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Ten reasons why it is okay to read YA

I haven’t blogged for a while. Well, not blog blogged. I’ve tweeted – micro-blogged – but not gone deep. I’ve been busy writing a screenplay and a memoir about depression (get me).

But I’ve just read something and got annoyed. And annoyance, it turns out, is a lead trigger for blogging. According to leading researchers at the University of Make-believe, 88 per cent of the internet is made of annoyance.

The thing that annoyed me is an article in Slate called ‘Against YA: Adults should be embarrassed to read children’s books’. The writer’s main gripe is that an increasing amount of people – grown-up people – are reading John Green and Stephen Chbosky and Gayle Forman, and not feeling ashamed.

It made me angry. It made me think of all the ways it is unhealthy. It made me think of all the reasons it is wrong. Here are just the first ten that came to mind:

1. There should be no shame in reading anything. There is too much shame in the world. Shame is the enemy of truth and the friend of pretentiousness, especially when it comes to books. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.

2. Many of the greatest writers have been children’s writers. And not just YA. Yes, John Updike and Alice Munro are brilliant, but so are Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie and Philip Pullman and CS Lewis and SE Hinton and Maurice Sendak. Brilliance comes in many forms.

3. Teenagers shouldn’t be patronised. This whole article seems to imply that an adult sharing the same taste as a teenager is fundamentally embarrassing. Why? Teenagers are the most passionate consumers of culture there are. Think of music. Who made the Beatles popular? Or the Stones? Or Bowie? Or Nirvana? Old people? Or teenagers? Teenagers not only have as many brain cells as us (more actually, as our brains lose 100,000 neurons a day), but are more accepting of new things and phenomena. They are the literal cutting edge. They could not have written that Slate article.

4. Writing YA is as difficult as writing for adults. I have written one YA book, three children’s books, and five adult (OA?) books. The hardest of all these to write was the YA.

5. Accesible writing  should not be frowned on. Graham Greene was an accessible writer. John Steinbeck was too. Also George Orwell, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, JD Salinger, Jane Austen etc etc. Yet book snobbery is leading us to believe that accessibility and intelligence are incompatible. I would wager that the popularity of YA is symptomatic less of a dumbing down of tastes but a reaction against dumbing down. Let me explain. The adult book market has long been polarised between ‘easy’ commercial books and ‘difficult’ literary books. YA doesn’t play this game. It manages to be easy and intelligent all at the same time.

6. Teenagers are philosophers. Think of the popular YA books. They often deal with subjects of life and death, gender issues, race, sexuality. The big stuff. Can you remember being a teenager? It wasn’t a period of under-thinking. Quite the opposite. You are living at fast-forward. Your body and mind is changing by the day. You are continually asking the questions about who you are, and where you fit in. You are at the centre of the cyclone that is life. There is nothing marginal about being a teen.

7. Dissing one of the few genre success stories in the book world, and trying to stigmatise it in the name of reading and literature, is a bit like shooting a dolphin in the name of marine biology.

8. The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. This is why YA succeeds.

9. Alexander Pope was twelve when he wrote ‘Ode to Solitude’. Mary Shelley was nineteen when she first came up with Frankenstein. More recently, Helen Oyeyemi wrote her widely acclaimed novel The Icarus Girl when she was studying her A-levels. Age really is just a number.

10. It’s not what you read, but how you read it. Never judge what someone else reads or why they read it. You don’t own the rights to culture. Often the things that may look simple, are rich and multi-layered. There are as many versions of a book as there are readers. No two reading experiences are the same. Books are great because they open minds and transcend borders. They should never have fences around them.

 

 

 

 

 

25 Comments

  1. Well said.

  2. I feel that within me I have all of the ages I’ve ever been and if I allow it, I can enjoy what I enjoyed at each of those ages. I can be playful like a little child, I can yearn like a teenager. I can read the books that made me happy as an eleven-year old. Or a fourteen year old. And revel in them again.
    This is being human.

  3. Number 10 stands out the most to me. I wonder if the author of ‘Against YA’ has taken the time to read some of the reviews of these “children’s books”? In my experience, adults often write reviews that closely examine the flaws of many YA novels. Reviews often discuss the underlying messages found in YA. Racism, misogyny, sexual awakening, tolerance, and codependence are just a few issues discussed in the reviews of these adults who should be ashamed for reading frivolous YA.

    Now if I was still a teenager and looking for a good book to read, what would I take from reading one of these reviews? Would I make note of the issues addressed and actively look for them while reading? Yes, I most certainly would and that would lead me to intellectual growth.

