Guest Post: Why Adults Should Be Reading YA Books
by Briana North
Enjoy whatever you want, as long as it wasn’t written for children. Thus begins Ruth Graham’s unsurprisingly immature Slate article, “Against YA.”
I frankly felt more embarrassed reading Graham’s article than I ever felt (or likely ever will feel) reading a young adult (YA) or children’s book. Graham seems determined to take an extremely narrow and reductive view of YA literature, scornfully declaring it to be escapist, maudlin, uncritical, lacking the ambiguity and realism of adult fiction, and–seemingly worst of all–condemning it for being pleasurable to read.
Faced with an article so filled with narrow-minded views and false dichotomies, it is difficult to know where to begin a counter-argument. For, unlike Graham, I firmly believe that you should read whatever genre appeals to you. Yes, YA is a genre, not a “read by” expiration date.
A Defense from C.S. Lewis
Perhaps that is the best place to start when assuring adults that, yes, they too can read or re-read YA or childhood favorites: “children’s literature” and “YA literature” are merely genres, just like romance, historical fiction, non-fiction, fantasy or mystery.
I think C.S. Lewis argued it best in his essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” Lewis states that people frequently mistake writing for children and youth as an exercise in “[giving] the public what it wants.” The finished product need not be anything meaningful, nor does the author need to take pride in their work, so long as it matches up with what they assume younger generations desire to read.
Lewis, on the other hand, believed that one should write “a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say…I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”
Graham claims that “YA readers are…asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” I would like to know who has asked that of YA readers? That has certainly never been my method for approaching a book, YA or otherwise. Furthermore, I was certainly never instructed–by teacher, parent, or peer–to read that way.
I frequently return to favorite childhood books, not because I wish to regress, but because they seem to grow as I grow. I probably reread Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light at least once every two years. I return to this particular YA novel over and over for a multitude of reasons. First, it commits the sin–according to Graham–of being pleasurable to read. Second, L’Engle captures the tumult and uncertainty of adolescence in an incredibly authentic way, and I enjoy the nostalgia of teenaged Vicky Austin’s perspective.
Thirdly, finally and most importantly, I reread it because as my life progresses and changes, so too do the insights, questions and criticisms the book raises for me. The same words read differently to me as an adult than they did as a teen. I am able to view Vicky’s perspective with the critical distance our difference in ages provides. I am able to laugh at her more temperamental teenaged reactions, yet at the same time her youth and inexperience allow me to critically contemplate issues such as death, compassion, love and creativity without the cynicism, snobbery and exaggerated darkness of so-called “realistic” adult novels.
The “Adult” Stamp of Approval
Graham’s bullying attack on YA literature seems to also stem from the mistaken belief that to be “adult” is the highest and most unbiased form of praise. Once again, I think Lewis said it best:
“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence…When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
As an adult who enjoyed and continues to enjoy YA and children’s literature, it is extremely clear to me that, if a book appeals to you, you should read it, regardless of how it is classified. If you wish to read The Fault in Our Stars for pleasure, read it for pleasure. If you wish to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower to experience a perspective outside your own age or life experience, then read it for the new insights it will provide. If you wish to read Eleanor & Park both to enjoy it and to consider it critically, do it for that reason. Read nostalgically, read indiscriminately, read passionately, read critically.
Most importantly, don’t let the self-appointed gatekeepers of adulthood like Ruth Graham make you feel embarrassed or ashamed for having a more diverse literary palate than they do.
While I’m not a rabid fan of YA myself, something many of you surely know by now, I fully agree with Briana’s point of view: you’re free to read and enjoy whatever genre, when and where you want. If I don’t enjoy your particular genre of choice that doesn’t make it any less valid as an option. Enjoying “kid lit” is not kiddish; what is kiddish is trying to tell someone what genres they should enjoy, or that they should feel bad for enjoying it.
About the Author & Links:
Briana North lives in central Pennsylvania with her fluffy, white cat. In her free time, she blogs about YA books, participates in live-tweeting her favorite TV shows, and eats as much Thai food as possible.