalgic about who they were. They want to mature; we are terrified for their safety. Tension is inevitable. As Andrew Karre once said at the Loft, “transitions are combustable.” As long as we don’t burn the books, they can actually ease us all through their difficult passage into adulthood. (Whatever adulthood means today. But that’s another conversation.)

    • Carrie Mesrobian

      I want to like this over and over and over again, Charlotte. Thank you.

      • Swati Avasthi

        Perfect, Charlotte. It’s not about when we encounter a book. It’s about whether the concerns of the protagonist are teenage concerns.

    • Thanks for writing in Charlotte!

      • Charlotte Sullivan

        Sure. As you’ve discovered, we have a thriving children’s literature community here. I hope you’ll continue to dig into these subjects and tap our many, many experts. These topics are so important.

    • kellybarnhill

      Charlotte, this is so good it makes me want to marry you. Alas, we are both taken. Sigh.

      • Charlotte Sullivan

        Shucks. BFFs?

  • The Best YA Novel of All Time on EW was the Harry Potter series.

  • Here’s a history of young adult novels from CNN:

    Wizards, vampires and dystopian future worlds didn’t always dominate the genre, which hit its last peak of popularity in the 1970s with the success of controversial novels by the likes of Judy Blume. In the years between, young adult has managed to capture the singular passions of the teen audience over a spectrum of subgenres.

  • Here’s a quote from an article from the New York Times in 1986 about the problems with defining YA:

    Like its adolescent readership, Young Adult has always had problems with its relatives. Adult Literature considers Young Adult mere genre, without the crossover, megabuck possibilities of such other mere genres as bodice-rippers and espionage thrillers. Children’s Literature considers Young Adult a bastard step-sibling without the charm and endless riches of a smash picture book. Among YAchauvinists there is endless debate over how the term Young Adult Literature, at once awkward, commercial and pompous, can encompass a range of fiction that stretches from the supportive warmth of Judy Blume (”Deenie,” ”Tiger Eyes”) to the bleakness of Robert Cormier (”The Chocolate War,” ”After the First Death”).
    While all the talk rages, teen-agers are reading YA. Younger teen-agers find in the Blume books a way to open nonthreatening dialogues with their parents and teachers about menstruation and masturbation. Older teen-agers are stretched and challenged by Mr. Cormier’s visions of adult betrayal. And the middle group of books throbs with such disparate stylists as Mary Stolz, Katherine Paterson, Isabelle Holland, Walter Dean Myers, Rosa Guy, Virginia Hamilton, Harry and Norma Fox Mazer, Bruce Brooks, Sue Ellen Bridgers, John LeVert, Laurence Yep, among others, linked only by talent and that quirky brand label YA.

  • And here’s a quote from an article from the New York Times from 1980 about the creation and expansion of use of the YA label:

    YA. You’ve probably seen those two letters inconspicuously printed on the inside jacket flap of many hardcover books, but unless you’re in the book trade, it’s unlikely you understand their significance. Even Webster’s Unabridged fails to explain that ”YA” means that the book is intended for reading by ”young adults.” Professional librarians adopted that term for teen-agers back in the 1940’s. Paperback publishers do not use it on their books, but it crops up frequently in their conversations. ”It’s an amorphous concept, but we don’t seem able to get along without it,” one of them told us the other day.

  • ICYMI (I did.)

    Here’s EW.com’s brackets for the Best YA novel of all time. You’ll have to click on the image and magnify it to read them.

    • Jasmine Rockwell

      By the way, a lot of people who deal daily with YA lit were once again not thrilled with EW’s attempt to define “the greatest YA book of all time.” It’s another in a long line of adults who do read YA but don’t actually work with teens on a daily basis. Granted, many of today’s teens probably won’t be as widely read as most adults simply because adults have been alive longer and have had more time to read, but you’d get an entirely different set of titles if teens were submitting titles and voting.

      When it really comes down to it, I wish people, magazines, or other media outlets would stop trying to define the “greatest” whatever novel of all time because our experience with literature is as unique as ourselves. So while it does matter a great deal how we define YA lit, we cannot define a universal experience with literature as a teenager.

      If you really want a better grasp on what teens like to read, check out the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Teen’ Top Ten list – chosen by *gasp!* real teenagers http://www.ala.org/yalsa/reads4teens/

      • kellybarnhill

        I LOVE it that CODE NAME VERITY was number one on that list. Actually, I like all the books on that list. Teenagers are so SMART.

