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.