Young Adult Education Why I Love YA: In Defense of Young Adult Literature Kerry Winfrey

Long before I started writing this column, I had a serious love of young adult literature. It started when I was really little, reading not-quite-appropriate-for-a-third-grader classics by Judy Blume. Did I understand most of what she was writing about? No, but I loved her anyway. In high school, I was a little literary snob who would only read classics in public. YA books, even though they featured characters who were actually my age, were something I read in secret (and yet I still found it appropriate to read Ayn Rand in public for a brief, embarrassing period. I’ve grown up a lot, okay?). Sure, I read every Princess Diaries book, but I did so in the privacy of my bedroom. Once I got to college, where I majored in English, I read the Jessica Darling series and John Green’s books when I wasn’t busy reading captivity narratives or Pale Fire or Heart of Darkness for, like, the fifth time. Once I actually hid the 4th Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book behind my Microbiology textbook, like I was a teenage boy in a sitcom reading a comic book in class.

I still (obviously) love YA, but I know that other people don’t always understand why. When people find out I write a column exclusively dedicated to YA, sometimes they ask me why I read books about high schoolers. Or sometimes they ask, “So…you read kids’ books?” in a voice that makes it clear they think I might not actually be literate. And then, of course, there are the people who think YA is poorly written or “easier” to read than adult fiction or just about romance or just about vampires or whatever.

So to all of y’all who don’t understand…here’s why I love YA.

1. I love YA because it’s well-written.
Are there poorly written YA books? Of course. There are poorly written books in every genre, but people tend to spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the state of YA and blaming it for the demise of literary culture, all while worrying about “the youths.” Well, trust me, you guys. Kids’ brains aren’t going to be ruined by reading the lackluster descriptions in Twilight. I myself have lived to tell the tale.

The poorly written YA books aren’t representative of the genre at all. I’ve read YA books that are far more poetic, thought-provoking, philosophical and interesting than some of the adult books I’ve read. I mean, you’ve read John Green, right? Looking for Alaska? Paper Towns? The Fault in Our Stars? He writes about love and loss with an honesty, beauty and humor that will knock the YA-hating smirk right off your face. Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up is not just one of my favorite YA books, but one of my favorite books ever. He describes first love and first heartbreak in the most soul-crushing way I’ve ever read, and he does it in a way that makes me want to destroy everything I’ve ever written because I’ll never even be half as good. And that’s just the tip of the literary iceberg. Anyone who tells you YA is poorly written needs to read more, period.

2. I love YA because of the feelings.
Being a teenager is always rough. Even if you don’t have major problems, it can still kind of suck. As I’ve established before, I’m an old lady who enjoys wearing slipper socks and drinking Sleepytime tea (but not Sleepytime Extra, because what makes it extra? I don’t trust it). I wouldn’t relive my teenage years if you paid me (unless this is like a Never Been Kissed scenario and Michael Vartan is there). That being said, I remember every single thing about the emotion I felt back then. It was like a roller coaster, but one of those antique roller coasters made out of wood that jerks you around and gives you a bruise and you think you might literally die on it.

Being a teenager is simultaneously the most exciting and the most terrifying thing in the world. The majority of your life is still ahead of you, and you have basically no idea what you’re going to do. You have to make big, big decisions about college, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, sex and everything else, all while you’re still not even allowed to vote. And I hate to even talk about hormones because gross, I’m not your gym teacher giving you a Sex Ed lecture, but they make it super difficult to concentrate on anything but whether or not that guy in Biology class with the Chuck Taylors might ask you to Homecoming. Being a teenager is all about being right on the edge of your future, and what’s more exciting than that?

As an emotional person myself, I relate to this. YA often lets its characters get totally obsessed with love, and I find that refreshing. One of my favorite YA romances is Anna and the French Kiss—there’s a ton of other stuff going on, but the relationship is front and center (and really, really swoony).

3. I love YA because I respect teenagers.

I remember being 16, and I remember what I liked to read. I didn’t want books that were simple, or that had flat characters, or bad writing. I wanted the exact same things adults want in a book—interesting, complex characters. Good writing. Plots that grab you and don’t let go. Good YA has all of those things, and it doesn’t talk down to its readers. There’s nothing shameful about reading a book that just so happens to be shelved in the Teen section. I don’t feel weird reading YA as an adult because we’re all just readers, whether we’re 16 or 26.

4. I love YA because it’s not all paranormal.

Nothing against paranormal or fantasy—I’m not going to dis your love of werewolves, vampires, fairies, witches, elves or whatever mythical creature you’re into. Likewise, I enjoy a good post-apocalyptic book. And I love a romance. But that’s far from all that YA has to offer. There are tons of authors out there writing about friendship, family and all sorts of other things. Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts is heartbreaking for reasons that don’t really have to do with romance. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books are about the strength of friendship. Speak is about sexual assault. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) are about feeling culturally out of place. And those are just off the top of my head—there are tons of YA books about all sorts of things.

