Let’s Compile the Anti-Anti-YA Reading List

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 6th, 2014

Many of you will already have read Ruth Graham’s Slate.com article, Against YA, with its finger-wagging subtitle, “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

While Ms. Graham’s perspective is of course a limited view of the richness and complexity that can be found in literature for teens, it’s not too hard to guess where some of her anxieties come from: the sense that our culture is gradually infantilizing itself and that grownups are few and far between. I’m just not convinced that adults reading YA literature is a sign of the impending immaturity apocalypse.

“Against YA” reads like most media coverage of children’s and YA literature; that is, written by someone outside the field who reads one or two titles and draws conclusions that make those inside the field roll their eyes (Ms. Graham’s own “adult” response to some passages she has encountered in books for teens).Adult readers read YA books for all kinds of reasons – nostalgia and escape may be among those impulses, and there is no shame in that, but there is also so much more in great YA. Through books written for young people, we visit different worlds, we connect with teens and young adults, we challenge our own notions of what it means to be a young person in the world today. And we encounter some damn fine literature. (Octavian Nothing, anybody?)

I’m not sure what is gained by shaming anybody about reading. If Ms. Graham is concerned that adults will become so enamored of the escapist, tidy-ending, light YA fiction she disdains that they will stop reading adult literature, all she has to do is visit a bookstore and ask the clerks what they’ve observed. At the Flying Pig, at least, adults who read YA have not abandoned their Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor, their Rohinton Mistry and Tolstoy; they’ve just added something new to the mix.

Many wonderful bloggers have already responded well and thoughtfully to Ms. Graham’s article. What I’d like to do is to gather a delicious list of complex, literarily rewarding YA titles (which must be realistic fiction, since that is the genre assessed and addressed in the article) that challenge the assumptions therein.

Here are some of Ms. Graham’s issues with YA literature as reading for adults:

1)  “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable. [… Crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.”

Wow. This last sentence is one of the most reductive lines in the article. Let’s get on that one posthaste. Come to think of it, though, doesn’t most adult literature present adult perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way? Readers don’t sit back and sneer, ‘What a grownup thing to think!” This us/them view of teenagers and adults is perhaps the aspect of the “Against YA” article that bothers me most. Yes, teenagers are younger, often less experienced humans, and adults are older, often more experienced humans. So what? We have all met teens who have astonished us with their wisdom and compassion, their insight and intelligence, their creativity and drive. And we have all met adults who … have not. But to get back to literature, let’s find those contemporary realistic YA books that present a rich, notuncritical, teen perspective. I’ll toss out Aidan Chambers’ Postcard from No Man’s Land for startersAnd how about Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, a nuanced book with a non-tidy ending? Or We Were Liars by E. Lockhart?

2) Even “the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. […I]f people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.”

Well, who could argue with a false dichotomy like that? Maudlin teen dramas vs. complex adult literature. How about we find some complex teen literature? How about Adam Rapp’s harrowing and brilliant, unforgettable and undeniably YA 33 Snowfish?

Readers, what YA realistic fiction titles — that you think reward adult readers as richly as teens — would you like to add to the anti-anti-YA reading list?