What YA Gives Me That Other Genres Don’t (Hint: It’s Not Embarrassment)
The sun is shining in New York City today. It’s mid-afternoon on Friday, I’m looking forward to a beautiful weekend with my friends and… oh, look at that, someone is hating on YA. Again. Slate's recent, controversial opinion piece “Against YA” discusses the enormity of YA’s popularity among adult readers, the fear that it’ll lead to adults forsaking “great” literature, and the notion that adults should feel embarrassed to read books aimed at younger generations.
I’m a pretty firm believer (insane exceptions aside) that if people are reading, it is wonderful. I don’t care if you choose Fifty Shades of Grey or The Goldfinch, The Fault in Our Stars or Mr. Mercedes. There is knowledge and happiness to be found in books of all kinds, and who am I to shame someone for taking pleasure out of that?
I read a wide variety of titles each year—from the erotic Sweet Filthy Boy to the innocent Stay Where You Are and Then Leave. I admire One Hundred Years of Solitude and Harry Potter equally. I have always been an avid reader of young adult novels, and one of the things I most believe in is the power that YA novels possess.
Slate’s article has already received a number of rebuttals. Sara Benincasa, author of Great (a YA teen lesbian reboot of The Great Gatsby), fired back with an argument for the enjoyment of a good story, while praising the passion and intelligence of her readers of all ages. Flavorwire agreed with Benincasa, arguing that young adult fiction is for everyone and is more than worthy of critical discussions. Medium joined the conversation by saying that the dismissal of young adult fiction is downright sexist. What has always struck me is the books’ ability to make me feel moreso than novels of any other genre.
Teenagers—both in fiction and real life—are often dismissed as inexperienced, overly dramatic, and fickle. They firmly believe that they are at the pinnacle of their lives, that every day is do-or-die, that the crush they have really is the stirrings of something greater. And I love that. Their emotions are raging just beneath the surface, but as you get older, you learn to repress that. Conceal, don’t feel, as Frozen’s Elsa would say (another story “meant” for children that adults loved, by the way).
Adults live in a practical world where every move makes sense. You don’t overreact for fear of being seen in a less-than-positive light; you focus on the attributes you most desire in a partner with the future in mind; your five-year-plan is always close at hand. There’s a lot of joy to be found in the world of adulthood; as teenagers grow, they discover that life can be exciting and exhilarating in ways they never dreamed. By learning about the world, they grow into new, more serious people. But adults often forget to look back and allow their past selves any chance of influencing who they currently are. Would your high school self recognize you today?
I’m not advocating for taking advice from our 13-year-old, impulsive, hormonal selves. But I kind of am. In a world where outward appearance and behavior mean so much, reading YA serves as a reminder that those feelings that are being pushed down are not anything to be ashamed of. I’m reminded of simple joys such as bursting into laughter in a crowded movie theater without worrying that I’m disrupting others, or allowing myself the space to cry when my emotions are overwhelming.
In YA novels, expressing yourself is not only acceptable, but healthy. They teach teenagers the fine distinctions between saying too much or too little, though for the adults who have already learned these rules, it’s a powerful reminder that feelings are natural and don’t constantly need to be forced down for the sake of presentation—such as being told that I should be ashamed of openly reading YA as an adult.
These novels, as cheesy as it may sound, are also a reminder of the finite nature of life. Adults find themselves bound to the concerns of death, of how to deal with aging parents, of the diseases and hardships that await them. Teenagers are focused on today and not losing the precious time that is already at their fingertips. When Charlie races through the tunnel in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, not only is it exciting for teen readers who relate, but it’s also a reminder to adult readers that infinity still deserves to be chased.
If you’re rolling your eyes at that, I’ve already lost you. Teenagers are experiencing these emotions and fears for the very first time—emotions to which we’ve long become numbed. YA literature wakes me up; it reminds me of those moments and once again makes me feel alive with them.
As I watch friends pair up, marry, and begin to have children, it’s easy to succumb to the pressure of settling down, to find someone whose goals line up with my own, whose five-year-plan seamlessly meshes with mine. I read YA because while I recognize the importance of making a mature decision about a life partner, I refuse to let go of the magic of falling in love.
Some may think it is utterly insane that I can relate to protagonists so many years younger than I am, but I do. I read YA because sometimes when I kiss the right boy, it still feels like the first time. I still fill up with nerves and adrenaline, my hands shake and don’t know where to go, my heart thuds in my fingertips. I read YA because it reminds me that love doesn’t have to come with a five-year-plan; sometimes it comes with a one-day-plan. As we reach adulthood, experience has dimmed our view of love, has made us wary to take risks and chances. Some of that is smart, and keeps us from repeating our mistakes. Some of it can be let go for the sake of enjoying something, however briefly, so powerful that it has inspired more works of literature than any other emotion.
In the midst of ladder-climbing, Sallie Mae calling me up, and rent checks being due—YA also reminds me that it’s OK to be the center of my own universe. Teenagers are seen as being selfish to a fault. While selflessness is a value that I admire, I see no reason to forgo daily acts of self-care. These books remind me that it is okay to look out for myself, to be selfish, to recognize that while “YOLO” sounds ridiculous, it is in fact true. As Augustus Waters says, I’m not in the business of denying myself simple pleasures. There is no way that I will ever feel bad about enjoying novels that have reminded me what a beautiful, terrifying, and intoxicating thing life is.
So, no. I am not embarrassed to be seen reading YA. I am not embarrassed to feel emotions so strongly that they bowl me over; I am not embarrassed that my adult years haven’t numbed me to the exhilaration of first love; I am not embarrassed that even though I work a 9-to-5, I still see every day as the start of something exciting. I am not embarrassed to be reminded that I am the hero of my own story, that I control my destiny, that I am a special-unique-snowflake. If you don’t read YA, that’s fine. You don’t have to. You may think this is ridiculous and naïve; you may think stability is more important than adventure, that true realism is limited to reading books in your age group.
In my own life, YA novels are not taking over. They’re not replacing “adult books”; instead, they’re happily joining my ageless, multi-genre shelves. Reading encourages reading, and I firmly believe that those who find themselves swept up in YA dystopias will find their way to high fantasy like A Game of Thrones, that those longing for YA love are going to stumble across romantic classics such as Outlander. I love YA and how it makes me feel, and I won’t let anyone bully me into feeling ashamed of that.
Here are some of my favorite YA novels I’ve read this year:
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