A while ago, I read a book about “the death of the grown-up.” The author bemoans the juvenilization of American culture: adults dress too young, listen to the same music the teens do, read the same books, behave much the same way as teenagers, etc. Hence the moral decline of America; without leaders willing to behave like mature grownups, the author says, no wonder we’re losing our status as world superpower!
(One back cover endorsement included something about “if you’ve ever wondered when if became acceptable for men to hug other men.” I thought, “What’s wrong with men hugging other men? Obviously, you need a hug!”)
Among other things the author found shockingly horrible was adults who like YA novels. That’s when I started rolling my eyes.
Mature adults can and should read YA novels. We should be reading middle grade books, children’s books, picture books. This isn’t a sign of immaturity, nor is it a reason for despair. Here’s why:
The age of the intended audience does not necessarily reflect an immaturity in the writing quality. I’ve read books intended for young teens that were profound, moving, well-written, and deeply thoughtful. I’ve read books intended for the literary set, those well-educated and self-proclaimed influencers, that were boring and bizarre and cliched and insufferably arrogant.
These are books influencing the next generation of leaders and thinkers. If you really wanted to know why the Founding Fathers were enthusiastic about their ideas for the Constitution, you’d read the books they read, absorb their cultural milieu, understand their personal history. If you want to see what’s shaping the future, read what is available to the future-shapers. If that means suffering through all seven books of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, well, I suppose I must endure that hardship. (Note: I haven’t read either series yet.)
YA novels help adults to understand the youth culture. Even if we’re not parents, we all know children and teens; they’re around us, living near us, breathing the same air. Yet all too often, they might as well be living in two different time zones that somehow simultaneously exist in the same area: some internal clock tick-tocks offbeat from our adult one, and we’re missing each other by heartbeats. Getting inside a teen’s head (and heart) means listening to their internal clocks and not just ours. Their music. Their movies. Their books. All the things that are a part of their lives.
I’ll admit, I don’t do well at this. I don’t care for movies; I don’t hear the music in the current Top 40 music hits; I’ve never done the gaming thing. Everything seems to happen too quickly for my overloaded brain to analyze. But a book? That I can handle. The stimuli available through words is slower than either music or video, and I can keep up with it better.
Well-written YA novels can be both filled with action and delve into serious themes. The authors can’t afford to be boring; teens would toss a boring novel into the trash. In a world of ever-increasing stresses, between school work and college applications and SAT prep and sports practices and chores and community service projects and sleep, who has time for slow, tedious books with unsympathetic characters who take ten pages to brush their teeth in the morning?
Or take an entire novel to die while reviewing every nuance of his strained relationship with his father?
Or sits in his boxers and drinks beer while listening to depressing music on the landlady’s stereo after the breakup of a loveless love affair with a colleague’s wife?
(The latter two are actual scenarios from literary novels I’ve read. Both won awards. Seriously.)
Who has time for that? Not me. Not any teen I know, either.
So when a YA novelist delves into serious subject matter, she can’t afford to slow the action (much), traffic with entirely unsympathetic and static characters, or adopt an arrogant tone. The literary writers coming out of MFA programs may be able to justify that, though they’d better have a day job. The best writers, literary or genre, never forget that plot and story (two different things) are just as important as the beauty of the words on the page.
Just a few examples of my recent favorite children’s/YA novels that deal with serious issues:
Speak and Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson (rape, eating disorders, respectively);
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (death, as narrated by Death itself);
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio (prejudice, discrimination, bullying);
The Giver, by Lois Lowry.
All are well-written. Most have ended up on school reading lists. Some have crossed over into socially-acceptable adult reading; others haven’t yet.
The real problem with adults who read YA novels is when that’s all they read. It’s akin to eating only vegetables; they’re wonderful, but our bodies still need protein and carbs and other things. But anyone who reads only one genre—even high brow literary fiction—runs the risk of mental anemia.
So don’t disdain YA fiction. Give it a try, and see what benefit you gain from it. For those of you who already read YA fiction, add your favorite titles in the comments!