In Defense of Young Adult Literature
Recently, a friend tagged me in a photograph on Facebook. A sign at a bookstore told adult patrons that they had “permission” to check out and/or love young adult novels. It was funny, but it made me think about the attitudes and opinions regarding young adult literature.
Some background: I’ve been an advanced reader since I was very young. I would consider myself to be of average intelligence—even below average in some areas, like math—but I’ve always been lucky to quickly read and comprehend information. Because of this, I frequently read books that were above my grade level, a trend that continued well in to high school. So, as a young adult, I didn’t gravitate toward young adult novels. I even snubbed my nose at them. I preferred classics—one of my absolute favorites was George Orwell’s 1984.
When the Twilight craze first began to gather steam, I was in college. As I began my teaching career, I scoffed a little at my Edward-obsessed students. Trendy YA novels, I thought, were not “real” literature.
Then I read The Hunger Games.
My parents bought me a Kindle for Christmas, and I remembered hearing that The Hunger Games was a dystopia, much like 1984. I began with the first book in the series and tumbled headfirst into a horrifying world with a protagonist who baffled, intrigued, and inspired me. When the movies came out, I enjoyed stocking up on Hunger Games merchandise and attending midnight showings with my friends. Not only did I love Katniss’ story, but my enthusiasm for the series gave me a sort of community, both in “real life” and online. This motivated me to reread the Harry Potter books and re-watch the movies, and from there I began feverishly reading any YA novel I could get my hands on.
Soon after, I began blogging YA book reviews. I attended conventions specifically to see YA authors. I even met a few face-to-face: John Green, Lauren Oliver, and my favorite author Rainbow Rowell.
I guess it might strike others as odd that I, a responsible adult in most areas of my life, would enjoy attending book launches filled with readers half my age. It might seem strange that I bypass well-written adult novels at the bookstore and walk straight into the “Teen Reads” section. I’ve read articles that deride adult YA readers—time to grow up, the authors chide. Leave the kid books for the kids.
I used to be able to justify this behavior based on my occupation. I had to be knowledgeable on the books my students read so that I could discuss the books with them. I needed to know suitable YA novels for my curriculum. But I’m not a high school teacher anymore. By my former logic, I should now be fangirling over The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
It’s not that I’m filled with nostalgia for my teenage years. In fact, there’s not enough money in the world to convince me to travel back in time and relive pubescence. There’s just a sense of freedom in young adult literature that I don’t see in adult fiction. Teenaged protagonists can live in a small rural town or in the heart of New York or on the surface of Mars and they’re still evolving, growing, deciding who they are going to be. YA novels are heavily character-driven—this is why they inspire fan art and feature films and fandoms. YA novels are a communal experience, and this seems largely missing from the world of adult fiction.
Moving to a new state and starting a new job was a scary experience, but, in my bedroom, I keep a bookshelf full of YA novels. All I have to do is open one of these books and read about a brave young man or woman, and suddenly I am buoyed through my fears and insecurities.