One of the many challenges of being a teen is navigating what’s cool and what’s uncool. Are jeans dyed deep blue or acid-washed? Which bands have sold out? Which Youtube video is hilarious and which has been over-shared? It’s way easier to maintain an overall condescending attitude and look down on everything, just in case liking something marks you as uncool. This is why teenagers are so fond of sarcasm; it’s a way to disguise potential feelings. When someone brings up a song or movie, it’s easier to say “Ugh, I’m so sick of that,” than it is to show any kind of passion or joy. Being aloof provides a kind of safety.
Ironically, while we view this attitude as stereotypically teenagerish, it also seems to drive how many adults talk about YA literature. Every few years, a journalist writes an article about how YA is awful—barely worthwhile for teens, let alone the adults who are foolish enough to read it.
Indeed, the most recent article of this kind, published in Slate last week, is only one in a long line of similar examples, and even without it I would have a lot to say about the merits of YA literature. The biggest problem with most anti-YA articles is that they usually reference books that weren’t published in the last twenty years, books that are actually middle grade, or books that are huge bestsellers. Dismissing all YA on the basis of the wildly popular The Fault In Our Stars—which I think is a great book, by the way—is the equivalent of dismissing all adult fiction on the basis of The Da Vinci Code.
Most YA fans are used to this attitude and do their best to ignore it. But in reality all published fiction, whether for teens or for adults, varies so wildly in tone, content, and craft that it’s impossible to call one “better” than another. Anyone who thinks that a book written for a teenage audience can’t be read and appreciated by an adult is missing out on fascinating, complex, and touching stories. So I’ll never feel guilty for reading YA—and here are a few of my reasons why.
1. YA isn’t a genre—it confronts genre
Often YA is referred to as a genre, when really it’s an age category and fairly meaningless on its own. At it’s most basic, it refers to books written for teenage readers, generally about a coming of age experience. Within that category, however, you find fantasy, romance, literary, sci-fi, realistic, humor, etc.—and often books are a mash-up of a few genres. YA writers can take more chances when it comes to form and content and readers are more likely to pick up something they may not have encountered otherwise. Novels like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak combine fantasy and history to create a truly new, powerful look at life in Nazi Germany.
2. YA isn’t about happy endings—it’s about hope
Forty years ago, “issue books” were big in YA. Characters confronted a particular issue—divorce or bullying or drugs—and learned a valuable lesson about said issue. Now, YA writers are far more likely to depict the painful reality of coming of age and confronting the world around you. People die, love ends, mistakes are made, and life goes on—these are truths teens know, and what YA books are about. (Any reader of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein knows this all too well.) But one thing I love about YA is that so many books maintain an underlying element of hope. There isn’t always a happy ending, but there’s usually a sense that the characters will move forward in some way. These books don’t pull punches, but they’re ultimately uplifting—exactly how Faulkner claimed literature should be, in his gorgeous Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
3. YA isn’t dumbed-down—it’s literary
Just like with fiction for adults, some YA is light and fluffy and some is gorgeously crafted. One of my all-time favorite novels (YA or otherwise) is Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, which deals with tragedy and grief and love and forgiveness across two generations of friends. The plot of the book comes together like a puzzle as the reader figures out how all the characters and timelines fit together. Pairing that with touching writing and memorable characters, it’s one of the best-written novels I’ve read in the last several years—and just because its intended audience is teenagers does nothing to diminish its literary merit.
4. YA isn’t about age—it’s about immediacy
Recently I read How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and wondered “Why is this a YA novel?” Its tone and voice could easily have fit on the adult shelves, and its depiction of war and sex (between cousins, no less) is frank and aggressive. What made it YA for me was the sense of immediacy. POV in YA novels is kept very close to the immediate character and situation, whereas novels for adults tend to have slightly more distance for the characters and readers. As so much of the teen experience feels immediate, this is what I feel truly defines YA. I love that immediacy and the understanding that these characters’ pains and joys and fears are deep and true.
5. Adult readers of YA don’t think they’re teens—they just respect teens
Adults who enjoy YA aren’t trying to recapture their teen experience or pretend they’re Amy Poehler’s “cool mom” from Mean Girls. We know we’re adults and not the target reading audience. But as adults, we haven’t forgotten the intense pain and joy that are part of the coming of age experience—and so we respect those stories. It’s easy to look down on teens with their loud music and their funny hairstyles and, while we’re at it, hey, get off my lawn! But adult readers of YA understand what it felt to fall in love for the first time and be betrayed by a friend for the first time and drive in a car with your best friends with the windows down and a great song playing and the entire world in front of you. Their stories are just as valid as any adult’s.
And even if all of the above weren’t true, I still wouldn’t feel guilty for loving YA and for wanting to write beautiful, funny, touching books for teen readers. I don’t care about or understand most sports, but I don’t begrudge their fans or the professionals who make their livings from them. Not loving something yourself doesn’t mean you’re allowed to declare it worthless—especially when that something is about sharing stories of the human experience. There’s nothing wrong with finding joy in something, no matter how uncool it seems or how old you are.