Why adults should read YA fiction

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!

 

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15 thoughts on “Why adults should read YA fiction

    1. The woman who recommended The Book Thief to me is a YA novelist (still unpublished, sadly). When she wrote a quote from the book on an online site, I thought, I have to read this book! I think I finished it in one day.

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  1. I just recently started reading YA (I didn’t even know what YA was as a category!)… And I’m loving it. I read the book thief and the giver and count them amongn the most extraordinary works of fiction I’ve come across. Also, the fault in our stars. Your analogy is great: the problem isn’t readibg YA, but we should pause if it’s all were reading. All things in moderation applies to food groups and healthy readibg 🙂

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    1. I haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars yet, but it sounds wonderful. I remember reading The Giver shortly after it was published and being blown away by the ideas and wishing I had someone intellectual and literary to discuss it with. (I felt the same way after reading The Brothers Karamazov.)

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  2. I haven’t read The Hunger Games yet, but I have watched the movies…. Does that count for something? I also read the final Harry Potter book, though next to nothing of the others in the series.
    Actually, I find it interesting that we classify literature in this way: Children’s stories, classifications for K-5, YA books and fiction, adult books and fiction. We seem to think that stories should be based on position in the life-span cycle. There are good stories in all the age-classification genres (and bad ones in any of the age-classification). I find interesting stories nearly everywhere if I look. What I really like about some of the stuff “written” for kids is that often the timeless tales of quests and heroes (and heroines), of good versus evil, and serious dilemmas can often be found in more abundance in this age-classification. Of course, these are also adult themes and intriguingly the early fairy tales were not considered children’s fare at all (given some of the subject matter)! Also, I’ve read the literary elite stuff also; but I’m often gratified that the tales of heroes and heroines and the inner and outer quests animates most good literary elite stuff- even the enigmatic strange stuff! Good thoughts, Lauren!

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    1. I’ve read some of those early versions of classic fairy tales: yikes! Definitely not for little ones.

      You’re right, there are good and bad things in all genres. Those serious dilemmas and those quests are present in so many classic novels; I wonder if that’s because we all, as humans, have a desire to find our purpose and have our purpose be bigger than ourselves and what we see around us.

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  3. I read all sorts. My favourite YA novel is a science fiction book. The name escapes me. I want to call it Blade Runner but it’s not. You know you’re getting old when you can’t remember the name of a favoured book. Jacqueline Wilson has written some wonderful books 🙂

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  4. When I read this line I actually chuckled out loud: “Obviously, you need a hug!” Way to call ’em like you see ’em, Laura.

    On reading YA, I can’t imagine not reading it. One of the best current writers I read is Eoin Colfer, whom most people know because he wrote the Artemis Fowl series. I read every one of those in quick succession and have since found that he’s just as good a writer in his other books.

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    1. I was thinking of Olaf the Snowman from Frozen: “Hi, I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs!” This writer needed some bonding time with Olaf ASAP.

      I haven’t read any of Eoin Colfer’s books, so I’ll add his name to my list of authors to check out. (I foresee a run to the local library in the near future.)

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  5. I’m finally commenting – I hate when I get behind with my favorite bloggers. I never miss reading your posts and you know at the very least I’ll pop a “like” there! 😉 I still read lots of Madeleine L’Engle books considered YA – what a surprise, eh? But I love how you explained why reading more contemporary works will get us up to speed on youth culture. Since I’m a mom, YA will give me a better glimpse into my children and their world, and that is a wonderful motivation. Excellent post!

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    1. Yeah, I think anyone who cares about kids and teens should read YA/children’s books.

      What’s interesting to me about L’Engle is that when I tried to read her work as a child, I didn’t enjoy it. But as an adult, I do. I guess that’s better than the other way around!

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  6. HUNGER GAMES is definitely a speculative fic classic! FULL of deep themes. You must read 🙂

    I also love the book ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE. It’s a diverse YA I was introduced to last year that is both hip and literary. It’s just brilliant. I read it twice already.

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    1. I love that title. Good titles can sell books! My engineer husband bought me “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” a few years ago (it was on my wish list) and said, “I know it probably has nothing to do with physics, but I liked the title.”

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