  • Heather

    Here’s the thing: you shouldn’t use 30-year-old quotes to define something that is constantly changing, like publishing and books and teenagers. You just shouldn’t. And also, you shouldn’t use EW.com as a source – at least not a primary source. And you also should probably not ignore the plentiful local primary sources to help you and your listeners understand what, exactly, YA is. Charlotte Sullivan, for instance, is a professor of literature. She commented below with great insight on the “define YA” conundrum.

    Here’s the problem with perpetuating this inaccurate definition of YA: you get parents of 3rd and 4th graders who are concerned there aren’t “clean” books in YA for their children to read. Their children are “advanced,” see, so they need to read YA.

    Except they don’t. On a Lexile scale, on an actual readability scale, YA often is no more “advanced” than middle grade. How it IS different is content, and expecting a 3rd or 4th grader to understand content written for a teenager is ridiculous. And honestly, why would you want your kid reading about teenagers and the situations they encounter when your child cannot relate to them anyway? Wouldn’t you want to foster a love for reading by giving your child books they can identify with?

    I have a 12-year-old reading Amy Reed’s CLEAN right now. She adores it. It’s about drug use and rehab and recovery, and it’s gritty and hard and heart-wrenching. These are difficult topics, but my 12-year-old is ready for them, and I adore that she’s reading this book because it fosters a dialogue about such topics. Additionally, it exposes her to the world of rehab and recovery from a safe place, and I hope reading such work will help foster an empathy for those she might encounter who had such experiences in real life.

    But here’s the thing: my 9-year-old is reading the WARRIOR CATS series. And when she gets tired of reading, she puts socks on her hands and cat ears she affixed onto a headband and she crawls around the house on all fours. This book is equally complex, but it involves maps and clans and a character list I would need CliffsNotes to keep track of. The relationships in the book are complex and deep, but at the same time, it’s presented in a way that’s accessible to my middle grader.

    CLEAN would be inappropriate for my 9-year-old. She wouldn’t get it, and she probably wouldn’t get too far past the opening pages. But at the same time, can you imagine teenagers only having WARRIOR CATS-type books available to them?

    You “break it” to Kelly below that a MG book will win this poll; if you understand this, why is the title of the poll “best YA novel”?

    • I just thought it was interesting to see how long people have been using the term and talking about YA novels. Thanks for explaining the Lexile scale.

      • Carrie Mesrobian

        For a comparison, SEX & VIOLENCE is an 820 on the Lexile, which could be corresponded to 5th grade.

    • Elizabeth Karre

      This is beautifully explained. Many, many YA novels when tested for “reading levels” come in at 4th, 5th, 6th grade. That is because these technical “reading levels” are determined by word length and sentence length primarily. So it’s not necessarily a sign of *reading* sophistication if a younger child is reading YA. Let’s focus on giving kids books that make them want to read more.

      • Charlotte Sullivan

        Also, because YA often uses first person (to convey the experience of YA-hood in the voice of a YA), the syntax and diction may be more simple than that of a third person narrator. In fact, first person is much less common in middle grade books because it’s hard to write authentically and descriptively in the voice of a very young character. Thus, the language level is one factor to consider when choosing a book for a young person, but it doesn’t determine the content level (whether it’s YA/MG). This is a separate issue. Many kids can (and do) read S. King’s horror novels; they are read by kids, but not children’s literature. Likewise, many adults read kids’ books, but they remain children’s literature. In this case, the content and developmental concerns of the book determine the format level–MG or YA.

        Consider another example from children’s literature: the language of picture books (typically for ages 0-5/6) can be elegant and complex because it is intended to be read by an adult to a child. (Check out the lyrical long sentences in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.) Easy readers, for new readers (ages 5-7), will use simple syntax and vocabulary spiced with repetition. The age level of the text is determined by the purpose of the book and the intended audience. Language difficulty is simply not an absolute measure for determining the level of the reader. It is one of many factors.

        The formats and categories of children’s literature can be bewildering to sort out; however, doing so makes adult gatekeepers (parents, teachers, librarians, doting aunts such as myself) much more effective at selecting the perfect book for a specific reader. And that’s really the endgame. Every reader is different with different needs (personality, reading level, developmental level). There are SO many excellent choices at every level that with enough digging, one can find the right book for each young reader. Not every teen wants to read edgy books. Some kids need them to to sort out what they are trying to survive. All of us in this business do this in the hope we can reach that one reader who needs that one book at that one key moment.

