Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"The Tooth Fairy" by Graham Joyce

What puts a book in the YA category? (Other than a publisher's marketing department, that is.) Is it the fact that the main characters are teenagers? Or that the author wrote with a younger audience in mind? Is it related to the frequency or degree of profanity, sex, or violence in the story? Should a YA book be short, or have short chapters? Does it have anything to do with reading level? (I've heard the depressing claim that the writing in most contemporary books is no higher than an 8th grade level--an eighth grader is usually 13 or 14 years old, for those who are unfamiliar with the American school system--in which case there shouldn't be any difference in reading levels between the average adult and young adult book.)

The line between young adult and adult fiction is more blurred than I thought. I always assumed that a YA book would be toned down as compared to a book for adults (not necessarily devoid of vulgarity--just with less of it). But in poking around online I found that often the definition of YA revolves solely around the age of the main characters. Frequently, the only difference between an adult or young adult book is marketing.

My YAdar would not approve this book. I think there is too much talk of penises to label it as YA. But Elvis defines YA as fiction that appeals to teenagers through subject, characters and writing. He even takes it one step in the opposite direction and says he thinks YA fiction should have more vulgarity than adult fiction because "that's what teenagers like."

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the idea of a teenager reading a book meant for adults doesn't really bother me much, but I don't like the idea of YA marketing for a book like this one. Of course, this might be rather a moot point where The Tooth Fairy is concerned. It won the British Fantasy Award in 1997 (which, to my understanding, is not a specifically YA award), and I've seen nothing that indicates it was marketed as YA, although the author has written some other books that were.

Beyond its categorization (or not) as YA, The Tooth Fairy is a dark and intense story of three friends who sometimes call themselves the Heads-Looked-At Boys. Sam, Clive and Terry could be any ordinary British schoolmates (albeit perhaps missing a couple of appendages), until one day when Clive punches Sam and accidentally knocks out a tooth. Sam puts the tooth under his pillow at bedtime, just as you might have done, but the Tooth Fairy who visits him later that night is not the innocuous incisor-collecting creature we all grew up thinking we knew.

Sam's introduction to the Tooth Fairy is the beginning of a turbulent coming-of-age for the three friends. Under the Tooth Fairy's sinister but subtle influence, the boys behave increasingly like little hoodlums, yet in an almost naive way. Sam sees the Tooth Fairy's fingerprints on every aspect of his life as well as the lives of his friends, which results in a mixture of fear and fascination.

Elvis loved the book and thought it was brilliantly written; I liked it a lot and enjoyed the read. It was interesting to speculate about the nature of the Tooth Fairy, as the book leaves the question open for interpretation. Have you read this book? What exactly did you think the Tooth Fairy was?


Trisha said...

This sounds like a strange little tale, so I'm intrigued.

Rachel said...

YA gets raunchy!

I am starting to really detest the YA label. I think it's just a marketing ploy.

'The Book Thief', written by an Australian, is an adult book. It was marketed as adult in Australia and sold in the adult section. In the US it is marketed and sold as YA. Pure marketing scam cashing in on the current YA trend.

Kathy said...

Trisha--it was a strange little tale! And if you like hearing about penises, you're all set. ;)

Rachel--I'd heard that about The Book Thief (which I haven't read yet, but plan to). It will be interesting to see which category it seems to belong in.