One thing that surprised me when I began reading more and more book blogs is how many bloggers were regularly talking about books classified as “young adult” – and I wasn’t reading book blogs written by teens (although there are plenty of those around). Most of the readers and bloggers were women – some younger than me, some roughly my contemporaries – and many of them didn’t have tween or teen children of their own. They were reading these “YA” books themselves, because they wanted to – and they were loving a lot of them. And I didn’t get it.
I devoured YA lit in my own middle- and high-school years, but it’s been a long time since it felt “right” to read it. Other than the notable exception of the Harry Potter novels – which I tend to forget are written for a young audience, since most of the fans I know are fellow so-called grown-ups – it’s a book category I’ve shied away from, and it’s been hard to articulate why. I think I have a clue now, though.
As I recently devoured Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery, a “reading memoir” of young-adult literature that will ring many bells if you were a pre-teen or teen reader between the late 1960’s and early 1980’s, it wasn’t hard to remember reading many of the books she discusses for the first (or second, or third) time. It wasn’t hard to remember how I felt when I read them, too.
I chose many of those books at the time because they were about girls my age who were having experiences I could relate to, or experiences I wished I could have (or experiences I really hoped I’d never have, but wouldn’t mind reading about someone else having). I was drawn to realistic, of-the-moment fiction, and to novels that tweaked reality without seeming too much like fantasy (which is where Madeleine L’Engle came in, I think). But the main drawing card was that the stories were about girls who were like me, or girls I’d like to be.
Young-adult literature shaped who I was, and who I was becoming, during those years. Some of what I read then still influences who I am now. But I’m not all the same person I was then, and it’s taken a lot of work and growth to get to the person I am now. There are things I really don’t want to revisit about who I was then…and I realize that’s part of why I’ve shied away from returning to YA literature. There’s a certain discomfort level for me in books that might make me feel like I’m fifteen again, since sometimes it seems like it took long enough to stop feeling that way.
Then again, the YA books that book bloggers are introducing me to now aren’t the ones I grew up on. They’re not books I would be approaching with memories or nostalgia, since I haven’t read them before. And most importantly, I’m not fifteen any more, so why should I assume they can affect me as if I were? As Ali of Worducopia put it:
Adolescence is a crucial and fascinating stage of life–teens are an archetype of our power as humans to transform. I don’t want to be sixteen again, but the challenges people face at that age still have relevance to me as an adult. My response to them is different than it would be if I were younger, but no less legitimate.
My Friend Amy reminds me that “young adult literature” is just a marketing concept anyway:
What makes a book a young adult book? Lack of violence? No. Lack of profanity? No. Lack of sex? No. All of those things can be found and at times in abundance in young adult novels.
Simplified language? No. A dumbed down plot-line? No. Young Adult novels contain some of the most beautiful language I’ve read as well some of the most riveting heart-wrenching plots.
What makes a book a young adult book? One simple thing. A teenage protagonist.
In fact, many authors do not set out to write a book for young adults, they write a book, and later on learn that it can be marketed as a young adult book. Others, of course, do have teenagers as their primary audience in mind. So there’s a quite a mix in what you’ll find shelved under Young Adult.
I’ve read plenty of “adult” novels with prominent teen characters. I’m interested in books with some substance to them, no matter who the intended audience is. Shelf Discovery refreshed my memory about young-adult literature that had that substance, and can still speak to me; perhaps I’ve been unreasonably denying myself the opportunity to see if it’s there in this generation’s YA lit. And since I have Suzanne Collins and Beth Kephart waiting on one of the TBR shelves, maybe it’s about time I found out.