On Reading Young Adult Fiction

I have, as long term readers are no doubt aware, a passion for young adult fiction. I read a lot of young adult novels on a pretty regular basis and I love getting recommendations of new stuff to read. I own a fair amount of young adult fiction, and as a general rule I only own books which I intend to read on multiple occasions, so the fact that I own, for example, more young adult fiction than feminist theory probably tells you something about me[1. Ok, yes, you guessed it, reading theory makes me see crosseyed.].

Yet, there’s a lot of prejudice against presumed adults who read young adult novels. And I have internalized a lot of this. At the library, I dart furtively into the “teen” section and I won’t go in if anyone is around. As I carry my books to the counter, I will stick something Adult and Respectable on top of the stack so that no one sees that I have a bunch of books bearing the dreaded “TEEN” sticker. At the bookstore, I skulk around the young adult section until¬† it’s safe and then I dash in to grab a book and flee before anyone goes “hey, what are you doing in there!” I rarely carry young adult books around with me even though I never leave the house without a book[1. Well, ok, I will take the garbage out without a book in hand but that is about the only time.].

My internalization of the hatred of young adult books really bugs me, and it’s something which I am trying to combat, but I am unfortunately not helped by the fact that there is a lot of disdain for YA stuff as well as young adults themselves in the world. It is assumed that teens have no actual autonomy or productive thoughts to add to the community and that anything they read would be boring and useless. Neither of these things is true.

In fact, young adult fiction is actually where some of the most exciting stuff happens. I’ve talked with young adult authors and children’s authors and one of the points they make is that it is a smaller market. And this means that they can get away with a lot more. They can talk about really controversial stuff, actually, in a way which is interesting and true and informative and not just included for shock value.

Young adult authors are actively working to break down stereotypes, social attitudes, and erroneous beliefs. This is not happening in adult books. Yes, sometimes YA gets a little expository and “now you are going to learn something” but this is really quite all right with me when contrasted with adult books. You see, adult books assume that the reader already knows everything. Young adult books assume that the reader is exploring and wants to learn more, so they provide more brain food.

And, another thing about YA. I like to be in touch with what is being read by the next generation. I like to see what people are reading because what we read shapes us. I might like a given book or not like it, might think that a book has some great material or that it’s horrifically racist, but I’d like to read it to see for myself. Because once I have read it, I can start exploring it and talking about it and thinking about alternatives to it that I think that people who like it might like to read.

Last year in one of his classes, my father used Twilight as a teachable moment because it was clear that his students really just wanted to talk about Twilight, not the assigned text. My father hadn’t read the books, but he got one of the students to briefly describe them, and he went from there. He talked about the history of the vampire in fiction. He got his students talking about how the vampire has changed through the ages and what the modern vampire might have to say about society; why it is that we have a need to make vampires bad, but in a safe way, now as opposed to purely evil. By going with the students and treating their reading seriously instead of like pablum, my father got them to open up and really engage with a text.

They then applied those critical skills to other texts. Working with Twilight allowed my father to show his students how to critically view and explore a text, something which I think is a really valuable skill.

Sure, it wasn’t the assigned text. But it was a text, and his students were enthusiastic about it, and they got something out of the class. Because my father was willing to roll with it and use Twilight to make some points and get his students thinking critically, instead of just shutting the class down and trying to get them to focus on whatever it was they were supposed to talk about that day. He even invited his students to use the books for their next essay topic, if they wanted to, because he felt he might get some interesting responses, as indeed he did.

The ability to engage with YA means that you can actually talk with people who are just reading YA and don’t have any feminist theory at all on their bookshelves. And since I’ve read pretty widely, I can say “you know, if you liked this, you might enjoy this other book,” or “it’s interesting that you picked up on that in Speak, have you read Yes Means Yes?”

And, you know what? Some YA is just good and it’s fun and it’s time people were less ashamed to read it. I read young adult fiction because I like it and I am allowed to do that, just like “young adults” are allowed not to like YA and to prefer reading Proust if they want to.¬† And reading YA, no matter what your age is, doesn’t mean that you are wasting your time or following sheep or any of the other nasty things said about YA readers. YA is a legitimate reading choice.

And for that reason, among many others, I really wish that the library volunteers would stop saying “you know this is a young adult book, don’t you?” when I check out YA.

2 Replies to “On Reading Young Adult Fiction”

  1. YA is my first choice in books. I love the emotion and complexity of some novels, and the sheer fun of others. I don’t see the latter as being different from someone loving to be pulled into detective novels or romances.

    I was embarrassed to be seen in the YA section when I was an actual teen (also couldn’t stand to be seen with teen magazines, omg) but have totally gotten over it with my gray hair and frumpy clothes. I figure that if anyone bothers to wonder, they’ll figure I’m a writer of YA fiction, keeping up with the field. (And I hope that will turn out to be true!)

    The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Diary of a Chav, The President’s Daughter, Feed– these books have plenty to say about gender, politics, class, what constitutes winning and losing, and what it’s really like to navigate it all.

    My county’s public library trains its staff NEVER to comment on a book someone’s checking out, not even to say that they like it too. The next person in line might be checking out something fraught with emotion or controversy and doesn’t need to worry that they’ll get comments too, or judgmental silence.

  2. 1. Your dad rocks.

    2. I can’t believe the library volunteers would say that! I work in a library, and one of the things I am careful to do is NEVER comment negatively on someone’s choice of material. I try not to say anything at all unless the patron initiates the conversation or asks for my opinion on a book. Your library volunteers have bad library etiquette.

    3. I love YA. I read almost nothing but YA. I was in library school for a while, and my goal was to be a YA librarian, so I read a lot about that stigma against young adults and their reading material. A key concept is that libraries will order special material for any large enough demographic of patrons. We order board books for babies because babies are rough with books. We order large print books for seniors and others that have trouble reading regular sized print. So why would we balk at ordering graphic novels or “trashy” books like the Gossip Girl or Clique series for teens? It’s what they want. With teens, as with almost no other group, adults feel like they have the right to tell them what they should and should not be reading. But all that does is alienate them. And if we alienate them as teens, they’ll be less likely to use the library as adults.

    I guess my point is that my YA-librarian training has helped me see YA as something that deserves no less respect than any other genre, and my avid reading of YA books has taught me that YA can be of high or low quality, just like any other genre. I love what you say about YA books assuming that the reader wants to learn more. I find that a lot of books written for adults bore me, and I think that’s partly why. YA is about exploring, discovering things for the first time, learning how to live. I love that time in life when people are on the edge of adulthood, discovering what makes them who they are. I feel like that’s an especially alive time of life, if you know what I mean.

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