There is a corner of the Internet where I spend a lot of time. It’s the corner with the readers and writers of books. It’s the place where you hashtag “amreading” or “amwriting” proudly. It’s the corner where people support each other with writing sprints or beta reading their work.
This corner of the Internet blew up the other day over an article written by a woman for Salon about why adults should be ashamed to read books written for the young adult age group. I enjoyed seeing some of the top YA writers on Twitter turn the criticism around by recommending their favorite YA instead (see #PromoteaYAInstead).
All in all, it was a big kerfuffle.
I wasn’t going to read the article. I swear. Then I started thinking about my own reading habits and preferences. Then I became endlessly curious about what this woman, Ruth Graham, actually said in her article. I broke down and read it. I also spent some time perusing the other articles she written over the years. They create an interesting picture of her views on the world. But, I’m not going to attack the writer of the article for her views. Instead, I’m going to respond to a couple of her main points.
Reasons Why I Read It
There is a confession I need to make up front. As an English major in college, I had serious book prejudices. In most cases, if the author was still alive then the book or work wasn’t worth reading. There were a few living authors on my list. Salman Rushdie. Barbara Kingsolver.
I clung to this prejudice for a few years. Then I started reading some contemporary fiction. Then I read more. Then I started reading YA with my own teenager. Now, I make it part of my regular reading list. Who changed my mind? Cornelia Funke. Alyson Noel. Laini Taylor. Libba Bray. Ransom Riggs.
Not all YA is created equal to be sure. This makes it just like adult fiction in my mind. I’ve read some adult fiction, genre and literary, which made my eye twitch. Some of it made me close the book and think “well, won’t be getting that three hundred pages back.”
But, oh, those gems where you finish the book and you sit back with the knowledge that your world has just shifted slightly. It is those moments, as a reader, I live for and relish. And some of those books, for me, have been written for a YA audience. Does that make me a less discriminating reader? Does it mean I need to eat Happy Meals? No, it means I haven’t allowed a prejudice keep me from opening my mind to truth or diversity in the form of a young adult novel.
As an adult, reading YA can provide nostalgia, but that isn’t the only thing that an adult can gain by reading them. What’s wrong with reading YA to connect with those in middle school and high school today? To understand their world just a little?
I think every adult has at some point thought “I can’t imagine going through high school in today’s world.” Whether it’s the school shootings or the online bullying or the spread of news about some bad decision through social media, young adults today are facing a world that I don’t always understand and one that I want to be able to help them navigate. Reading has always been an avenue of learning for me. So, if young adults are flocking to a certain novel then they are seeing something of their reality depicted there. Sign me up.
I also love it when my 14 year-old comes running to me to tell me to read a book she’s just finished because it made such an impact on her. And she knows that I’m going to take her book recommendation seriously.
The Ending Thing
There was one part of Ruth Graham’s article which rankled even more than the rest. Her generalization about YA endings seemed a bit…hypocritical. I’ve read a few adult fiction books where I’ve been disappointed that the ending was so neatly wrapped with the big, red bow. There was no courage in adding a bit of edge to the end.
Graham’s argument did make me wonder about how many YA books she read to come to this unfair conclusion. In rebuttal I’m going to offer one YA series that ended in heartbreaking reality. Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy. Set in the Victorian era, the main character Gemma falls in love with a young man who is South Asian. Now, I know as an avid history buff that no relationship between an English young lady and an East Indian young man could ever end in marriage in the 1890s. And Bray knew this as well. I won’t give away the ending, but our dear Gemma had to face her future alone and she did it bravely.
I think my favorite tweet from the whole dust-up came from Annie Stone.
Now, I will offer one bit of advice to Ruth Graham. She should have her eyes checked. If they are rolling that often, there may be a problem. Or she may be emulating those young adults she thinks are reading such simplistic fiction.
Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have a stack of books that includes YA, non-fiction, genre adult, literary adult and a Magic Tree House, to read.
8 thoughts on “In defense of YA”
Great post; very thoughtful. I’ve read similar articles before, and I just choose to ignore them. People have their own opinions and I have mine. It’s very unbecoming for someone to judge people based on the books they read. There are people who will read anything and not just one genre. Anyway, well done on this post.
Thanks! I think we should just be glad that people are still reading!
Thank you for sharing. As an adult, I still read YA and Adult fiction. I still learn some important lessons about life through YA fiction. It is not the genre, but the writer who determines the greatness of a book.
Very true! It is about the writer. I think many people miss out on a lot by writing off entire genres and not giving certain authors and their books a chance.
I’m so glad to see some amazing YA authors mentioned in your post, because in the comments of the Slate article, most people kept touting Harry Potter and Hunger Games. Yes, they are amazing, but there’s plenty of amazing authors in the YA field. For every Twilight or The Selection (not dissing them, I just enjoy them on a different level) there’s a Miranda Kenneally tackling abortion and religion in Things I Can’t Forget, or the new book Tease that I recently read that deals with the subject of bullying from the viewpoint of a bully. There’s fierce female characters aplenty in the novels of Kristin Cashore, and the recent book The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rokoski could hardly be mistaken for a Sweet Valley High novel (which my own actual YA days were spent reading). Laini Taylor is one of my all time favorite writers, ever. And Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boy series is phenomenal.
The men of YA don’t disappoint either- I agree the Ransom Riggs is great, but look at what writers like David Levithan have done- he actually was able to write about gay characters not just as best friends or add ins, but as main characters. There’s no way a book called Two Boys Kissing would have happened in the early 90’s when I was a teen. YA authors are doing a lot more than just writing literary candy, and I think the way Ruth Graham dismisses every YA book was what upset me. I read another article, possibly in Salon, last year which pretty much said the same thing- that life is too short to read YA when there’s so many other “worthy” books to get to.
But the difference is that I don’t care if Ruth Graham sticks to adult literary novels, or if the dude who wrote the article never makes it to living author novels, that’s why there’s such diverse book market out there. I really regret all the genres I gave up as a teen because I thought they didn’t fit into the serious adult I was trying to be (goodbye YA, goodbye romance). What a waste to spend time avoiding books because I was worried about what others might think of my reading choices! There is no shame in my YA game!
Thanks for your comments, Kate! I totally get the time you spent trying “serious adult” books. Those were my college years. However, I try really hard to keep my reading list diverse now. There are a few genres which just aren’t for me, but I try to give many of them a try at least. I’ve discovered many books I’ve loved that way.