|The First Lady, Michelle Obama, reads "Where the Wild Things Are"|
to a group of school children. Yup, still an awesome book.
photo used with attribution, cc license
In a recent article she wrote for Slate, Ruth Graham wants me to be embarrassed for reading YA books.
Sorry, Ruth. Not going to happen. I started reading Young Adult books when I was a kid. Back then, they were books shelved in the Children's section of the library, more than a genre called 'YA'. I had read all the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys books, and was starting to look for some more engaging stories when I found The Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time. Thus was a lifelong love of reading born.
In her article, Graham says:
"These [realistic YA fiction, such as "The Fault in Our Stars"] are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame."But I'm left scratching my head wondering *why* that's a shame. Is there some standard reading that creates a litmus test for being a grown up? What makes acceptable literary fiction? Who decides what the appropriate canon is?
She goes on to say:
"I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up?"No, Ms. Graham, it makes you a person with an opinion and a personal set of tastes. Just because you do not enjoy these kind of books (and hey, neither do I - my love of YA books centers around genre fiction and I am decidedly not ashamed to proclaim that), it does not make you the arbiter of all YA books, nor of all literary books. I read the synopsis and the reviews for JK Rowling's adult literary fiction novel, "The Casual Vacancy" and had absolutely no interest in subjecting myself to page after page of absolute misery. However, one of my favorite 'grown up' books is "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," so I am neither lazy nor immature in my reading.
Some of my favorite books are in the YA canon. I defy anyone to tell me that the His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman ask the reader ". . . to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults." On a less dark scale, Neil Gaiman's work, including "Coraline," "The Graveyard Book," and "Stardust" are all ostensibly children's or YA books, yet they work their magic on countless adults because they are brilliant novels that reach the reader on a myriad of levels.
Ms. Graham's essay continues:
" Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. 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."And again I wonder what she has and hasn't read in the YA canon. To pick several books from the recent NYT Best seller lists and extrapolate the entirety of YA work is as unfair as chosing "The Life of Pi" (a book I read and loathed*) as representative of every adult work of literary fiction or maintaining that all adult litfic is pointless, plotless, naval-gazing.
Sure, there are some overly dramatic, highly improbable wish fulfillment storylines in YA fiction.
Just as there are in adult litfic, or any other genre.
Ms. Graham worries that ". . . the YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books."
This makes no sense to me at all. As the parent of two emerging adults, I can tell you that they would be more apt, not less, to chose books other than the ones I am reading.
Ultimately, the point I believe Ms. Graham misses utterly is that reading (like all appreciation of art) is a constructivist activity. Whatever book the author has written, the reader brings their sensibility, experience, maturity level, and emotional understanding to the words and the story comes alive in ways the author cannot hope to predict or control. When I read a beautifully crafted YA book with my adult eyes, I create an experience that is different from that which my teen self could have.
Which is why when I re-read magical books from my childhood like "A Wrinkle in Time," they have the power to move me even now.
*Why did I loathe The Life of Pi? Because after reading rich and magical prose for 95% of the story, the author couldn't leave it alone and had to nudge us in the ribs, wink, and make sure we knew how gosh darn CLEVER he was. Do NOT get me started on this. Seriously. Don't.