A Quick Defense of Young Adult Novels

While I can always avoid an Upworthy headline — yup, I can thoroughly believe “what happens next” — I have to give it to Slate for headlines carefully designed to provoke fiery debate among its readership. The latest example: Ruth Graham’s “Against YA,” which spread across the web with the subhed, “Yes, adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books.” Talk about being goaded, huh?

Graham’s essay was prompted by The Fault in Our Stars, the young adult juggernaut that spawned a rabid fanbase not unlike The Hunger Games series or even the Harry Potter series. The film adaptation, released this weekend, sailed into first place at the weekend box office, winning around $48.2 million and an untold count of tissues. But if you’re a bonafide adult reading young adult novels like Fault, Graham says, be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

For Graham, young adult novels are the candy of the literary industry — they’re good, but not good for you. As she explains, “the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.” She goes on to quote YA expert Jen Doll, who once classified YA as a genre that focuses on reader “pleasure.” And at worst, the popularity of the YA genre poses a threat to the future of publishing by potentially “replacing” literary fiction, a pretty damning threat if I ever heard one.

I can sympathize with Graham; I read Fault last week and found it easy to devour. It’s not necessarily thought-provoking beyond the context of the story. And like her, I found myself occasionally rolling my eyes — would a 17-year-old guy really say stuff like, “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things”?

Yet there’s a very easy rebuttal to her remarks: What’s wrong with that? I found I enjoyed Fault for the very reasons she didn’t. As a semi-recent college graduate trying to navigate the realities of adulthood — taxes, retirement funds and student loan payments, oh my! — I enjoyed the sense of nostalgia I got from the book. Who hasn’t been a lovesick teenager trying to reconcile the version of you in a relationship with the you that’s also subject to parental oversight? (For that reason, I loved the scene when Hazel, post-spat with her parents, ignores their angry directives and leaves the house to see Augustus. Such a classic teenage struggle.) Nostalgia is a huge reason why YA is so attractive to adults — it presents an opportunity to revisit an era that, for many, didn’t seem so sweet at the time.

Who hasn’t been a lovesick teenager trying to reconcile the version of you in a relationship with the you that’s also subject to parental oversight?

(Which raises another point: Within their “intended” audience, YA novels don’t really get enough credit for giving teens a venue to explore a complicated stage of life. Being a teenager is hard, yo. Books like these offer a chance to see it from another point of view, and often in more dramatic lights — such as the cancer-ridden story in Fault or the coma story told in If I Stay, another popular YA book with a film adaptation to be released this summer.)

All of this to say that of Graham’s entire piece, I entirely disagree with this statement: “There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.”

One of the biggest things I’ve learned about growing up is that adulthood isn’t what it seems. “Don’t grow up — it’s a trap!” and all that. Adulthood isn’t about staying up late, eating ice cream for dinner and doing whatever you want, as I thought when I was a kid. It’s about building a life for yourself, it’s paying bills. It’s a lot of boring things, actually. For me, at least, it’s therapeutic to read stories of teens on the brink of this realization, with one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood. (Or, in Fault’s case, a prosthetic foot.) That’s why stories of escape from the confines of reality and growing up, like Alice in Wonderland or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have remained popular for more than a century.

For adults, it’s true that Fault is, perhaps, a path to “instant gratification.” And yes, such books often have a tidy ending that may be simpler than reality. Yet that’s why we go for romantic comedies and Vince Vaughan movies — sometimes, a simple thing is exactly what we need.

As Graham concedes, “live and let read.” People can, and will, and do, read/watch/enjoy what they want. But, and brace yourselves for a bad pun, when it comes to the YA genre, there’s simply no reason to “fault” it.