Thursday, June 05, 2014

Another misinformed pundit tries to shame me for reading YA books

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.


  1. I sure hope Ms. Graham didn't go to see Lord of the Rings, or if she did, she sensibly covered her face with a scarf suitable for hiding her shame.

  2. Oh for goodness sake! Surely that fact that people are reading is the point not whether its "literary"? Neither of my sons (20 & 22) read anything other than the sports pages so I'd be delighted if they picked up a book, whether it be YA or not. And some YA fiction is better than adult stuff - its not pretentious and doesn't make you feel inadequate for not "getting it". I've read all sorts of books over the years and if I enjoyed it, I don't care if its YA, baby books or for adults. The literary stuff that wins prizes like the Booker is normally dull, boring and oh so long! Oh and I totally agree with you about J K Rowling's attempt at adult fiction - I much prefer the Harry Potter books which were full of imaginative richness if you know what I mean.

  3. I once had a teacher say "You get out of a book what you put into it." Wise words.

    The writer of this article could have just said "I dislike all genres but literary." Instead she chose to say "Any adult (or older teen, too) who doesn't like my genre, and only my genre, is a baby. Being happy is for wussies. Pbbbbt." You'll excuse me if I don't take her very seriously.

    1. LOL, Rebekkah. You are in the choir I am preaching to. :) Big fat raspberries to her and her ilk who couch their tastes in such absolutes. To quote one of my favorite poets (Mary Oliver) and one of my favorite poems (Wild Geese) "Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."

  4. My daughter asked me to read "The Fault in Our Stars" since she was almost done with it and was so upset at the very real unhappy ending that she told me before I even started. We're probably going to see the movie this weekend anyway.

    I had her read most of Madeline L'Engle's works last year because I thought Meg would be a good role model for her, but she seems to prefer dystopian future fic and steampunk like Cinder and Scarlet (talk about books that need to be fleshed out!) over sci-fi/fantasy right now, but to your point, she's reading!

    But I agree, I switch between true crime, sci-fi, steampunk, and YA ... usually going back to YA to restore my faith and hope after reading about how horrible adults can be to each other. There is a resiliency found in the characters of YA books that isn't found in adult novels.

    1. I agree with you, Annette. Ironically, when I was younger, I really craved those deeply depressing reads. The older I've gotten, the more I need a little hope in the mix. I think when you've lived and experienced true tragedy in your life, reading about it cuts a little too close to home, if that makes sense.

  5. I read "Atlas Shrugged" when I was 14 (stole it from my mother's book shelf). When I was 20 I discovered Robert Heinlein and became a sci fi addict -- addicted to "look at what is now and where it leads". Everything we read has the power to change us, YA or adult fiction. If you are reading for the point of showing how superior you are to everyone else, you're missing the point.

    1. I know, right? And honestly, if you're not enjoying the read on some level, then why bother? Life's too short to invest in books you don't get anything out of.

  6. Lisa, I think you should only read Slate articles by twits with superiority complexes who use baseless insults and snotty little theories to attract attention. Look at what a good start you've already made! Except then your head would eventually explode. Since we like you with a head . . . never mind.

    1. I know, I should TOTALLY know better!!! :) Whenever I go off one one of my rants, my kids just roll their eyes. :)

  7. Just had to stop by and tell you that I loved Derelict. I was so absorbed over the weekend my cleaning fell by the wayside and when I finished the book, I had dishes all over the kitchen. Marathon washing up session a small price to pay for such an enjoyable read.

    1. Thank you so much, Fran! That is high praise indeed. So glad you enjoyed it.