        • Charlotte Sullivan

          And, Heather, thanks for your clear explanation with your daughters as examples of different types of readers!

  • David Housewright

    These are not young adult novels. These are the novels we hope young adults will read after they have been inspired by young adult novels. YA is a gateway drug that encourages readers to look for a bigger and better high – “A Wrinkle In Time” is no one’s first book. For me it was the Scholastic books I read in grade school, most of which I don’t even remember, although one in particular has stuck with me. “Mystery Guard at Left End.” It wasn’t much of a mystery – the guard was a girl who dressed like a boy so she could play football. When I read this in the mid-sixties, it was quite the feminist tract. You could argue that it was my first step in becoming a mystery writer.

    • Richele

      I respectfully disagree. I think of what you’re defining as YA as children’s books. YA books are (as far as I know) generally aimed (aka marketed) at teenagers. YA is not intended to be the first step, but a step to more advanced themes after reading children’s lit. (Though of course, the reading process isn’t really that simple, but that’s a whole other discussion :))

  • Adele – North Mankato

    We read “the absolutely true diary of a part-time indian” during our summer road trip to Colorado. My teenagers came to a quick-stop during their aloud time when Junior or Rowdy went into a cursing rant. Had a chat about using language to explain a situation or character. The kids really connected with the characters because they seemed real, like kids they know. My husband & I were in tears through most of Nebraska (and not just because of miles of interstate). Our hearts broke for the characters. Hope my kids remember this one for a long time.

  • Kelsey

    His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, The Neverending Story by Michal Ende. Two of the most fascinating works of literary genius ever!

  • Don Garey

    “Mio, My Son” by Astrid Lindgren. I loved this book that I read at a young age of about 9. I was in love with the art work some of which creeped me out as did the story itself. Too this day I own this book, which is still in print. It did two things, it made me afraid, and it made me want to read more.

    • kellybarnhill

      I have never read that – and I love Astrid Lindgren! Adding it to the list, now.

  • Richele

    I am disappointed to see they used Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone instead of the complete series. The complete series would win, hands down. But that first book? It’s really a children’s book, not YA (in my opinion). And it is wonderful, to be sure, but on its own it doesn’t stand up to great books that are *intended* to stand alone.

  • travler

    My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen provides a good example of what your guest mentioned regarding the power of a good librarian or teacher in suggesting a book that makes a difference in the life of a young person. It also expresses the power of animals and the natural world to make an impact as well.

  • Amy

    Just Jake is a phenomenal YA novel written by Minnesota author Erik Block. It brought me to tears with it’s authenticity of the confusion that is adolescence.

  • Marika Staloch

    I’m amazed that the folks at MPR were shocked that there’s a difference between “YA” (Young Adult) literature and “literature for young people”. YA is a commonly used term for the teen genre. Young people could include all kids. Thank goodness for Pete Hautman for enlightening them. I was unable to vote, this poll does not make sense to me.

  • John Pastor

    I voted for one of the books on your list, but I also wanted to say that the books which most helped me choose my path in life when I was in high school were Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction science books, such as Life and Energy and The Wellsprings of Life. These, as well as other similar science books by other authors, were published in the Signet Science Library. These books presented current topics in science win an accessible way without dumbing them down. It’s too bad that there isn’t a similar series today.

    • I went through an Asimov phase too!

    • kellybarnhill

      I love that guy. And his books were like a lantern for me, once upon a time, as I wandered my own dark paths. Thank you for the remembering. 🙂

  • Carrie Mesrobian

    Here’s how I think of it:

    YA = books w/ adolescent characters, that are about the adolescent experience

    Yes, there are books about adolescents that aren’t shelved in the YA/Teen section, but that’s a quibble. The genre’s exploded in the last decade and the definition isn’t set in stone; it’s evolving.

    Books about children that don’t feature (many) pictures are Middle Grade. Sometimes you see them in the bookstore under “Young Readers” or “Junior Readers.” These books can be about anything but they generally come from the perspective of kids under age 12.

    This matters, as Heather said, bc we don’t want to vote for a cat in a dog show. Polls are already shorthand that diminish a book as an experience. Let’s at least try to understand what we are voting for.

    Because these categories are also used as marketing metrics should not diminish their importance.

  • Guest

    First, let me say that I’m ecstatic that you’re covering children’s literature. We are living in a golden age of books written for young people. This deserves attention.


    What bothers me is the implication that there’s no such thing as expertise in children’s literature. If a doctor came on the show and said, “Look, this is the definition of a stress-induced aneurysm” they wouldn’t come back with “That’s not what Entertainment Weekly said.” Pete Hautman (who was on your show this morning) has written YA for decades and won the National Freaking Book Award. Do you think that maybe—just maybe—he might have a better grasp of this stuff than you? What truly constitutes YA vs. Middle Grade? How there might be a non-trivial difference?

  • Peter Pearson

    First, let me say that I’m ecstatic that you’re covering children’s literature. We are living in a golden age of books written for young people. This deserves attention.


    What bothers me is the implication that there’s no such thing as expertise in children’s literature. If a doctor came on the show and said, “Look, this is the definition of a stress-induced aneurysm” you wouldn’t come back with “That’s not what Entertainment Weekly said.” Pete Hautman (who was on your show this morning) has written YA for decades and won the National Freaking Book Award. Do you think that maybe—just maybe—he might have a better grasp of this stuff than you? What truly constitutes YA vs. Middle Grade? How there might be a non-trivial difference?

    • Elizabeth Karre

      While I admit the definitions in art are always fuzzier than in science, it hurts our feefees in the arts community when on MPR you guys say that definitions don’t matter. We welcome arguments over those definitions. But by some of your arguments (the age at which you enjoyed a book being primary), you could include all kinds of adult novels on your list, too. If the goal of the list was “good novels for young people to read” (as Pete suggested you title it!), that would have been interesting. We all have adult novels that we enjoyed before we became adults. But really, YA is a more technical term like “sudden cardiac arrest.” I now think it’s a problematic term since it creates so much confusion but that ship has sailed.

    • Anne

      I agree with Peter. It strikes me that this thread is full of passionate writers and editors who are expert in this field and trying very hard to argue that the distinction matters and why. It’s quite frustrating to hear a luminary like Pete Hautman be laughed at instead of listened to.

  • Amanda MacGregor

    I’m not really sure what the point in having a YA Week was. With all of the hand-wringing over “content” and sounding dismissive about an entire genre, it seems like a blown opportunity. Wouldn’t it have been great to feature local YA authors, librarians, critics, and academics who could speak knowledgably about the books as literature? There are certainly plenty of people in this field who could have helped have a more informed, useful, and respectful conversation.

    • We had three authors on our show talking about their books. We also had them do some talking about how we talk about books.

  • Megan Atwood

    You may be able to tell that this sort of topic inspires some passionate feelings. Here’s why: YA and MG writers have spent their lives being dismissed and marginalized, told they do not write “real” literature, told these age distinctions don’t matter. I’ve been told personally, “Maybe someday you’ll feel you’re good enough to write for adults.” I’m not the only one told something akin to this. The message? I’m not writing or teaching or studying real literature. Children’s literature as a whole has been poo-poo’d and the writers patted on the head; YA and MG writers have had their metaphorical cheeks pinched about their cute little writing. Until it comes to banning books. Then suddenly, YA books in particular are deranged, dangerous, and damaging to our young people. We must save them from the very authors who are dismissed as not real writers. Here in the Twin Cities, though, we live in a community with two YA imprints built from the ground up that successfully challenge the publishing industry’s megaliths. Where the ONLY YA bookstore exists (Addendum Bookstore). Where the finest (and only one of two in the country) MFA programs for writing for children and young adults exists. Where colleges offer writing classes for this family of literature. We have a vibrant and supportive and INCREDIBLY knowledgeable cadre of writers with immeasurable talent. And when one of those writers goes on to MPR to clarify (one of the progenitors of YA itself, Pete Hautman) he is dismissed and patted on the head. Now, I know this wasn’t the intention–I think we all know this. The pushback I believe you may be feeling is because It was just severely disappointing, especially coming from such a beloved and revered outlet like MPR. You’re one of our own! You actually ask YA authors to come and talk! You acknowledge this family of literature and give it air space! YAY! And then you do what EW does. It’s disheartening. We are thrilled, THRILLED I SAY, to be a part of the conversation now. But what we’re looking for is to be a real part of the conversation–not just a cute, uninformed poll or another pearl-clutching foray into teens swearing. And certainly not a tongue-in-cheek dismissal of a National Book Award-winning author and luminary who is sincerely trying to help. Albeit snarkily. 🙂 Just, MPR, listen. That’s all we ask.