5. I love YA because I just do.

So my dad has this thing he says: “You like what you like.” I realize that may not sound very deep, but I think Papa Winfrey’s onto something. I like YA because I just do. Sure, I have this list of reasons, but mostly I just like it. I don’t have to defend it or stick up for it or feel weird about it, and neither do you! If you like reading YA, or classics, or Harlequin romances, or Fifty Shades of Grey, or true crime novels, or celebrity biographies or WHATEVER, then go ahead and read them. Life is way too short to do anything other than embrace what you love. Like what you like, go after your weird obsessions and read whatever the hell you want without apologizing for it.

What about you guys? Why do you like reading YA? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, I love hearing your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, email me at youngadulteducation@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

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  1. I’m totally gonna bookmark this article just for the list of books in it! It’s time for a library trip, and no, as a 24 year old woman, I don’t feel weird about standing in the teen fiction section, for twenty minutes trying to decide which titles I’ll be taking home, and which ones will have to wait till next time.

  2. Most of what I had, growing up, was books. I read everything I could lay my hands on. The public library was almost like a second home.
    I found myself reading history poetry arceology and, strangely enough, political philosopy about different ideas on how to rule/run a country.
    Walking into a library blindfolded is a way to start – just to see where you might wind up.
    I recomend anything by Isaac Asimov.

  3. The fact that you like Why We Broke Up gives you about 60 cool points. Did you know they’re making into a movie? Hailee Steinfeld is the lead :) I suggest Perfect by Natasha Friend (all of her books are great, but Perfect is my favorite)
    And the Princess Diaries series is amazing. Don’t be ashamed.

  4. I’m a thirty-something and I love YA novels, I’d say about 80% of everything I read these days are YA, for most of the reasons you outline above. My favorite sub-genre is dystopian YA, but I’ll read just about anything. I love John Green novels, Lois Lowry, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky [I'm doubtful the movie will do this book justice], Wonder When you’ll miss me by Amanda Davis. And this might be more juvenile, but I still love Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary.

  5. I say it like that because I think I tweeted it to you already :-P

  6. Ms. Kerry— have you read Between by Jessica Warman? Because it needs to happen…it’s very intense, but very good YA!

  7. I actually absolutely love YA, and have for as long as I can remember. Truthfully, Supernatural Romance YA is my favorite, and it has been since way before Twilight was ever a thing. I remember walking through the library, and searching the library database for keywords like ‘teen’ ‘romace’ ‘ghosts’ ‘vampires’ and not really finding anything except for the few books I was lucky to stumble across. But then Twilight happened, and I got what I wished for, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because people jsut started writing random teen novels where the characters just happened to be dead, or vampires, or whatever. I miss the books before it became Gossip Girl with vampires. But YA will forever remain my favorite genre; it’s happy and sad and intriguing and romantic, everything that you wish your life was right at that moment. And for anyone reading this comment, The Mediator Series by Meg Cabot is the absolute best, and should be read immediately!

    • I love Meg Cabot but haven’t read that series…I’ll have to check it out!

      Kerry Winfrey | 11/12/2012 07:11 pm
  8. If you are a fan of YA, please look into this book. IT IS EXCELLENT! http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009FPRMHU

    The Adventures of Victoria Noire
    The author paints a virtual scavenger hunt where nothing is at it seems, or is it? Witty and fun to read. You will laugh out loud. Not only that but you will learn a thing or two, and not even notice that the book is introducing you to ideas about art, literature, music and perhaps even the metaphysical. Fun for older readers young at heart and young readers old at heart.

    The author paints a virtual scavenger hunt where nothing is at it seems, or is it? Witty and fun to read. You will laugh out loud. Not only that but you will learn a thing or two, and not even notice that the book is introducing you to ideas about art, literature, music and perhaps even the metaphysical. Fun for older readers young at heart and young readers old at heart.

  9. Love your post and totally agree! I really think YA books have as much to offer as any other genre!
    You should check out Mindi Scott’s books, both are really well written with beatiful characters. Saving June by Hannah Harrington is also amazing, I read it a few months ago and I still can’t get the story,characters and playlist out of my head.

  10. Love this post!! I totally agree with everything you’ve said. I’m 29 and love some of these books.

    Other recommendations:
    - Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi (CANNOT WAIT FOR UNRAVEL ME)
    - Divergent and Insurgent – Veronica Roth (a bit post-apocolyptic but still so good.)
    -

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