Good writing happens where it’s made. I’d give my right arm to have written sentences as beautiful as these:

“The village, in which we Bradshaws lived for more than two hundred years, covers barely a third of our island’s length. The rest is salt water marsh. As a child I secretly welcomed the first warm day of spring by yanking off my shoes and standing waist deep in the cord grass to feel the cool mud squish up between my toes. I chose the spot with care, for cord grass alone is rough enough to rip the skin, and ours often concealed a bit of curling tin or shards of glass or crockery or jagged shells not yet worn smooth by the tides. In my nostrils, the faint hay smell of the grass mingled with that of the brackish water of the Bay, while the spring wind chilled the tips of my ears and raised goosebumps along my arms. Then I would shade my eyes from the sun and search far across the water hoping to see my father’s boat coming home.

I love Rass Island, although for much of my life, I did not think I did, and it is a pure sorrow to me that, once my mother leaves, there will be no one left there with the name of Bradshaw. But there were only the two of us, my sister, Caroline, and me, and neither of us could stay.”


There’s something fundamental in these words. All the seasons of the year, not only spring, are evoked, and the cycle of life, human and natural, is presented to us in the briefest possible way. But go deeper. Scan these sentences as if you were scanning a poem in high school and you’ll find that they are nearly Shakespearean iambic pentameter–the basic unit of English speech–with only slight variations in the rhythm, variations Shakespeare himself understood. They are not poetry, and yet they are.

Where does the passage come from? It comes from Katherine Paterson’s novel, Jacob Have I Loved, her retelling of the story of Jacob and Esau through the conflict between two sisters, Louise and Caroline Bradshaw, as they grow up on a tiny island off the Maryland shore. Paterson’s book is commonly thought of as a “young adult” novel, but its audience is no more meant to be limited to “young adults” (whatever that term means) than the audience of The Wizard of Oz or Huckleberry Finn is.

To be honest, I owe my life to reading such books. All that I am, and all that I ever wanted to be, is rooted in the Chip Hilton series of sports books written by the old basketball coach Clair Bee, and in the books of F.W. Dixon, the collective pseudonym of the men and women who wrote the Hardy Boys series starting in the 1920s.

These books, when I read them at the ages of eleven and thirteen, shattered the categories in which booksellers tried to confine them. They weren’t just books about baseball or mysteries. They taught me what language can do. They taught me to live. Any book that teaches us how to be an adult is a book meant for adults. It is time, and past time, that we do away with the condescending label of “young adult,” whether we are applying it to a book we’re reading or–more unfortunately–to the person who’s written it (“a writer for ‘young adults'”). Put good books in the hands of those ready to read at any age, and I guarantee that the adults we produce thereby will be far better than those whose reading has been limited by the categories of booksellers.


One thought on “The Limits Of Categories

  1. Pingback: Some Myths About Reading | Books Here And There

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