Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Admit It: I'm an Adult and I Read YA

Recently, a big brouhaha erupted in the literary world when slate.com ran an article by Ruth Graham who argued that not only should adults not read Young Adult literature, but also if they do so, they should be hanging their heads in shame.

Obviously, those of us adults who enjoy YA fiction were angered and fought back through every social media platform that exists. I know I tweeted my righteous indignation. Today I’ll spend more than 140 characters arguing my side of the coin.

There are so many arguments to be made against Ms. Graham’s assertion, I had a hard time deciding which I wanted to make here. I could easily start with the “Who is she to tell anyone what they should or should not read?” claim. While this is absolutely true, it is so obvious I don’t want to waste time on it. No, I would prefer to go in a couple of different directions.

First, there is the demographic question. If the reader isn’t a YOUNG adult, they shouldn’t read Young Adult, she says. Should I choose only from literature aimed at my demographic, with characters roughly the same age as I am? To take such a contention a step further, could this mean my reading choices should also extend to books about characters living the same lifestyle I live? If so, then I need to stop reading Pride and Prejudice—it’s SO New Adult, Gone With the Wind—when was the last time I had to save a plantation during a civil war, Jane Eyre—yes, I’ve been a teacher, but I’ve never lived on a moor with a brooding, dark, mysterious employer, the Outlander series—I don’t know how to time travel, Reading Lolita in Tehran—I’ve never been to Tehran, Romeo and Juliet—Oh My God the protagonists are teenagers which makes it YOUNG ADULT! In such a world I would be limited to reading books about white, middle-class, suburban women. Wow, that would be so much fun, and would enrich my life so much.

Oh, but Ms. Graham would say, demographics aren’t the issue. The problem is that Young Adult literature doesn’t sufficiently stretch the mind of the reader. Hmmm. So Huckleberry Finn, Romeo and Juliet, The Outsiders,  didn’t challenge me enough when I read them? I don't know--I felt pretty challenged by these books. Each of these is about young adults experiencing life as young adults so that could make them Young Adult literature, which I’m not supposed to read.

But they are classics, Ms. Graham might argue. Classics have borne the test of time and have been deemed to offer humanity an opportunity to vicariously experience something that will enrich the lives of the readers. My life feels enriched by my reading of many non-classics, both ‘adult’ and young adult.’ Some might even be, GASP, genre books!

Too many adults read Young Adult books for escapism, Ms. Graham contends. I will go on record here as I admit I often READ TO ESCAPE. Yes, I do. I escape with commercial adult books and Young Adult books. In fact, the older I’ve gotten the MORE I read to escape. Life can be a bitch sometimes. I don’t have as much of a need to read a tearjerker book about one of life’s tragedies when someone I know and love is going through it for real.

But I can no more pick any YA book at random and come up with something that will provide escape, than I can randomly choose an adult book for that same escape. There are plenty of YA books that beautifully handle some of the more difficult themes, and could never be called escapism. The writing in these books soars, challenges, and leaves the reader with a new perspective and view of life. From the classic The Diary of Anne Frank, to the more recent Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, to Looking for Alaska by John Green. Some of today’s best writing is being done in the young adult arena.

When I read the Slate article, I had the feeling that Ms. Graham thought that adults, who read YA, only read YA. I know plenty of adults who read YA, and none of them read it exclusively. My tastes are eclectic, and my reading diverse. One week I may be reading a classic, the next it will be a commercial mystery, the following week the latest from a favorite ‘adult’ author, and another week a great Young Adult book. I do read a lot of Young Adult—I write it after all and we need to read widely within the type of books we write—but I do not do so exclusively. Reading only one type of book would make Monica a very dull girl.

So, why are adults drawn to Young Adult fiction? There are as many theories on that as there are adults who read YA. But my theory is that the themes in YA are universal, accessible, and familiar. And, all adults have been fifteen, or sixteen, or seventeen. We remember what it was like. Those particular years greatly influence the adult we eventually become. It isn’t so much nostalgia we’re looking for, as a shared time we remember, and experiences that shaped who we are today. Even when those experiences weren’t pleasant.

I love YA fiction. I read it extensively. But that wasn’t always the case, and I think my situation is very similar to many adults who read YA. I came to it originally so I could share in what my sons were reading, and to interact with them through our discussions of the books. I suspect MANY adults hiding behind the latest popular YA book will tell you that’s how they came to this party, too.

And it’s such a great party we don’t want to leave!

photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulbence/548646841/">paulbence</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>


  1. Great points, all of them!

    When I read the article, I had the same reactions you did. I read YA as well, and frankly it's because I'm not interested in reading about my own life. The entire point of reading is to invite change into your life: whether it's through a new perspective, a new experience, etc. While your head is in a book you aren't YOU for a little while. You do escape, which is why everyone reads, lets be honest. And in those times when we're allowed to step into the pages of another world is when we do our best learning, our best development. Even if it means discovering what NOT to do.

    If that happens inside the pages of a YA book, I think I'm okay with it. Of course, the elephant in the room is that we shouldn't try to tell people what they should be reading. The very notion takes us into dangerous territory that I don't believe any of us want to visit.

  2. Thank you so much, Stephanie! Rarely has an article gotten my hackles up the way that one did. What you've said here is exactly what I hope everyone takes away from this discussion: "The entire point of reading is to invite change into your life: whether it's through a new perspective, a new experience, etc."

    YES, we do our best learning when we vicariously step into another world, through books. This is what I always taught my second graders, and it remains true throughout life. It does NOT matter whether that book is a classic, genre fiction, young adult, or a graphic novel. The experience, the learning, the change it brings to us, that is what matters.

    I'm so happy you took the time to share your thoughts, Stephanie! Made me smile!!

    1. Ha. I am exactly the same way. I usually act like a duck--let everything roll off my back. I was steaming over this one, though! Glad I could make you smile. Who couldn't use more of those? :)