Why do books for teens hold such appeal for adults, and should we be ashamed to read them?
I spent much of the weekend deep into reading Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae (Allen & Unwin, Oct. 2015). It’s a-freaking-mazing, BTW—more on that later this week. I fangirled hard over this one. But amid the omigodomigodomigods, there was this tiny part of me that stepped back, one eyebrow raised, to ask: what are you doing?
I’m twenty-nine, and my mad maths skills tell me that’s ten years too old to be reading books targetted at teenagers. And if I couldn’t make the calculation for myself, there are plenty of people writing obnoxious (and IMHO ill-informed) pieces, such as Ruth Graham’s infamous (and clickbaity) Slate article, ‘Against YA’, about why I ought to be ashamed of myself and grow up already. But I L.O.V.E. Young Adult fiction, or to be more specific, contemporary (and for want of a better word) ‘literary’ YA. I read it. I write it. For a long time, I studied it. I CANNOT GET ENOUGH OF IT.
And I’m not alone. Back in 2012 a study found that 55% of YA books were bought by consumers over 18. More recently, that figure has been placed at 80%. In fact, almost 30% of YA readers are aged 30-44. And it’s a weird thing to get my head around, that books written for people half my age are actually more popular with readers even older than me. But in a strange way, it makes sense. I read very little YA as a teenager, namely because it was what my teachers wanted me to read; ergo deeply uncool. I wanted to be a grown up already and thus immersed myself in Serious Adult Literature. I had it in my head that anything written for teenagers couldn’t possibly be sophisticated. I avoided genre fiction for similar reasons. It wasn’t until the end of my undergrad years, after reading a lot of Very Important Books and criticism, that I began to take a broader view of what makes for good reading and realised that ‘literature = good, genre fiction = bad’ is a laughably simplistic approach.
Eager to make up for lost time, I began reading all the YA I could get my hands on and haven’t looked back since. From the figures above, it’s obvious that I’m not alone in this, which is sad. It’s also potentially problematic for teen fans of the genre, who are increasingly marginalised in their own space. Danielle Binks wrote an excellent piece about this on her blog, Alpha Reader. And I wholeheartedly agree with her that while it’s great to see YA find an increasingly broad readership, it’s vital that the fandom continues to support teen-only spaces, such as the Inky Awards, where teen readers can have their say.
However, as the big three-oh looms ever closer I’ve been thinking about what the attraction is for older readers. According to Graham, grown-ups’ love of YA ‘has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia’. Well, TBH, all fiction reading to a greater or lesser extent has to do with escapism. When you read fiction, no matter how heavy and sophisticated it is, or how much it nudges you to contemplate life, the universe and everything, you’re essentially playing make-believe. Make peace with it. Instant gratification? Yeah sure, I’m more likely to sob/giggle out loud reading YA, but so what? Just because these stories are immediately satisfying on one level doesn’t mean that they won’t also keep readers thinking beyond the final page or that the questions they pose have easy answers. But do I read for nostalgia? No. I don’t see YA as a cosy escape back into a lost, golden era. I’m not some overgrown Peter Pan desperately seeking passage to Never Neverland (cool as that would be). I like being an adult—having experience, knowledge, freedom, responsibility and all that. Okay, some days it sucks, but it sucks way less than being a teenager. I’m convinced the only people who enjoy the hell ride that is adolescence are the popular kids, and even for them, it’s probably not the funfair they’d have you think. You’ll be floored to learn that the girl who grew up to start a book blog did not count among their number.
So if it’s not these three things that I’m especially seeking in YA, then what? Well, after many years and many hundreds of books, the thing I want from my reading is very simple: a good story, well told. Such tales are surprisingly rare. With adult fiction, I feel like I often have to settle for one or the other. Either the story is excellent and the writing clunky as all get out, or the prose is sublime to the point that I’m sobbing with the beauty of it all, meanwhile nothing is happening. Obviously there are many exceptions, but experience has shown that with YA the odds are ever more so in my favour. Teenagers are picky. Wary. Peer pressure makes it necessary to view everything as lame until otherwise proven. You can’t serve up some didactic tripe and expect them to go gaga over it. To generalise, they demand a fast-moving story, complex characters they can empathise with, challenging themes and genuine emotion. And the prose has to be tight. There isn’t space for long strings of adverbs and adjectives, turgid metaphor or lengthy scene-setting. Every sentence counts. These stories also tend to be dialogue heavy, and because the characters are mostly teenagers, their conversations are whip-smart back-and-forths brimming with subtext. Really good YA reads closer to poetry and play scripts than prose, and as both a drama geek and word nerd, I find that necessary precision of language highly appealing.
