In Defense of Reading YA At Any Age

I’m prone to embarrassment. I can feel my face grow hot just remembering a time I called an acquaintance by the wrong name or walked around all day not knowing I had a conspicuous stain on my shirt. I’ve had to mute the TV when a character is about to humiliate themselves, because otherwise some kind of extreme embarrassment empathy takes over. I am not, however, embarrassed of my bookshelves, groaning under the weight of young adult books, even though a writer at Slate seems to think I should be. I am after all, an adult, and others might think I should be beyond reading the thoughts and dreams and hopes of teenagers.

There have been plenty of rebuttals to Ruth Graham’s piece calling for shame for those with mortgages and a copy of The Fault in Our Stars by their bed — indigent pieces written by adults who love and value YA and will keep reading it on public benches and the subway because they’re not ashamed of the wonderful books that happen to be written for teenagers.

Young adult literature is hard to describe. The protagonists are teens, mostly in high school, though recent YA hit Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell proves they can be in college too. There’s YA fantasy and sci-fi, historical and contemporary, novels written in verse, in letters, with humor and with gravity. The one thing that ties them together is a feeling of hopefulness. When you finish the last page of a YA book, no matter how tragic, there’s almost always a feeling things could get better for the characters you’ve come to love.

I love books, and I look for a lot of things when I read. I want to laugh. I want to learn about people and cultures I’ve never experienced in real life. I want beautiful language, metaphors and similes and literary allusions. I’ve gotten all of that from young adult literature.

Last week We Were Liars by E. Lockhart entered the top ten on the New York Times young adult bestseller list. Written by an award-winning author educated at Columbia and Vassar, the novel is beautifully written with a shocking twist ending that will leave readers in tears. It joins Eleanor and Park, a love story that should speak to someone of any age, Thirteen Reasons Why, a painful mystery about a girl who took her own life, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a wonderful mix of historical fiction and fantasy. And anyone of any age who dismisses them because of where they’re featured in the bookstore or library is just missing out.

There are a lot of things created for young people enjoyed by adults. Pixar films. Popsicles. And there are plenty of genres with walls built around them by people who deem them less literary than the prestige novel. Lovers of romance novels and serial mysteries have had book snobs sneer at them long before essays against YA were being written. But they still pick up their favorite titles.

Graham wants adults to leave YA behind so they can have more time for strictly adult lit saying, “Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long.” She’s right. You could say time I spend with the works of Laurie Halse Anderson and Libba Bray is time I don’t spend with Jane Austen or Flannery O’Connor. But I don’t regret any of the hours I have spent, as an adult, reading young adult.

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