A Few Reasons Why Adults SHOULD Read YA Novels
Recently, Slate columnist Ruth Graham suggested that we adults who read young adult literature ought to be embarrassed for doing so. She shamed us grown-ups who enjoyed John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars for stooping to read this simplistic, immature and maudlin piece of escapist tripe. And, apparently because she didn’t enjoy TFIOS, she extends her condemnation to include any adult who reads any YA. According to Graham, YA “books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple ... These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.” Wow.
Ms. Graham does not mention any other YA titles she might have read recently, so I have to assume that her actual experience reading YA literature is limited to what her own adult friends are talking about. To Graham’s annoyance, many of them are enjoying YA books and she thought we all needed to be scolded and set right. I am going to suggest that there are several very good reasons for adults to read YA literature these days -- including Ms. Graham.
First, a definition and a clarification. YA literature is comprised of those books written specifically for teens between the ages of 12 and 17 and is a relatively new marketing category. Judy Blume is the acknowledged godmother of this form and her groundbreaking novel Forever, which deals openly with teen sexuality and pregnancy, was first published in 1975. YA is NOT a genre, like mystery, romance or science fiction are genres. YA contains all genres, including sci fi, fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror and romance. YA literature has become widely known since Harry Potter and even more popular since the Twilight and Divergent series. Recently TFIOS has taken off and there will be more to come as many adult authors jump on the YA bandwagon.
As a YA librarian, I believe strongly that there are some excellent reasons for us adults to be reading YA literature these days, despite Ms. Graham’s exhortation that “we are better than this.”
The first group of adults who must start really reading YA lit are those journalists, professional critics, clergy and school administrators who write about, criticize and ban YA books without having read them. Too many of them, like Graham, ban them, broadly condemn them all, or even worse, ignore them entirely.
A second group of adults who might want to read YA literature are the parents of teens. Especially those who worry about what their teens are reading. In my job, often hear from moms or dads who worry about all the dark themes in YA literature---drugs, sex, suicide, etc. I would encourage those parents to pick up and read one of the books your teen is reading. Talk to him or her about it. See how they react to the book. Listen to what he or she tells you. In a talk given recently in Chicago, John Green explained that YA literature is uniquely able to shine a light into the darkest recesses of a teen’s being, where all his unexpressed fears, longings, and anxieties reside and help that teen realize that he is not alone. That at least one other person, the author, has experienced those or similar feelings can provide a welcome relief to that teen.
A third group of adults who would be well-served to read YA literature are those who work directly with teens. I know how easy it is for adults to forget what it was like to be a teen -- the emotions, the drama and the pressures they experience fade away and replaced by adult concerns. Good YA authors like John Green, E. Lockhart, Ellen Hopkins, Matthew Quick or Rainbow Rowell, write about these issues so well that even an adult reader will flash back to their own tumultuous teen years. Reading books for teens will also help adults understand how very different the world teens inhabit today is compared to their own, ten, twenty or thirty years earlier. Drugs, alcohol and sex still tempt teens, but today’s consequences can be more severe. Sexual abuse, addiction, homelessness, family dysfunction are widely prevalent in the lives of teens and their friends and are addressed in YA lit. Finally, those who work directly with teens as teachers, counselors, ministers and coaches might better understand those teens better if they read some of their books.
A fourth group of adults who might be interested in reading YA are those who love well-written books with timeless themes. Teens are in the process of transition from childhood to adulthood and as much as they are concerned about daily pressures in their lives, they are also trying to figure out the adult world and how and where they might fit in. They are considering timeless issues like war, abortion, racial and economic inequality, and injustice, just to name a few. One of the ways they come to understand the world they are growing into, is to read good books. Contrary to Ms. Graham’s belief, YA literature does not have simplistic answers to their difficult questions. This group of adults might consider reading Tamar by Mal Peet or Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
Adults, do NOT be embarrassed for reading YA literature. Read it to help you understand your teen’s world and how it’s different from the one you remember. Use it as a tool to help the teens in your life understand themselves and the world they will inherit. Lean on it as you come to grips with the fact that your teen is entering adulthood and will be leaving you behind. We adults can help them with that transition or keep our heads buried in the sands of the past, unwilling to accept reality. There are plenty of things for adults to feel bad about---poverty, sex abuse of children, violence against women, inequality of educational opportunities, etc. -- but reading YA books is NOT one of them.
Next week: Ellen’s favorite YA books for adults.