Why Should Adults Be Embarrassed by YA?

Sheenah Archive, Books 2 Comments

Last week an article was published at Slate with the headline: Yes, Adults Should be Embarrassed to Read Young Adult Books.

To say that it upset the YA community would be an understatement. There have been articles floating around, most notably the one from CNN about why adults shouldn’t be embarrassed to read YA, but let’s dive a bit even further into the Slate article and subject, shall we?

hunger-games-saluteShould adults be embarrassed by a category of books that have inspired protesters in Thailand? These protesters could be violent, but they’ve taken the high road and have instead decided to show their resistance to their government by gathering in crowds and using The Hunger Games salute. Now, that salute is banned in Thailand. Should adults be embarrassed to read books that make young adults want to change the world? Teens and young adults have gathered together every year to donate books to libraries and to raise awareness of important topics that should garner more attention through the Harry Potter Alliance. Is this really something adults should be embarrassed about? Should anyone really be embarrassed about it?

Sure, the majority of popular young adult literature would never be categorized as literary fiction, but plenty of realistic fiction could be. For Ruth Graham to basically state that adult literary fiction is far superior than young adult literary fiction is insane. She goes on to state that adult literary fiction has characters the reader couldn’t possibly empathize with. As an author I want my readers to empathize with my characters. Not everyone will be able to understand their situation or circumstance, and that’s fine. Not everyone can relate to every single character. There have been YA books with characters I couldn’t empathize with, such as Pig Boy and even Looking for Alaska. I never grew up wanting to smoke or swear, so empathizing with characters that do is hard for me; there might be other aspects of them that I could on some level empathize with, but overall, none whatsoever.

Ruth also states:

YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.

I don’t know about you, but isn’t stating that YA endings are uniformly satisfying and then later stating that the hero is either married or dead a bit contradictory? I have never found the death of the lead character to be satisfying in any way shape or form. But if you want to talk about literary fiction where the lead character dies (because it’s just so satisfying!) let’s take a look at the ending for something Ruth’s definition of “real” fiction like The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Please note, that the next following examples are actual endings to books. If you’re a Harry-type of person, in which you want to read the ending of the book first because you’re afraid you’ll die before you finish the book, by all means, carry on. But if you’re a regular type of reader, well, you’ve been warned.

“Good-by—because I love you.” He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand. Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.

She looked into the distance,  and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her father’s voice and her sister Margaret’s. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.

Now in The Awakening, Edna, our protagonist, has decided to kill herself for very much the same reason Madame Bovary killed herself off and in very much the same way (they both drowned in the ocean). Looking back upon the book, I feel like Edna just couldn’t handle adult life. She couldn’t handle being a wife. She couldn’t handle being a mother. Now let’s compare that ending to the ending in Looking for Alaska. The protagonist doesn’t die, but he is reflecting upon the death of a friend.

Although no one will ever accuse me of being much of a science student, one thing I learned from science classes is that energy is never created and never destroyed. And if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself—those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are indestructible as we believe ourselves to be. When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.

So I know she forgives me, just as I forgive her. Thomas Edison’s last words were: “It’s very beautiful over there.” I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.

I don’t know about you, but the ending in Looking for Alaska is just packed with so much emotion and so much muchness, that I think that ending was rattling around in my brain for weeks. It was beautiful and it made me think and it made me feel. And I think that’s what a good ending should do. It should make you feel something, hopefully that something is satisfying. Maybe that ending made you feel anguish instead, but it made you feel.

Are there parts of young adult books that make me roll my eyes? Sure, but mostly because it’s such a cliche, like love triangles. Why does the average girl who doesn’t realize she’s such a hottie always end up with two supernatural beings fighting over her who also so happen to look like models? And you know what? There have been plenty of adult fiction that has made me roll my eyes, too.

To state that adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books is just silly. To state that teens might not like “to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in” in their side of the books is just as silly. Wouldn’t it create a conversation? For a teen to read The Fault in our Stars and then have their parent read it and have a real discussion about the book like adults should be a good thing. Young adult books tend to get a bad rap from people who don’t understand it or maybe haven’t read enough. But young adult books aren’t full of dark, dark stuff and they’re certainly not inferior to adult books. Young adult books can bridge the generation gaps, create conversation, and really motivate the teens of today to create change and become better adults. And whether they “graduate” to read adult books or prefer to continue reading young adult books, well, that’s their personal preference and there’s no reason to shame anyone for their reading material. In the end, we’re all readers, and that should be something to celebrate.

Comments 2

  1. I read Graham’s comments. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a place to leave a comment on her review – or maybe fortunately, for her, because I was tempted to unload an earful on her … so to speak. She comes across as a joyless snob. Something along the lines of writing isn’t “real” unless it deals with pain and moral ambiguity. I think one of the great virtues of YA literature is that it gives hope. It’s uplifting, and if it shines a mirror into life as it should be rather than it too often is … Isn’t that what great writing – adult and YA – is supposed to do? I write, and read, for entertainment, for escapism. Ms. Graham would probably dismiss me too. I don’t care. I think it’s enough that people live in reality. We don’t have to be pushed into in our reading material. And … yes, I’m an adult who is perfectly fine with reading YA literature.

  2. The horrid author of that article walks a slippery slope — she might just as well have said that adults ought to be embarrassed to read science fiction or fantasy. And I happen to know a lot of grown-ups who would protest that little gem!

    The elitist in me has stated that adults should be embarrassed to read — and be fans of — the Fifty Shades of Grey series. I have relatives who have read these and similar books, but have no interest in picking up The Great Gatsby. I’m admitting this because I understand how easy it is to judge others for their reading choices.

    I missed something in my easy judgment — something the author of that article missed, too. We shouldn’t be snobby and judge-y at other people’s TBR lists. We ought to be cheering about the fact they have read anything whatsoever. In an age where illiteracy is on the rise, the fact that people are reading — READING! — is a great thing. I forgot about that till I read this lady’s piece. I humbly stand corrected, and hope she gets her comeuppance soon as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *