I am lucky. I was born before the internet. My formative years were in the late 70’s. I got to hang out with HR Puff n Stuff, the gang from M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels. I even caught reruns of Thunderbirds I had the privilege of being teen in the 1980’s which meant I was witness to Madonna Wannabe mania and Hulk Mania. I had feathered hair. I saw The Goonies, every Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, in the theater — first run. It was a great time to be a kid! PG 13 didn’t exist (thank god) so I was allowed to see boobies and megaviolence on screen. (Revenge of the Nerds was a very formative film for me.) No one worried that something might be over my head, or offensive. I was a kid. Nobody cared what I watched.
I was lucky. I didn’t have adults sheltering me from life, and I had aged out most of the stuff being marketed to kids. I grew up in the space between. My childhood was unaffected by the Toy Manufacturers. There wasn’t a slew of licensed product aimed at little me. I had Star Wars figures and a few Barbies, but that was that. Legos were for everybody back then, and I can’t remember ever having a pink toy. Even Barbie. Because Barbie was a grown woman, and grown women don’t wear pink.
As far as books, there certainly wasn’t anything like the YA Industry you see today. There were Children’s Books and books for Adults. The Children’s section of the library was: books for little kids and beginning readers, Choose Your Own Adventure, and the classics. I was forced into mature books because there was not an entire industry aimed at stunting my literary growth. I naturally grew out of Little House on the Prairie, The Box Car Children, and Roald Dahl. I moved on to the Bronte sisters and Judy Bloom. I remember being pretty excited (and then disappointed) about the Sweet Valley High books — contemporary teens! But they were only interested in boys. I was more interested in adventures than boys. Still am. Vampires as sexual lust monsters for teen girls wasn’t a thing yet so the only Vampires I read were in Dracula. (Ok… and Bunnicula, but that book is awesome.) The point is, there were a good chunk of books written for teens. But teens were expected to move on. Mature.
While there is nothing wrong with indulging in the occasional Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, to read only YA fiction is like living off baby food, cola, and movie snacks. While these things seem awesome and inviting, they will eventually make you tired, sick and you’ll just stop growing. And if you stop growing as a reader — you stop growing.
The themes and vocabulary of most YA fiction is (or should be) unchallenging to adults. A waste of time to read. When I find myself wanting to read of giants, wizards, of fantastic realms - I tend to reach for the classics. Or Ursula LeGuin, Bradbury.
As a bookseller I would speak to people in their twenties usually asking for the latest in YA fiction. Or the latest Gillian Flynn or Nicholas Sparks. Same thing. Whatever is easy or popular. Usually the same. Great writers go unnoticed because young adult readers find the vocabulary too difficult, or the sheer amount of pages is a turn-off. If it isn’t easy, they don’t want it.
A while ago I was working at a rather snobby bookstore in Seattle. A dad and his daughter came in asking for a dark romance, fit for teen readers. “No vampires,” said dad. I happily led them to Jane Eyre. I plucked it from the shelf and handed it to the young girl. She looked about seventeen. Dad smiled and said, “Ah! A classic! It doesn’t get much more dark and romantic than this!”
I grabbed a copy of Wuthering Heights and said, “Except for this. This has ghosts. And revenge! Oh it’s so good! One of my all time favorites. I read it every year.”
Dad and I were having a grand time, but the girl just held out Jane Eyre and said, “It’s heavy. And it looks long.” She handed the book back to me, grabbed her phone, and wandered over to YA Graphica. Perhaps just to spite me. Dad took the books from me while both thanking me, and apologizing.
Later I rung them up and I was surprised to see copies of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights nestled in the stack of Maze Runner books and various graphic novels with hand drawn hipsters. I picked up Jane Eyre, and dad looked at me. “Those are for me. You’re a pretty good sales lady.” He smiled.
“Nah,” I said. “Good books sell themselves.”
He smiled and said he’d be back for more recommendations. As I watched them leave the store I fantasized about dad finding cigarettes in her desk drawer and punishing her by making her read real books.
One can dream…