April 11, 2015

YA for the Not-So-Young Adult

Today, after much debate, I'm going to YALL West, the West Coast equivalent of YALL Fest. YALL West is essentially 2 days of YA book-related panels, dozens of my favorite authors, book signings, food trucks, and "general geeky debauchery." It basically sounds like Young Adult reader heaven! So why did the decision to attend come after much debate? Because I'm not exactly a "young" adult (much to my chagrin).

In fact, after thoroughly crossing the 30-year old threshold, I was feeling some serious guilt over my go-to books. I've become more loyal to my Kindle than ever lest I be seen with a Selection book (gorgeous as those dresses may be). When someone in "real life" finds out I write book reviews they want to know what books I read and I find myself scrambling to explain myself: "Well, I read these books for teens because ummm.... you see, I studied English in college and.... have you ever read Harry Potter as an adult? It's like, good...right?"). Let's not even get started on going to YA book events alone and being the oldest person there besides moms. Don't get me wrong, I have met some great people at book events, but it's an especially awkward situation. 

Ultimately I felt like I should just stop reading YA lit.

But I can't help myself: I thoroughly enjoy too many YA books. Am I alone? 

I decided to examine the many reasons why I read this genre and whether or not reading YA novel is something I should feel guilty about.

First I considered why I read anything at all. For me, reading is my escape. I want to be entertained, gain new perspectives, exercise my imagination and evoke creativity. There is a time when I do read for educational purposes, but since starting my blog I mainly read for entertainment. I don't necessarily think reading for pleasure and reading for education have to be mutually exclusive. I wouldn't have gotten a BA in English if I didn't think reading for education could also be fun. However, I also don't think a book has to be written in Old English to be smart.

Establishing that I read mostly for entertainment, I examined the types of Young Adult books I enjoy reading. Considering I'm such a huge YA fan, I am remarkably picky when it comes to YA books. Those that I choose must be smart, or at least imaginative. I have certain ethical standards about the teen protagonists and won't read books that are simply hormonal and unreasonable romances (i.e. Jessica Sorensen novels). I also shy away from books that are too "teen" for me, illustrating issues only teens can really relate to. This is probably why I don't read as much contemporary YA as other YA enthusiasts. This is not to say such novels are "bad"; in fact, Gayle Forman and John Green are perfect examples of wonderful writers whose content I simply don't connect with the way they were intended for a teen reader. This rubric for reading YA as an adult is not for everyone, this is just my personal tastes I'm mentioning to establish a framework for my discussion.

What is it that makes a Young Adult novel universally loved and accepted by teens and adults of all ages? I think good writing is the fundamental foundation for this, or any book for that matter. A good authror can write for their audience without dumbing the text down, so to speak. Harry Potter is my favorite example of this. JK Rowling doesn't talk down to kids with her writing, she elevates them to a level simultaneously enjoyed by adults. Similarly, themes and characters and plot development can be understood by children, but the experiences each create are not lost on adults either. In fact, as the reader gets older they begin to understand the many layers of a story. Authors that write for younger audiences do their readers a disservice by underestimating them. But authors who can find that magic recipe for writing complex experiences with simple words will find that they can entertain multiple age groups.

Which brings us to content: a well-written Young Adult novel can be enjoyed by an adult if the adult can identify with the story and themes. Being a teenager is actually a fairly universal experience, whereas being an adult is not. This idea is what allowed me to be most accepting of my love for Young Adult literature, without the guilt. Most people know what it's like to be an awkward teen going through hormonal changes and navigating through a complex social system (i.e. high school); whereas not everyone has the same adult experience involving work, college, relationships, getting married, having children or choosing any number of different paths. I think this is why it's easier for someone to relate to a book involving teenagers than a book involving adults: there's more of an opportunity to identify. However, the key is for the author to make the story and themes bigger than "teendom" itself.

Simplified, there are a surprisingly large amount of issues and themes adults can identify with, even through the eyes of characters aged 15-20. Adult readers can identify with not fitting in, first love, surviving social systems and, most importantly, building our own values systems. YA literature allows adults to reconsider the values systems they've built and gauge how these systems have grown, devolved or shifted. We can live vicariously through characters and gain a sense of bravery, adventure, and love that we've lost amid the shuffle of working mundane 9-5 jobs just to pay our bills. I think well-written Young Adult literature helps remind us of where we came from and who we are, all while making adult readers feel like they still have an opportunity to grow.

I thought about the YA books that I love and realized most of them are fantasy and dystopian (The Hunger Games, Graceling, The Lunar Chronicles, The Grisha Series, Throne of Glass, Shatter Me... all series that I feel changed my reading life!).  These books don't really have the traditional high school teen setting yet they still deal with teen issues masked within stories that resonate with adults. The world building contained within fantasy YA is often complex enough to meet the imaginative needs of both teens and adults.

Consequently, adults can be captivated enough by the fantastical nature of a new world and identify with themes of bravery and identity without feeling like they're reading a novel for sixteen-year olds. YA Fantasy characters deal primarily with fighting for what's right, developing abilities, and destroying the evil in their world- which might be themes even more relatable to adults than teens. YA literature is a reminder of the lessons we have learned and the world we have built for ourselves as adults. It's also a reminder of what we still have left to achieve, even if our real-life idea of fighting evil is dealing with a passive-aggressive co-worker.

Today I'm going to be at YALL West to celebrate the stories that I love, to remember the lessons I've learned and to consider the things I had forgotten I want to accomplish. When I consider the things I love most about Young Adult literature- the lessons, the courageous characters, the reminders of who I am through the lens of a teen protagonist - I can't help but be grateful that I've found this form of entertainment that can also be used for personal growth. I may have missed this genre when I was at a more appropriate age, but it still contains lessons amongst its pages that I need to learn or be reminded of.

I don't think it will always be easy for me to be confident reading Young Adult literature and there might even be a time when I grow out of it. But for now I'm comfortable being a post-twenties YA enthusiast. I don't think anyone should be ashamed of what they read, ever.

So today when I'm feeling awkward for being the oldest non-author/non-mom in the room and I'm having trouble identifying with conversations about homeroom and driving school, I'll do my best to fit in to the faction like any good heroine. Based on what I've learned from YA novels, there's bound to be a satisfying conclusion.

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