    So in my opinion, it is important for adults to read YA just as much as it is for teens to read the category. Because we as humans must pass on our wisdom to those still nurturing their intellect.

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  5. Yes, yes, YES! A thousand times yes. Thank you for saying this. I can’t imagine being able to say it any better, or if I have read it anywhere said better. Read what you want, period.

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  8. Lois Graham says:

    I am enjoying this postmodern discussion that everyone’s opinion is correct. So there are no rights or wrong in what someone wants to read? So does that mean there are no rights or wrong in want someone wants to write? Then who has the right to judge the quality of anyone’s writing in that case.

    I also totally disagree with with Mr. Haig’s point #6… Matt, have you ever taught high school and spent 28 years around YAs as I have? I have taught Advance Placement European History for over 20. We examine the great philosophers in my class. The vast majority of my students have a difficult time grasping these concepts at such a high analytical level. That’s why they are in high school. Haven’t you every read anything when you were in high school and then for some reason revisited the same work later in life and you can’t believe what a much deeper understanding you have because of life experience. Trust me, high school students are far from philosophers, they don’t have enough life experience to think at that level. They aspire to be thoughtful, “pondering the big stuff” but I can tell you from experience that they think they have the intellectual capacity to to be philosophers but they are far from it.

    • Chris Leslie says:

      I don’t think the point is that everyone’s opinion is correct though. I don’t think we’re talking about intellectual opinons, we’re talking about pure enjoyment. It’s not about the quality of the book, it’s about how it resonates with someone at their core. What’s the point of telling someone who’s really enjoying a book that it’s not a good book and they are less of a reader for entertaining it? Weird.

      Also, the article is a passionate defence of the quality of YA fiction isn’t it? It’s not like he’s saying that yes, it’s ok to write books badly and for people to read those books. That doesn’t even come into it.

      What is the point of your observation about your students? How does it relate to the overall argument of the article, that it’s appropriate for adults to read YA and children’s fiction? I can see that teenagers aren’t exactly ‘philosophers’ in the main (though I think Matt’s use of that term was to suggest an active mind rather than a polished one anyway). But we’re talking about teen books, not the teens themselves – the books are seen to be ‘philosophical’ enough for adults to read, therefore it’s ok for adults to read them.

      Honestly, I think some people seize upon any ancillary point in an article and hijack it to promote their own grievances.

  9. I thought it was telling that the author dismayed Divergent and Hunger Games out of hand. Both are good novels – with my preference for Divergent, just because I thought it was too high concept to work and it just DID – but apparently not even worth considering due to genre.

    As a person who works in the arts I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I read for….pleasure. I want to enjoy what I read and, you know what, I’ll read anything from a trope-filled Scottish bodice-ripper with rolling hills and rolling rs to collections of literary short stories as long as I enjoy putting the words on the page into my brain.

    Reading things that aren’t fun to read…sounds like work.

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  11. As both an author and reader of YA, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Another important point is that YA does not equal “dumbed down”. The defining aspect of the genre is that the main characters are within a certain age range, and the story usually revolves around issues relevant to that age range. However, that does not mean that the writing is of lesser quality, that the themes are of less importance, or any such nonsense. Quality writing is quality writing, no matter the genre. There is good writing and bad writing in every genre, and this includes the pretentious favorites like “literary fiction” and yes, even the good ‘ol classics.

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  18. Aw, this was a really good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to create a really good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and
    don’t seem to get nearly anything done.

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  20. Well, actually teenagers do not have more brain cells than adults – in fact some areas responsible for planing and emotional control are still underdeveloped. Plus the number of neurons is not the determinant for intelligence. What’s vastly more important are the connections made between them – and these connections come from learning and experience, which teenagers lack.

    Apart from that, I agree that no one shouls feel ashamed – ever – for reading the books they like, except Mein Kampf is being read with conviction.
    I personally could never identify with YA, even when I was a teenage girl. All the drama around the pretty girls and bad boys and their drinking habits and suicidal behavior bored me endless. My choice of books kind of jumped from children’s books, let’s say Molly Moob to adult books like the works of Nabokov and Wilde and I never looked back. It didn’t happen out of snobbery, it just happened.

    Fazit: Read whatever you like and share the passion with others.

  21. I just want to say I love every word of this post. I finally realised a few years ago that there are far too many books out there for me to waste time reading the books I feel I “should” read, instead of the books I want to. The most recent book I finished wasn’t even YA, according to Amazon, it’s target age range is 8-12, and wow, it was good. As long as people are reading, I’m not going to judge!

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