    • kellybarnhill

      Hear, hear!

    • Elizabeth Karre


    • Charlotte Sullivan

      Yes, beautiful!

  • Charlotte Sullivan

    I know this conversation is winding to a close…

    …but I’ve been chewing over how to clarify why this week’s discussions of children’s and young adult (YA) literature so excited and exercised professionals in the field. First, and this is worth repeating, I’m thankful for a week of interviews with such fantastic writers! I hope this will happen again—and perhaps also with middle grade and picture book authors and illustrators. This community is unusually rich with talent and expertise. I feel lucky to live here!

    Nevertheless, as Pete Hautman described in his blog, many heads “exploded” over the use/misuse of the term YA literature. I suspect (in addition to what Megan Atwood so eloquently describes below) two factors led to this…erm…dramatic reaction.

    First, people involved with children’s literature care about the categories such as YA or MG because these are tools for helping children find books. The creators and curators of kidlit devote their life’s work to precisely identifying the developmental level of their target audience. This is part of their art and expertise, and it takes years of practice and careful thought to master. True, individual young people develop at different rates, but we all develop through the same stages, in the same order. If a book doesn’t hit a particular reader’s developmental territory, she’ll toss it over her shoulder as “babyish” (too young) or “boring” (too mature, irrelevant), as other commenters have described. Thus, these distinctions are not arbitrary but essential tools for writers, librarians, and teachers that help them connect young readers with the right books for them.

    But as we heard this week, these categories can mystify or seem trivial. Why? Because adult readers are tourists in the world of children’s literature. Even those of us “in the business” are tourists. But we love tourists! Tourists fuel our economy. That said, tourists may miss the importance of categories for the residents living in childhood and young adulthood—because we adults don’t need these categories ourselves. For us, it doesn’t matter whether we swing by the picture book playgrounds or lurk in shadowy YA alleys—because we’ve survived all these life stages. Young people have not yet, so the categories DO matter for them and to anyone who works with them. Of course, finding the right level of book is still no guarantee that a particular story is right for a reader, but it remains one of the primary factors.

    These categories are probably less important when it comes to the MPR survey of best YA books: here an entire community is remembering their favorite reading experiences. They are celebrating. The list is for adults, and most participants don’t work in children’s literature. But once we turn to examine YA literature itself, and specifically—what is and isn’t appropriate for young adults today—the format categories cease to be window dressing. They define the conversation. Here lies the second cause for brain splatter. We can’t honestly explore whether or how young people should read about sex and violence without first identifying the intended audience of this material. Categories may not be razor-sharp precise—but they matter. Particularly for this topic.

    Think of it this way. Plastic bags are commonly stamped with
    the label, “This bag is not a toy. Keep out of reach of small children.” Can
    some children safely play with bags? Sure. Are bags designed to be tossed into a crib or unmonitored preschool room? No. Can they harm children? Absolutely. If we attacked the plastic bag industry for suffocating babies and children, we’d be laughed at because the label is right on the bag. Plastic bags are not toys for kids. Books have similar labels.

    Publishers, librarians, writers, and their professional organizations (American Library Associaiton, Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, etc.) have developed categories for children’s books, which are often printed directly on book jackets, and which define major prize categories. In other words, these are widely recognized categories, and the guest authors were all able to define them. Despite this, many callers seemed to ignore this information. The result? If we begin a conversation about the appropriateness of YA content with the premise that YA is for 9-year-olds (bags are for babies), we waste time debating terms and boundaries that have already been established. We miss the opportunity for nuanced conversation about what is actually a very complex, important question.

    I imagine the explosive responses from experts in the field came as a surprise, but this week’s coverage also launched a valuable conversation that can ultimately help caregivers better choose books for the young people they love. It also brought out of the woodwork the myriad professionals working with children’s literature in this community. (Editors from LA and NYC often point to the Twin Cities as one of the most vital children’s literature centers between the coasts.) I hope this will lead to future, in-depth conversations about children’s literature on MPR. I also hope that the expertise of professionals in the field will be esteemed as just that–not haphazard whims, but expertise built from years of labor, study, and experience. Thank you for a lively forum.

    • Andrew Karre

      The sound you heard was Charlotte Sullivan dropping the mic. Beautifully said.