Take It From an Obsessive Reader: You Should Read More YA
A case for young adult literature & a few suggestions for what to read next
My educational journey is somewhat irregular. Having largely grown up on Army bases, I didn’t set foot in a public school until tenth grade, at which point I had been tested for just about every gifted program under the sun, and the results were the same.
I was an excellent reader.
The private Catholic school I attended told me I read at a college level by fourth grade. The military base school I attended just three years later told me I had the highest reading comprehension in my grade. By quite a wide margin, in fact.
Let’s be clear: I wasn’t the greatest student. I was far more interested in reading what I wanted rather than what was assigned to me. My academic motivation was lacking even as my bookcase became progressively more cramped. I read The Great Gatsby for my English class in the space of a weekend, and then immediately moved on to Anna Karenina, which I would sneak into school and read in the back of class. I powered through Wuthering Heights as fast as I could so I could filch my father’s copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
I just loved to read. I wanted to do it a lot more.
And according to all those tests, I was destined for grown up books. Books that people like my parents read and enjoyed and talked about and kept with care. Those were, apparently, the books I should have been reading.
But as handy as it was to know the plot of Romeo & Juliet long before it was assigned, it wasn’t fun. As helpful as it was to have read The Tempest before we got to Brave New World, I wasn’t nearly as interested in being top of the class as I was in a solid dose of escapism.
I understood grown up books, and I liked them.
But I didn’t really want to read them all the time. I needed something that made me feel like a teenager on an adventure rather than a teenager wishing she were an adult.
Of course I understood the value of classroom discussions involving betrayal and heartbreak and politics, but the Sisyphean task of debating totalitarianism over yet another chapter reading of 1984 drove me straight into the comforting arms of Roald Dahl and J.M. Barrie and Madeleine L’Engle.
Reading like a grown up didn’t mean I had to feel like one just yet, and young adult literature was my answer.
It would be all too easy to give Ms. Rowling credit for my passion for YA. She did, after all, give me a bookish heroine whose every problem was solved courtesy of the Hogwarts library alongside skillful use of a magic wand. And she did give me fun new words to add to my already extensive vocabulary. Words like “befuddle” and “wonky” made their way into my everyday vernacular, much to the delight of an encouraging fifth grade teacher.
But my Potter love aside, I think there are far more likely culprits that engaged my young mind before I first learned the rules of Quidditch.
Long have I treasured my decades old copies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Golden Compass. Amidst my sweeping fantasy dramas, there were also everlasting works of historical fiction like Number the Stars and Little Women. These are the classics that I held tight to long before I discovered any affection for John le Carré or Stephen King.
Similarly, when I think about the lessons I’ve carried through my life and the lessons I want to keep, it’s not the dichotomy of fascism versus communism á la Animal Farm that plagues my musings, nor is it the exhaustive justifications excusing terrible actions from Crime and Punishment.
No, instead, I think about the value of being nice to the new kid (Eleanor & Park). I think about finding one’s tribe while grappling with fitting in (Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens). I think about the grave importance of standing up for what’s right in the face of terrifying circumstances (The Hate U Give). YA may not be considered as high concept as adult literature, but the concepts within them are valuable. They teach lessons of loyalty and compromise and self worth, and aren’t all of these just as important now as they were when we were teens?
The widespread disdain for YA upsets me. Everyone who buries their heads in Tolstoy and Joyce want so badly to scoff at any bookworm above the age of eighteen who dares to read John Green and Stephanie Garber, but here I sit, having read all of the above and still I find value.
Because at the end of it all, we just want to read.
No one who loves to read should be made to feel as though what they are reading isn’t sophisticated enough or acclaimed enough to be worthwhile. And for that matter, there are plenty of young adult books that are awfully sophisticated and acclaimed if you ask me. No one has a right to tell anyone else that The Hunger Games doesn’t count as a “real book” simply because they spent three months of their life trying to get through Proust.
Sorry, guy. That doesn’t make you deep, and you just sound like a jerk.
YA has a place in literature, and that place carves out room for everyone. With recently improving numbers that suggest YA is giving more voice to minority authors and characters, there continues to be room to grow.
Who says you can’t be there to see it thrive?