The Phantom Menace… of grown-up books?

“Most YA fiction is grown up fiction in disguise”, Anthony McGowan writes in the Guardian.

As usual for thinkpieces on YA, it’s not a great article – it’s long on generalities and short on specifics (Which teenagers aren’t reading which books? What styles or themes or characters belong in adult literature but not YA?) – and ultimately, these are the problems that we get into when we treat teenagers as a monolithic group. As Farah Mendlesohn has argued, when we say “the average teenager won’t like this book,” we’re often correct — but we’re excluding a lot of the most passionate and dedicated readers.

Young Adult literature, like children’s literature, is tricky because you have to manage several different kinds of difference from adult readers. There’s reading fluency — and while a lot of kids are reading at an adult-airport-bestseller level by the time they’re twelve or so, especially if they’re economically advantaged, a lot of kids aren’t. There’s real-world knowledge, which can make political thrillers and historical fiction dull or confusing for many teenagers. And there’s emotional maturity and experience. All of these things develop at different rates for different readers.

Like a lot of children in my generation (I went to high school in the late ’90s), I didn’t read a lot of YA in my teens – I read a lot of middle-grade fiction, and after that I mostly read adult science fiction and fantasy, because intellectually I was ready for adult fiction, but I was not ready emotionally for very nuanced and complicated romantic relationships, or books about mid-life crises and parenting. Even as a high-school senior reading Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, with its college freshman protagonist, it felt like a world that I didn’t belong to, a world that was still a little too dangerous for me to enter. I wish that young me had had the kind of YA that McGowan sniffs at for being too grown-up for teen readers; I think a lot of it would have been just right for me. But there have been books that could be appreciated by both adults and teens in the 19th century, when it was very common to read Dickens or Hawthorne out loud to the whole family; in the 1980s and 90s, when Stephen King was the most popular author among teenagers even if he was too gory to be published as YA; and I do think lots of those books that are being published as YA now would have been published as adult back then. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. Books will find their readers, whatever section of the library they’re placed in.

But I also think it’s very important to make sure that every reader can find the book that’s right for them. There’s an awful lot of concern over boys who don’t read – and I don’t think it’s misplaced, but it’s hard to know whether it’s a publishing problem or a cultural issue or what. (The push to take pleasure reading out of schools makes me tear my hair out, but as far as I know that’s more an American problem.) There’s not a lack of books about boys; there’s not a lack of books that should appeal to boys who don’t particularly like to read; on the other hand there IS a lack of books about people of color, about people with disabilities, about trans people. (There is far more, and better-written, LGBT YA than there was even ten years ago, but it’s still an issue.) A lot of mainstream YA lit suffers from the sitcom thing where everyone is at least middle-class enough that lack of money is never a real problem. I don’t want to let publishing off the hook too easily.

It’s just that, if teenagers aren’t reading enough, then it’s not “Life: An Exploded Diagram” (the author’s example of a YA book too mature for YA) that’s at fault.

When a stylistically challenging, thematically mature, or just plain odd YA book gets published – can we see that as a victory for the teenagers who need those books, and not as a loss for everybody else? Can we aim for a publishing ecosystem that represents all teenagers, including those who aren’t reading fluently, including those who have needs in themes, styles, and subject matter that don’t always get considered? And if we’re worried about kids who don’t read — as we should be, I think — can we look for solutions that go beyond the books that get published?

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