And then there are the characters. Something that really excites me about this ‘golden age’ of YA is the rise of strong female characters. And I don’t just mean the Katniss Everdeen-esque tough girls who literally kick arse. I mean Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor Douglas and Cather Avery, E. Lockhart’s Cadence Sinclair Eastman and Frankie Landau-Banks, Skylark Martin in Simmone Howell’s Girl Defective, Lucy in Alice Pung’s Laurinda, Maddie and ‘Verity’ in Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, Daisy in Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, John Green’s Margo Roth-Spiegelman and Alaska Young—complex, flawed young women trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. As a genre, YA increasingly puts young women in the spotlight and takes them, their interests and achievements seriously in a way that society typically doesn’t. As a feminist, that’s really important to me and it’s an area where, to be frank, adult literature has a hell of a lot of catching up to do.
But what I really love about YA is that the genre is a perfect vehicle for drama. There’s such vast scope for tragedy, humour and catharsis—all the good stuff. It’s like Shakespeare or Greek mythology. Reality is necessarily heightened. The characters are unstable, volatile agents who hide their vulnerability beneath prickles and smart, snarky wit. They have been led to the edge of a vast, uncharted wilderness and told to venture forth. It’s exciting and terrifying, more so I think than any other stage of life. They’re being hit with complex ideas while they’re still fixing their moral compass in place, and they have not yet learned to temper their emotions. Everything is raw and unfiltered. Falling in love feels like the best thing that’s ever happened because it literally is and characters can tumble head-first into romance because they don’t yet know how far they have to fall. On the flipside, loss, grief and heartbreak are apocalyptic because these characters don’t yet know that they can survive these things. Their hearts are untested. The colours turned way up. There is so much potential for story.
Finally, I love the endings. The ‘hopefully ever after’. There aren’t a lot of YA plots that end with ‘and then everybody died and all was misery’, but neither can authors promise that things will be okay because the characters still have their whole adult lives ahead of them—all remains possible. The protagonist arrives at the end of their road of trials with still-healing wounds and a clearer sense of self and what they’re capable of. They’re better equipped to face whatever life throws next, but it’s always just a little bittersweet. Sure it’s a tad predictable, but I’m okay with that.
Because YA fiction is technically targetted at teenagers, zeros in on young protagonists and explores emotions and ideas from a perspective where they appear big and bold and new rather than well worn and nuanced, there is an assumption that it’s somehow inferior. Reading lite. In her aforementioned article, Graham argues that these stories are too simple, not an accurate reflection of Real Life, that ‘the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction’. As adults, we ought to immerse ourselves in the gritty and uncertain, which can only be found in Serious Literature. And if readers are ‘substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something’. Ugh, please. As though the two are mutually exclusive. I shall prove they’re not by placing a Penguin Classic, a Pulitzer Prize Winner and a Printz Award Winner together in one frame:
Shockingly, the world continues to spin. A similar effect was observed when I absorbed all three into my brain. And to be fair, some days so-called ‘grown-up’ books offer more appeal, and I certainly wouldn’t ever want to limit my reading exclusively to YA, or to any single genre for that matter, even capital-L Literature.
But I keep coming back to YA novels because, as well as being fun to read, they offer a perspective that’s largely absent from adult fiction. As an adult, it’s really easy to get mired in the details. Life moves fast. Most of us are just trying to keep up. YA novels invite readers to take a step back and look at the bigger picture by asking those deceptively simple questions: who am I? What do I want? What do I believe in? What am I capable of? They whittle life back to the basics: love, loss, fear, family and friendship. But most of all (and believe me, I’m fully cognisant of how cheesy it sounds) they offer hope and preach resilience. And the older I get and the more experience I gather, the more important that becomes.
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