Thursday, November 1, 2012

In Defense of YA Literature

I was reading a book on a break at work a few days ago, and a coworker asked me what I was reading, presumably just to make small talk. I smiled and showed her the cover: last week, I was reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians for the first time and really enjoying it. She made this face that seemed half-startled, half-perturbed and entirely perplexed: it was like she had no idea how to process this, like an adult just should not be reading these books, and she just didn't know what to do with the fact that I was reading them anyway. She made an excuse and backed out of the break room, and I had to wonder what was happening.

Since when has the enjoyment of any particular genre been something to mock others for? Growing up, I remember lustily reading whatever I could get my paws on. I would cart dozens of books home from the library and line them up against the wall at my grandmother's house, selecting which to read next like a recruiter trying to find proper soldiers for battle. "You're next," I would declare to another book, curling up on the sofa as I drank whatever was on the page before me in, reveling in it.

At some point, I moved from the childrens' and teens' sections to the adult one. I remember how grown up I felt, how high up the shelves were, how I had to stand on my tiptoes to reach the books in the highest places.  It was a bit like drinking coffee when you're too young: it doesn't taste good, you don't understand why people like it, but it's for grown ups and so it must be sophisticated, clearly I'm supposed to like it, so I'll just keep trying and one day I will wake up with a taste for it. (Sidebar: I still have not developed this magical adult's taste for coffee).

There were issues present in those grown-up books that I couldn't fully understand, though: couldn't even try. Divorce? Nope. Miscarriage? Nah. I'd read them dutifully, learn the characters and let the familiar essence of a book's comfort soak in, but it just wasn't the same. I'd always drift back to something written for my age, because it was something I could understand. Failing a math quiz? A bully at school? Unrequited preteen love? These, these were the issues I understood.

Of course, I'm almost 24 years old and nearly done with my Masters degree. I don't pretend to understand some of the more complex points of the human condition, but I understand a broken heart now, I get how it feels to experience death, and I can sympathize with many adult characters in the books I tried to read so dutifully as a child and a young teenager. I understand Tyrion Lannister now, and while I didn't try, I'm sure that myself at fourteen wouldn't have fully understood his plight, or his place in the human race.

Getting my Masters in Library Media comes with certain duties, though. And one of those is staying up to date in the current literature for my target age group: teenagers. Of course, this is also a bold-faced lie: I love literature designed for teenagers, and would read it anyway. This is just a very convenient excuse to do so. Take my new friend Percy Jackson, for instance. He's twelve years old and facing some pretty intense issues, some I've faced (trying to find yourself and your place in the world) and some I haven't (single-parent households, having a stepfather, being a demigod, you know the usual). I can sympathize with his plight, too: just as I could with that of a Nicholas Sparks heroine.

So much adult literature is bogged down. Flowery language, sex scenes, grand monologues that don't advance the plot at all. A book that would take about 200 pages normally can inflate to 500 when in the hands of a verbose author. This is something that teen literature has right, due to one main thing: teenagers have the attention span of a gnat. If you can't capture them and their attention rightnow, it's gone. A young adult book will have plot points paced closely together, one after another, boom boom boom, and then the book will be over. Sure, there's an occasional monologue or soliloquy, but by and large it's a very quick and easily-done business: get in, tell the story, get out.

There's something to be said for grown-up stories, of course. I always will appreciate a so-bad-it's-good Nora Roberts, and I will indulge in some Nicholas Sparks from time to time. But I think I will always come back to my beloved young adult novels. They're quick, juicy, to the point, and my inner child understands how it feels to be thirteen. My adult life might change constantly, as being in your twenties is anything but sedentary, but I'll never lose sight of how it is to be twelve, in sixth grade, and confused as all get-out. This is why I want to be a high school librarian: to play in this world forever? Why on Earth not?

Celebrate young adult literature yourself, today. Enter Beth Revis's giveaway on her blog, or just go by your local library and pick up a YA novel today. You won't be sorry: it'll be quick, dirty and a thrill ride to be sure.


  1. I came across your blog through the A-Z Challenge and I love love love this post. Many YA books were a zillion times better than some 'adult' books I've read.

    Getting into Percy Jackson? You're going to have a GREAT time. They're my favourite series and Rick Riordan is a genius.

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