It’s the final day of my summer semester teaching Young Adult Literature, a course I teach regularly and enjoy–because of the interactions with students and the reading material.

The attitude promoted in Graham’s article hinders good reading and unnecessarily limits our appreciation of YA literature and its potential.My students fall outside the range of the young adult audience (a murky marketing-focused demographic of 12-18-year olds), and their reasons for taking this 400-level course are varied. It is required for Secondary English Education majors, many of whom will go on to teach these books and work with young adults in their careers. Some of my students are aspiring writers looking to read good stories and hone their craft; others are English majors who love to read anything they can get their hands on.

We are all—during the duration of the class at least and many beyond that—adults who read YA. And yet, despite Ruth Graham’s recent rebuke in Slate, we find no shame in reading this “literature written for children.”

The attitude promoted in Graham’s article, in fact, hinders good reading and unnecessarily limits our appreciation of YA literature and its potential. As a lifelong bibliophile and literacy tutor since age 14 (serving children and adults with and without cognitive disabilities), I am loyal to reading—not to an artificial canon that, when forced upon readers of any age, can do more damage than good.

Obviously, English teachers, parents of adolescents, and librarians ought to read YA, if only to keep up with the personal and professional responsibilities of relating to young adults. Beyond that, many adults have limited literacy skills (because of disability or poor schooling experiences), and for them, access to young adult texts can serve as a bridge to the more canonical literary works Graham values so highly. I once tutored a woman who ached to read Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, but the novel—itself often classed as YA—was beyond her skills. I offered her Mildred Taylor’s The Road to Memphis instead because it deals with many of the same racial and geographic themes. She loved it, kept the book, and shared it with her teenage daughter. A YA text sparked her interest in reading and built her confidence, but only because she failed to heed voices like Graham’s that would lock readers into preordained demographics.

Graham’s argument reinforces these generational divides by depending on a faulty understanding of YA literature. She claims that, “YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way” and ask readers to “abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Amid her eye-rolling and obvious disdain for teenagers as well as their literature, Graham seems to miss the lesson of empathy that YA—like all great fiction—can provide. Reading YA literature is not a matter of abandoning maturity and wisdom but of reflecting on how time can change readers as people.

Adults can regard YA literature as inferior, but that doesn’t alter the reality that all adults were once children; the reverse is obviously not true, so which group bears the responsibility of treating the other with respect and maturity? Why not both? Why not offer compassion to the selves we once were and the young adults we want to see in the world? Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic writes in “Of Course YA Books Can Be Complex,” 

For all their claims to dislike pat solutions, though, it seems that it’s critics like Graham who wants a simplified world. In the name of high-minded, conscientious reading, she has swallowed marketing copy. Good books go over here, neatly labeled “literary fiction” by salespeople, while the less good books go over there, neatly labeled for kids. The history of influential, canonical fiction written for children, from Alice to Narnia, is neatly erased, in favor of another encomium to John Updike.

I agree wholeheartedly, and would add that young adults can be complex, too.

I am, naturally, biased. My work history includes youth ministry and a number of years coaching kids cross country and track. I love to work with middle schoolers, in particular, and when my husband and I spent a year teaching the 6-8 grade Sunday school class at our church, we were always impressed and never surprised by their profound questions and theological insights. To assume that YA literature is superficial simply because of its intended audience is to do the writers and readers of said books a disservice. Indeed, much YA literature emphasizes the way that adults—in spite of their personal experiences as children and young adults—routinely underestimate and disrespect adolescents.

Take Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday for example; it’s a text that’s easy to read on the surface as a silly alien invasion with bodily humor thrown in to appease its purported audience of 8-12-year-olds. My adult students, however, read it as a novel of imperialism and racial tensions—a kind of palimpsest of colonial narratives that can reposition the audience as each “alien” makes way for the next. Perhaps Graham is simply reading the wrong YA texts, or perhaps her myopic view of YA limits her vision of goodness and greatness.

Throughout the semester, my students and I have applied theorists like Carl Jung, Donna Haraway, and Michel Foucault to our reading. We’ve grappled with archetypes and cyborgs and the Panopticon in works of YA literature that invite readers to dig deep while enjoying the process of reading; it’s a beautiful thing. We connected The Hunger Games to classical mythology and Baudrillard; we read Stardust and The Princess Curse as texts that interweave fairy tales and mythologies to create compelling revisions (and fairy tales, always subject to revision, are also the contested province of children, young adults, and adults).

Such reading requires listening to the characters respectfully, valuing their voices that are so often excluded not just from the literary canon but also from the adult world that builds and sustains that list of great books. We listened carefully when Tip, Rex’s protagonist in Smekday, dropped a reference to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “Lightning didn’t crash, I did not think, All right then, I’ll go to Hell, pardon my language. I just decided to stick by a friend.” Of course, Twain’s masterpiece, itself often classified as YA, was derided as “the veriest trash” upon its initial publication because reviewers couldn’t stand Huck’s voice.

I doubt reading YA and valuing its role in readers’ lives is really a matter of eternal damnation, but I know there is a Christian precedent (and warning) for respecting children: let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them. There is a difference between a child-like faith and a childish faith, and likewise there is a difference between a child-like pleasure in reading YA and a childish inability to see past one’s own condescending perspective of the world. Defining YA literature as automatically childish because of its reading level or marketed audience is, I would say, a misnomer. And, as Twain himself acknowledged, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word . . . ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Tip cites this quote as well, though she admits Twain “[d]idn’t write any decent girl characters,” and thus from Huck to Tip, the power and truth of YA’s voices echo through the decades, from one reader to the next.


3 Comments

  1. Stephen Colbert interviewed John Green (YA author) the other day and had the great one liner. (this is from memory so it is probably not exact.)

    ‘My understanding is that YA book are popular books that people actually like to read.”

    I have certainly read a lot of mediocre YA books. But I picked up L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light yesterday and was reminded yet again that YA is a designation, but should never be a reason not to read a book. A good book is a good book, and we should all encourage people to read more good books.

  2. But…so many of the classical “children’s” books were not written for children. And many, like Alice in Wonderland, are better appreciated by adults.

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