home Arts & Literature, Books, North America In Favour of YA: Why Adults Shouldn’t Feel Embarrassed to Read Children’s Literature

In Favour of YA: Why Adults Shouldn’t Feel Embarrassed to Read Children’s Literature

Oh look, yet another article trashing YA, its authors, and its readers. It must be a day ending in Y. This time, it’s on Slate, where writer Ruth Graham smugly insists that adults who read young adult literature should be ashamed for reading beneath themselves. In her diatribe against the rising numbers of grownups choosing to read what she refers to as ‘children’s books,’ she sweepingly lumps the genre into one massive amalgamation of trash, infantalising its adult, teen, and kid readers. She brings the peculiar hate some adults seem to have for young adult fiction to an art form.

With all due respect, Ms. Graham, as a reader and reviewer of young adult fiction, I honestly don’t give a flying fuck what you think of it, and I’ll tell you why: You clearly aren’t well read in the genre, and it’s clearly not to your taste. Both of which are completely fine, but mean you are clearly not qualified to offer cogent, germane, productive, or, bluntly, interesting criticism and discussion of YA. There’s a reason I don’t review adult Westerns — it’s not a genre I’m very familiar with, nor is it one I’m interested in. Yet, I don’t feel any particular urge to trash its fans, writers, and history, managing to be perfectly content with focusing on reviewing books I do enjoy, in an area of the literary canon that I am well-informed about.

But let us pretend, for a moment, that your points merit any kind of response. Starting with your claim that YA is too simplistic, and has endings that are too neatly tied up. Hilariously, you bring up Divergent as an example of just the kind of trash that adults are reading to rot away their minds: Have you actually read the trilogy? In full? Because there’s nothing neat, tidy, or resolved about that ending. Likewise, for that matter, with The Fault in Our Stars, which ends not only with a jarring reminder of one character’s mortality, but with the overarching awareness on the narrator’s part that she is going to die. Or Eleanor & Park, which likewise fails to have a clean ending.

In fact, YA, popular and otherwise, is all about messy, sloppy, confusing endings as the teenage protagonists make their way between teenhood and adulthood. Whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, contemporary fiction, romance, literary fiction, or any number of other genres (sorry, Ms. Graham, YA contains multitudes, just as adult fiction does), YA is in fact characterised by endings that are often abrupt and messy. People die. People betray each other. People are left with unanswered questions. People are faced with difficult realisations that they need to work out on their own.

You’re unjustly comparing YA as a vast category to one very slim category of adult fiction: Literary fiction. The hero-worship of adult literary fiction is an issue to take on at another juncture, but it’s notable that you didn’t appear to address a single YA literary fiction title. Perhaps you’re not aware they exist? Here’s a brief starter reading list: Hilary Smith’s Wild Awake, Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs, e. lockhart’s We Were Liars, David Levithan’s Every Day, Michelle Tea’s Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, Susann Cokal’s Kingdom of Little Wounds, Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy, and Marcus Sedgewick’s Midwinterblood, among many others.

It’s manifestly unfair to compare Twilight to The Goldfinch, just as it would be to compare All Our Pretty Songs to the latest bodice-ripper in the adult romance section. The two are completely different beasts — though most bookstores and libraries shelve YA in one massive section rather than dividing it as they do with adult literature, it isn’t a monolith, and pretending otherwise is ridiculous. Readers of any age, and experienced librarians and booksellers, can tell the difference between literature in different genres, and understand what they’re getting into whether they’re reading or recommending teen paranormal romance, adult mysteries, or literary fiction for readers of all ages.

I note that you had the time, Mr. Graham, to look askance on consumers of other media you don’t approve of, which actually undermines, rather than strengthens, your point. You claim you’d rather see people sinking to the filthy level of YA if the alternative is watching television (horrors!) or reading ‘detective novels.’ Your disdain for people who apparently don’t meet your personal standards when it comes to the ‘right’ media for adults to be consuming is observed and noted, as its effect on your argument.

You may be shocked to learn that many people who read young adult fiction read it in addition to, not in lieu of, a wide variety of other books. Both teens and adults who read YA tend to read adult fiction as well as nonfiction — they’re well-rounded readers, not people who are limiting themselves to a genre that you seem to think is ‘comfortable.’ Though for both teens and adults, there’s nothing comfortable about YA, depending on what you read.

There absolutely are YA novels that are formulaic and dull, with predictable, neatly tied up endings and easy sailing. The same is true of adult fiction, including that same literary fiction you seem to regard as the holy grail. Not all writing is produced for the same purpose, and escapism is a legitimate reason to read a book, just as the desire to plunge into something complex, provocative, and intense is a good reason too.

You’re choosing to ignore the provocative, daring, and innovative in YA in favour of cheap shots across the bow, and more than that, you want to be self-righteous about it, in your attempt to tell other adults what they should and shouldn’t be reading.

The YA renaissance, driven by authors like J.K. Rowling, Veronica Roth, Holly Black, Rainbow Rowell, Maureen Johnson, Sarah Rees Brennan, Justine Larbalestier, Sarah McCarry, and many more, is of cultural and social importance, even though you seem reluctant to acknowledge it. This is an important tipping point in media, society, and pop culture, and the fact that adults of all genders are taking YA seriously is notable, not something that should be decried. It implies that adults are reading more widely, that adults are starting to break down stigma about genre fiction, and that adults are taking teens seriously as well.

Many young adult authors, like Lauren DeStefano, are young adults — talented and under 30 — as well, and they’re writing not just for teen audiences but for adult ones too, exploring new worlds and new ways of thinking. The definition of what it means to be a teenager or a young adult is indeed changing, as we are living in an era when many young adults are being forced to grow up fast. Our teenagers are growing up in a time of war — in a few years, young adults graduating high school will have been born in the post 11 September era, knowing nothing but military action in the Middle East, domestic terrorism in the US from right-wing extremists, and rising isolationism from the US government.

External pressures for young adults aren’t just limited to the security state. Academic demands on teens and young adults are higher than ever, with mounting expectations and responsibilities for people who will ultimately be disgorged into colleges and universities, there to be treated like milch cows for the student loan industry. For those in their 20s and 30s who were promised the world, there is an acute awareness that the world was not delivered and that they will need to take what they can get in a world ranged against them. The new YA addresses this reality, not whatever fantasy you seem to think it does, Ms. Graham.

It is not surprising that many teens as well as older readers are turning to explorations of post-apocalyptic realms, to contemporary stories addressing the issues they face today, to stories that sometimes allow them to simply spend a few hours between the covers of a book, forgetting about their worries. Some are also trying to recapture the childhoods they were never allowed to have, which is a legitimate response to the current state of US society.

YA is not to everyone’s tastes, as elegantly illustrated by your ignorant screed. And that’s perfectly fine. You’re free to continue not reading it — but you might want to reconsider inflicting your ill-informed and frankly dull, hackneyed, and unoriginal opinions on the rest of us.

2 thoughts on “In Favour of YA: Why Adults Shouldn’t Feel Embarrassed to Read Children’s Literature

  1. I must really be dumb by his standards, then, since I like BOTH YA and “detective novels”.

  2. Just as parents need to be aware of what messages song lyrics are filling kids’ heads, they also should know what their kids are reading: Trash or YA lit? As a former English teacher, I recall classroom discussions about the classics: A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and others. The best part was students discovering insights that I (and my teacher’s manual) had missed. My hope is that my newly released novel, Ken’s War, leads readers of any age to discoveries about life and themselves.

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