In Defense of “Young Adult,” Sort of
I’ll admit it: when it comes to books, I have a tendency to be a bit pretentious. So, when I started reading John Green’s novels and loved them after having turned my nose up at the “young adult” shelf for years, I went through a period of mild identity crisis. I tried to reconcile my conflicting feelings and I was just short of tossing and turning in my sleep over it. Thankfully, I have been courageous enough to work through this and am here to share my acquired wisdom.
Like the name suggests, novels that earn the label of young adult fiction are aimed toward a teenage audience. These books range across a wide variety of genres and plots. John Green, with wildly popular novels such as Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and soon-to-be-movie The Fault in Our Stars, may arguably be the king of young adult right now in terms of name recognition and popularity, and for what I believe is good reason. Other popular young adult titles are The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth.
As I step onto my soap box here, I must admit that I’m not exactly the most qualified person in the world to talk about this. I haven’t dabbled into young adult much deeper than the most popular novels. I’ve loved some; I’ve hated some. Some of the writing is less than masterful, and trends come and go. Recently, for example, The Hunger Games has inspired a dystopian hysteria, with every author hoping to attract an audience with a similar plot. And it works. And it frustrates me.
Overall, and allow me to sound pretentious for a second, I find most young adult fiction to be cringe-worthy. Many of the novels lack variety in sentence structure and general stylistic pizzazz that would make me interested beyond the story itself. For the ones set in modern times, there’s something about seeing modern colloquialisms in print and bound by a cover that makes my stomach turn, but that’s just me. I enjoy outdated slang in novels written decades ago, and maybe eventually today’s novels will be appreciated for it. I just don’t want my protagonist to say “YOLO” before the plot’s climax. It lacks a sense of literary mystique.
But the value of young adult fiction lies not in its sophistication, and it took me a while to realize that. These books are not trying to be literary masterpieces. Once I was able to look through this lens and realize what is actually being accomplished, common criticisms seemed irrelevant.
These novels ultimately validate the everyday experiences of teenagers, which I think is an incredibly important thing to do. In fact, I now realize that the source of my initial aversion towards young adult novels was rooted in the fact that I was subconsciously trained to think that a life similar to my own was not worth writing about. For some reason, the world seems to think that teenagers don’t have real problems and that anything they like is stupid. Young adult fiction is a direct answer to that. These books are stories with conflicts that teenagers can relate to, and many present these struggles in a beautiful way. They give teens an outlet in which they can more strongly connect to the protagonist than they can in other books. They’re entertaining. They’re easy to read. They’re relatable. And they’re enjoyed by crowds other than teenagers, which I think is a testament to their worth.
This is, of course, ignoring the authors who blindly follow the latest trend in order to sell copies. I feel as if some of these books backfire and make a mockery of the young adult experience instead of illuminating it. These are not really worth paying attention to; bad writers always have and will continue to exist.
A strange consequence of the young adult novel, though, is that it creates a large population of teens, many of whom I know personally, who are passionate about reading and spend a lot of time doing so, but refuse to pick up anything written before the 21st century in their free time. I have mixed feelings on whether this is a bad thing or not. Part of me wants to grasp these people by the shoulders and tell them what they’re missing out on. But am I really better than someone because I prefer to read things written by dead white guys?
I don’t think so.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t be a jerk to people who like to read young adult. But, if you only read young adult, don’t read blindly.