Young Adult Literature Is Better Than You Think

I’m a grown up who still reads Young Adult (YA) novels. You know that whole category of books that too many people pigeonhole as being about good-looking vampires that sparkle in the sunlight? Yeah, those. While I admit that I’ve read the vampire books, I’ve also read some astoundingly fresh fiction in the world of YA — don’t miss out on them because you’ve dismissed the category entirely.

I’ve read a lot of good books and I’ve read a lot of bad books. Many of the books I read in college, I loved, like Lord of the Flies, some of them I loathed, like Bleak House. Most of the books I enjoyed — The Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, A Separate Peace — featured teenage protagonists. Were these classics YA before it bore the name? I can’t help but be curious how they would be classified if they were coming out in today’s market. Would they be dismissed by so many adult readers as not worthy of praise or a spot in our literary canon simply because they maybe (gasp!) ended up on a YA shelf next to Twilight? What a shame that would be.

YA isn’t just about vampires, paranormal activity and dystopia, not that there’s anything wrong with that. And YA literature is no longer relegated to a spin rack or two of serial novels about babysitting in the children’s section of the bookstore. Today’s YA occupies entire shelves with an overhead sign in big, bold letters advertising “YOUNG ADULT.” The overwhelming success of the British release of Harry Potter in 1997 seemingly served as proof that there was serious marketability in young adult literature. Between 1997 and 2009, published YA novels grew from 3,000 to 30,000. And adults, not just teenagers, began flocking to read these books. That’s gotten a few people riled up. Last year, Joel Stein claimed embarrassment over catching a grown man reading The Hunger Games on an airplane. He was quick to point out he has “no idea what The Hunger Games is like,” which is more offensive than if he’d actually read the book and delivered concrete examples of why it was so distasteful. He argued that adults should read adult novels. Mr. Stein is certainly entitled to his opinion, but oh, man, did his editorial piss off an entire community of writers and readers.

To shove aside an entire category of literature because it features teen protagonists is lazy and pathetic.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when Goodreads reviewers say things like, “I liked this book even though it was YA” — as if reading a YA book was a guilty pleasure. Why not just say, I liked this book because I liked this book? Why be embarrassed by a reading experience that moved you? Perhaps you liked it because it was good — and that’s that. Admittedly, some YA is crap — but every category of fiction has crappy books.

Some of the most innovative writing happening in the world of fiction is happening in YA right now. It could be because teenagers are more open to fresh and innovative things than most adults are. Whatever the reason, established Adult Fiction writers (Nick Hornby, for one) have recognized the trend and, as a result, crossed over to writing YA novels in recent years. Why? Nick Hornby says it best:

“I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of.”

I’ve always been drawn to reading about teen characters. Maybe it’s because I teach and tutor high schoolers. Maybe it’s because I remember all the hope and horror of teenagerdom in Technicolor. Maybe I don’t care if my protagonist is 17 or 72 — I just want a good story. I want good writing. Many of the books I loved ten, even 20 years ago (C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt, Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts series and Joy Nicholson’s The Tribes of Palos Verdes) were gems I originally found in the General Fiction section of the bookstore. I had to comb shelves to find books like these. Now, those very same books are marketed as YA. That’s why I’m hanging out in that section of the bookstore, too.

When I was a teenager, there were very few skate parks. My friends built skateboard ramps in their backyards, quickly earning cease and desist orders from the city to tear them down. Over fear of fines and other legal ramifications, the ramps were grudgingly dismantled, plank by plank, and hauled to the beach to be used as wood for bonfires. By the time we were old enough to make significant changes in our communities, skateboard parks cropped up more often. Now, many towns up and down the West Coast can claim skate parks of their own.

I think the same of YA literature. As a teenager, I had limited access to the kind of books I wanted to read. Instead of waiting years on a new book to come out, I read my same small collection of paperbacks over and over again. Now that fantastic YA books exist in abundance, I want to read them all.

There is a renaissance happening in the world of YA, folks, and it would be worthwhile to pay attention. Teenagers are smart, savvy readers and today’s YA literature doesn’t talk down to them or get preachy. Instead, it embraces all that they are and gives them a safe place to think, feel and figure out how to navigate some of the touchier parts of almost-adulthood. Any adult who says teens aren’t smart enough to know good writing is woefully misinformed. The high school students I teach are a far more discerning group of readers than critics of YA seem to realize.

Today’s YA novels don’t preach Afterschool Special-style morals to teenagers the way they did in the ‘80s. Books like My Name is Davy, I’m an Alcoholic, made me cringe more than feel like there was an author out there who understood what I was going through at 17. Today’s YA books also aren’t melodramatic like the Lurlene McDaniel books of the ‘90s. Fast forward twenty years later, and YA is legitimate literature where we can find beautiful lines like, “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly and then all at once,” from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. The depth and beauty of words like these will surprise many adults who have written off YA as being nothing more than angsty books about teenagers.

When I asked Hilary Weisman Graham, author of the YA novel Reunited, what YA has to offer, she told me:

“I believe that all of us are always coming of age, at least if we’re living consciously. So, it doesn’t really matter if a book’s main character is a teen or an adult. As long as that character’s well drawn, readers of any age should be able to relate to her, whether or not they are currently dealing with that same emotional terrain.”

Exactly, Hilary.

Furthering the argument, Ken Baker, author of the YA novel Fangirl and the upcoming How I got Skinny, Famous and Fell Madly in Love explains:

“I like writing YA for many reasons, but among the most appealing is the immediacy, potency and urgency of the experience of the characters. Being able to capture their feelings of going through major life events, often for the first time, opens up so many possibilities to explore as a writer. When you’re young, you are typically more open and able to experience things — the highs and the lows — in a raw, visceral way…This makes for very compelling drama and allows a writer to explore the spectrum of human thoughts, feelings and emotions.”

Right on, Ken.

Yes, I read YA literature. I don’t make excuses for it. As a teenager, I had all the Judy Blume books, S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and the “anonymously written” Go Ask Alice on my bookshelf. Later, Francesca Lia Block books crept in. Now, my bookshelves – and Kindle – are filled with incredible YA books and I couldn’t be happier. I’m so thankful that I had Judy Blume when I did, but how envious I am of today’s teenagers who also have John Green, Sara Zarr, M.T. Anderson, Colleen Clayton, Jandy Nelson, Gayle Forman, and Rainbow Rowell – to name just a few.

Don’t be afraid to try YA. The worst that can happen is that your heart breaks for the love that could’ve been for Hazel and Augustus in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Or you’ll find out why going to the moon “completely sucked” for a bunch of teenagers who lost the ability to think for themselves due to the transmitters in their brains in M.T. Anderson’s Feed. Or you’ll wish with everything you have that Park can be the one who makes Eleanor forget about her abusive home life in Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Indeed, you might discover something amazing that makes you believe in the beauty of YA literature.

If you are interested in reading some YA books but aren’t sure where to begin, here’s a list of some of my favorites…

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

If I Stay/What Happens Next by Gayle Forman

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

The Reece Malcolm List by Amy Spalding

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Feed by MT Anderson

17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma

The Tribes of Palos Verdes by Joy Nicholson