Read Your Age!

Ruth Graham is embarrassed by adults who read YA fiction:

That will sound harsh to these characters’ legions of ardent fans. But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. … There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life – that’s the trick of so much great fiction – but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults. When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of “He’d never get enough of her,” the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?

Dianna Anderson protests:

It’s easy to be cynical about pat endings and the tying up of loose ends if you’re looking at a tiny sample of literature that exhibits those characteristics. But in the years I’ve been studying YA, I’ve learned that the only uniting feature of the genre is the age of the protagonists. There exists futuristic science fiction, dystopian fantasy, romance, stories of death and complexity to rival the heroes of the adult literary world. As it turns out, young adult literature is just as varied as adult genres. Writing it off entirely is like writing off all of popular music because you didn’t like that one Miley Cyrus song.

Hillary Kelly explains why she rereads a YA classic “year after year”:

I suppose nostalgia is a part of it – each time I turn past the title page of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn I reimagine myself on the floor beneath the window of my childhood bedroom. But it’s also because to reread Francie’s story is to reread the story of my literary life. It’s a chance to be more kind and generous to my younger self, to remind myself of how deeply the decisions of my childhood have ingrained themselves on my soon-to-be-30 brain. It’s a chance to remember that the complexities of adulthood are just variations on those from childhood.

Julie Beck has a more expansive take on why adults enjoy the genre:

I won’t deny that some of the appeal may lie in reading and remembering what it’s like to be that age, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I don’t read these books to recapture a lost youth. I read them because the stories are good and meaningful to me now. And what, exactly, makes them good and meaningful? One of the great values of literature is its ability to convey experiences different from our own, to let us see inside the heads of characters from different time periods, different countries, different races, classes, and, yes, ages. Every time a grownup reads a YA book, they widen their perspective in important ways.

I don’t mean to delegitimize young adult books’ primary audience by suggesting their only value is to provide adults with a window into teens’ lives, or that the stories are only good if grownups can like them. What I do mean to say is that things made for teenagers are not inherently less worthy of our time, attention, and critical consideration, simply because they’re for and about teens.

Catherine Addington adds another perspective:

One obvious and undersung answer is that adults writing for children bring a cleaner perspective to their work. Sex and violence are present in their full human complexity, with fleeting emotional intensity, rather than in a numbing barrage of obscenity. The familiar social structures of young life, from school to summer camp to family life, provide a familiar backdrop for archetypal stories like first love and first loss. They allow adults to enjoy timeless themes with all of adult literary fiction’s seriousness, but little to none of its cynicism or vulgarity. They remove the obligation of maturity, while revealing the importance of life experience. In short, young-adult fiction does not condescend to its readers. It should be no surprise that it sells.