Am I too old for “young adult”? Are you?

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.

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  1. I tried two or three YA novels this summer, but I'm just not sold they are for me. The teen angst is too much.

    I do think there is something different about YA novels more than marketing. There's a teen experience and angst that was in at least those three I read.

    I may read some more just to get a better idea for the genre. But I don't think I'm sold on it.

  2. Some YA novels are written with teen readers in mind, and others, like you say, are marketed as YA even after the fact. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, with its child protagonist, was in the SF section for years and then suddenly marketed as "young adult" even though the hero goes from 6 to 12 during the course of the book–barely qualifying as a "teen" hero.

    My daughter, who is 16, tells me she has outgrown YA fiction–It's all "pink books" she says, or books with 12-year-olds as protagonists. Couple that with the financial crisis in Ohio public libraries (no new YA fiction at the library), and I'm not going to be reading as much of it, but not because I feel I've "outgrown" it.

  3. I read a ton of YA when I was a teenager. I'm not opposed to reading it now, but the ones I've read lately don't have the emotional impact they used to have (The Book Thief excluded). I liked The Hunger Games and Graceling, but not the same way I think I would have when I was a teenager. I think I just have to be careful to avoid the "pink books" that Jeanne mentioned πŸ™‚

  4. I think it really depends on the individual book. If the book is aimed at teenagers then I probably wouldn't enjoy it as much as I would have done when I was a teenager, but I have loved lots of books with a teenage central character. Most of the books I enjoy will have been written as adult novels, but then marketed for teens. As long as the depth and compelling plot is there then I'll give them a try.

  5. I have a tween in the house so I find myself gravitating towards YA to 'keep up' with what's going on in the teen scene. They are also a good reminder for me because I was a teen sooo long ago that I forget the angst that I went through and in dealing with my son, it helps.

    If I did not have a tween in the house though, I probably wouldn't pay too much attention to genre.

  6. There's definitely plenty of fluff out there for YA, just as there is for middle-aged housewives. Avoid it like the plague!

    But from what I've heard, Kephart and Collins seem like good authors to start with.

  7. I think of YA books in categories sort of like I think of kids' TV shows. I can watch old Muppet Show episodes or some original Looney Toons episodes that I enjoyed as a kid and find layers of messages that amuse me as an adult. I watch some other kids' TV from the 80s and wonder how I sat through it the first time.

    I still enjoy well-written, layered stories that draw on some of the common experiences we had as teenagers (especially questions of identity and purpose that we may not deal with every day as "adults"). Other books I don't enjoy because I do feel too "old" for them (and might have felt too old for them as a teen).

  8. Rebecca – I think that's part of of what's held me back. I've raised one child through his teens and into young adulthood, I have one teen right now, and the youngest will be in his teens all too soon. There's plenty of teen angst at home, thanks :-).

    Jeanne – My stepdaughter is about to turn 15, and that's one reason I'm more interested in YA right now. I'd love to be able to recommend books to her and talk about them, but I need to know about them first.

    Kim – I don't think the "pink books" are what I'm looking for, either :-).

    Jackie (FarmLaneBooks) – That's one of the things I puzzle over. I've read – and liked – plenty of "adult" coming-of-age novels and books with young central characters, so why do I shun similar stories just because they're aimed at a younger demographic?

    Ti – Being only 20 years older than my son, I was still close enough to my teen years to remember it all pretty well when he was in high school :-), and now that my stepdaughter's there, I've already been through it once from the parental side too. But I get your point.

    Ali – Don't worry. I tend to steer away from the fluff regardless :-).

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I think our public library actually did have a "young adult" section next to the kids' area back when I was in high school, but I'm not sure I thought about it too much otherwise.

    TexasRed – Good points, particularly about the layering. Thanks!

  9. LOL you have some interesting comments here, but I say go for it!

    I recently read Sometimes We're Always Real Same Same which is a YA book marketed as an adult book πŸ˜‰

  10. Amy – I knew you'd say that. You've been saying that :-).

    I've been seeing that book reviewed by some bloggers that don't usually read YA; the marketing angle might explain that. But I'm iffy on wanting to read it, regardless.

  11. I am surprised that so many bloggers have turned to YA and seem to read A LOT of it. I enjoy the occasional YA story (HP, Ender's Game), but couldn't stand a steady reading diet of them. Great post!

  12. I hardly read any YA books in my teens. I read a lot of Nancy Drew. Is Nancy Drew YA?

    But now I read a lot of YA and although I might not relate to all of them I do enjoy most of them. They are more like a memory trip πŸ™‚

  13. Stacybuckeye – That was definitely something that surprised me when I started reading a lot of book blogs too, especially since these were adults who didn't necessarily have kids in the YA demo. I think I'm coming to understand the appeal more, though.

    Violetcrush – I think Nancy Drew may be middle-grade (at least, that was my age range when I was reading them), but I'm not certain :-).

    And the "memory trip" thing is one reason I haven't really embraced YA as an adult – I'm not sure I really want one!

  14. I'll read one or two a year at the most, and I rely on my friend Brandy who is an excellent YA librarian for the recommendations. it's not my main interest, and there's only so much time.

  15. Marie – I do see one advantage to them; they're usually faster reads, so I'd be able to get more books read! That would be nice, but I really don't want to get too hung up on the numbers (then it's too much like work!).

  16. Thanks for linking to this in your year end post. I missed it the first time around.

    I've been reading a lot of YA since I started blogging, and I absolutely did not before I blogged. When I finally discovered modern YA lit, it was like a breath of fresh air. Many of the authors writing YA now are so inventive, especially in the area of speculative fiction. It's been very exciting – and while there have been duds, I am pleased on the whole to have been able to recommend excellent YA works with crossover appeal on my blog.

  17. Lenore – I'm still getting my feet wet with modern YA, and I don't want to let it take over my reading list, but what I HAVE read does seem to stray into genres I don't usually read in adult fiction, which is probably not a bad thing. Also, the writing's been good, or else I wouldn't stay interested.

    Your recommendations are certainly a good place for any adult reader considering YA lit to get started :-).

  18. I just discovered this post through your Blogiversary post. I came into YA through much of the same way. My Friend Amy was a big influence on me as well. I thought YA would be so much like the teen lit of my day (Sweet Valley High, ahem) so why would I be interested in high school drama? I wouldn't. But YA of today is so often not about that. It's, like you said, got more substance. I read my first YA book as an adult this year since I began blogging and now I have many of them on my TBR. You never know what your fellow bloggers will introduce to you to make your reading life richer!

  19. Rebecca – Glad you found your way to this post :-), and although I'm not overloading my own TBR collection with YA books, I'm glad I've found my way to that section of the bookstore.

  20. Hi Florinda ~
    I am visiting from the BBAW post and like you, I am well past the YA stage of my life ~ but I see so many positive posts in my daily rounds that I have started to read a few here and there. Overall, I think they are good. Another person added to the description of YA Lit of having a teen protagonist ~ they are very fast-paced, written to keep the attention of a young person with too many things to fit in one day!

    At any rate, I have enjoyed the ones that I have read and will continue to sprinkle them in my reading!