In Defense of YA

By Meg Cook

I know a lot of people have been chiming in, on blogs and in comment sections, on the topic of young adult literature in reaction to this Slate article written by Ruth Graham. In the article, Graham argues that while young adult books might be good, they shouldn’t be read by adults.

Are we really still having this discussion?

One of the first comments that irked me was this:

Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature. I’m talking about the genre the publishing industry calls ‘realistic fiction.

Okay. Let’s break this down. She is writing an article about YA, but only certain kinds of YA, only the “best” kinds of YA, which is somehow only realistic fiction. After this paragraph, I feel like the title of her piece cannot be true because she is only discussing one genre within YA. Not only that, she alludes to the idea that everything else is trashy, but only gives two (very popular and very well-known) series. It seems like she is reducing all of YA science fiction to one book (Divergent) and all of fantasy to another (Twilight). There is no room for the host of sub-genres that have erupted in the YA genre and it is implied that anything but realistic fiction in the YA world, isn’t worth anyone’s time, not even the young adults.

I, like a lot of other twenty-somethings I know, enjoy reading a spread of books in various genres and forms: young adult, science fiction, fantasy, literary, historical ficiton, mysteries, biography, memoir, non-fiction … the list goes on. I believe that exposing oneself to a variety of books

I also believe that whatever genre of book, as a writer, it’s important to be aware of tropes of your genre and identify which of those tropes you might want to challenge. A clear example of this is in fantasy where much of the post-Tolkien fantasy novels where heavily inspired by Middle Earth. When an author chooses to break that mold, she expands the horizons not only of that genre but novels and writing at large.

But this isn’t an issue that resides only in the world of genre fiction. As writers, we are influenced by what we read and what we believe makes for good writing. As a result, there is a lot of copy catting (some good, some not so good). Literary fiction can fall into similar traps. For every fantasy book I’ve read that is all about wizards and elves and unlikely heroes, there is a literary fiction book is about some divorced or unhappily married middle-aged dude screwing around with a younger girl and drinking boatloads of wine. It doesn’t mean writing about any of these characters is wrong, it simply means that all of literature, across the board, is imperfect. There are incredible YA books and there are YA books that aren’t so incredible. Same with literary fiction. Same with mysteries. Same with science fiction.

But I digress. The second comment in Graham’s article that gave me pause was this:

 Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. 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. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.

I had a lot of thoughts when I read this. The first one (and one that I’ve seen echoed around blogs and tumblr) was who cares? People prefer different types of books with different types of literature. I’ll read whatever the heck I want to! But more than that, just because a book has more closure than another doesn’t make it more “simplistic”. Stories need endings. They don’t all have to be happy, but I like knowing where my main character stands at the end of the book with maybe a little bit of the unknown creeping in. It’s a balancing act between the two.

I also feel like I’ve read multiple YA books with endings that did not wrap up neatly as well as adult fiction that did.

Overall, I believe there is room for growth in young adult fiction. But I also believe there has been incredible growth thus far. I read YA because good writing is happening there and because YA is doing things that I wasn’t finding other places.

More that those reasons, I believe that writing about teenagers is important, hard work. Articles like this, while seemingly directed towards adults reading teen books, is also putting down the YA books at large.

It becomes clear, as the article progresses, that Graham and I approach reading extremely differently. She mentions that while she looked certain books as a youth, she has no desire to got back and read any YA books as an adult.

But experience couldn’t be more differnt. From listening to Jim Dale’s narration of Harry Potter for seventeen times in a row to re-reading old favorites like Tamora Pierce, picking up books from my teen years has been incredibly valuable to me as an adult. Good books are timeless, and multiple reads will elicit new meanings and viewpoints I didn’t see as a kid. These books didn’t just shape who I was then, they have trickled into my life as an adult. Even the ones I haven’t dusted off since I was in high school or younger. They continue to influence me, and I continue to be fascinated by books written for children and young adults.

When stuff like this comes up, I think a lot about one a quote from one of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis. He said:

A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.

I love this quote because it acknowledges that children’s books, like all good literature, have something important to say. From picture books to adventure middle grade novels to plot heavy thrillers, books have messages. And these messages apply to anyone who wants to listen.

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