I have a confession to make: I read a lot of YA (young adult, for those of you who are wondering) literature. Ok, ok, maybe it’s not a confession, since if you all are paying attention, you know that already. But it’s true, and I’m not ashamed of it.
I actually have an extremely eclectic reading taste – I’m game for almost anything, save terrifying, bloody horror books, and Amish fiction. This is because I ❤ books, I appreciate authors and want to support their heroic work, and I like to learn things about all the things (except stabby, murdery psychopaths and sweet, sweet Amish love).
I have always been a #reader, but over the years have read for different purposes. As a child, I read because I enjoyed it; as a student, I read because I had to; as an adult I still read because I have to, but not because it’s required – rather, it’s a compulsion. It’s not for a grade, but for the soul. Because I’m old now, and can do what I want (*insert sarcastic laughter here), I read what I want. My time is limited, and I don’t see the point in torturing myself by wasting precious hours reading something I don’t enjoy. I enjoy YA literature.
“But, why?” you ask. “YA lit is for, you know, teenagers.” I respectfully disagree. Saying that is like saying teenagers shouldn’t read contemporary fiction, or nonfiction because those genres aren’t written to target a teen audience. YA literature is a unique creature unto itself, in that it can be about anything. YA literature is not tied to genre limitations; is is not stifled by literary conventions. YA authors aren’t afraid to put it all out there and write about cyborg Cinderellas or about children hunting other children to amuse evil adults; they aren’t afraid to take risks. They aren’t afraid of what their audience may think – they know kids are up for anything.
So why is YA literature thought of as being less than?
Currently, YA literature is experiencing an explosion in popularity. YA books are ending up on best seller lists; they are taking up huge amounts of space in bookstores; they are being turned into blockbuster films. Are there really that many teens reading books? NO. While there are a lot of teens who read, the explanation for what can only be called the YA Phenomenon is this: adults are reading YA books. Why? BECAUSE YA BOOKS TALK ABOUT ALL THE THINGS that adult books don’t. Here’s an example: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, published by HarperCollins this past February, is about an inner-city girl who witnesses her childhood best friend shot and killed by a police officer while unarmed, and the implications and fallout of that situation. It places the reader squarely within the story, and provides a perspective most readers may never get. No AF (adult fiction) books are talking about this topic – something that is very timely and relevant. Yet Thomas is brave enough to do so, and to an audience that is open-minded enough to consider that other perspective. Another example is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This book follows Junior as he moves from the reservation to the suburbs where he navigates the minefield that is trying to make friends while battling social stereotypes. This book highlights specific identity issues facing indigenous peoples, and resonates with many who feel marginalized. *Looks around – AF? Anything on this? No?
The examples I used here are two contemporary novels, set in reality. Many YA authors choose to tackle these issues, as well, only in a fantasy context. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is a good bellwether for this: she highlights society and class, as well as identity, but sets the story in a post-apocolyptic world. YA books deal with questions of drug culture, suicide, death, violence, identity, sex, acceptance, family, relationships, mental health, etc., ad infinitum. You name it, there’s a YA book that talks about it. YA is valuable because people can relate to the books, no matter how old the reader is.
YA books also provide:
Escapism – Most people don’t want to sit down, crack open a book, and read about depressing things. They want to, at least for a little while, bail on their real life. Settings in YA books are often fantastical and foreign, and allow readers to step away from their lives and experience something that speaks to their imagination, rather than their reason.
Excitement – Let’s get real here for a minute. There are some AF books that are boring AF (see what I did there?). YA books, no matter the genre, are always moving. Because teens are always moving. There is drama; there is action – and most of the time, the two are happening at the same time.
Strong Characters – In case you haven’t met one for a while, and need to be reminded, let me point out: teens are opinionated. They are learning, they are developing their own thoughts and world views, and they want to see the same thing in their book hero(ine)s. Many YA books are written in 1st person point of view, so the reader hears the character’s voice specifically. The voices are strong and sure, and inspire that same confidence. Additionally, there are many, many strong female characters in YA lit, who represent some of the most individual voices in literature of any genre.
Hope – For all the “issues” found in YA literature, rarely do things end on a negative note. This is because the authors realize they are writing for the next generation, who have a lot to look forward to. Soul-crushing situations are resolved, hurts are mended, and the bad guy is rightfully punished. Teens are creative and they’re smart, and they have a habit of looking forward, rather than backward; YA authors do a wonderful job of giving them something bright to move toward.
It crushes my soul when I hear critics (and by critics, I mean other readers) bash YA literature as “shallow” or “dumbed down” derivatives of AF. Because this is not the case. YA literature is just as sophisticated and important as every other genre of book out there, because it does its job: it speaks to its audience. And it’s audience listens, and loves it.
Just one last thought: if it wasn’t for YA authors, we wouldn’t have Harry Potter; we wouldn’t have Katniss Everdeen; we wouldn’t have Anne Shirley; we wouldn’t have Bilbo Baggins. Some of the most iconic and beloved literary characters ever created are products of YA literature.
So next time someone scoffs at you because you choose to spend your time reading a YA book now and again (or always), don’t be ashamed to stand up for those authors who choose to create iconic characters and memorable settings, and who choose to face the hard issues head-on and try to make sense of them.
(All those gorgeous covers, though…)