Many Adults Read YA Fiction
This is quite a difficult post to write. Not because the answer to the questions, “why do adults read YA fiction?” and “should adults be embarrassed to read YA?” are difficult ones to answer, but rather because I can barely believe that anyone is still asking them! But they are. Daily.
In honesty, it’s not something I’d have thought to write about on this blog, except that an article I recently came across in Slate vilifying adults who read young adult or children’s literature rubbed me up so far the wrong way that I simply had to write this if only to let off some steam. And mix up a few metaphors while I’m at it. I’m not going to link to it. If you want to read it you can find it for yourself.
No matter what the self-appointed cultural guardians at Slate may think, the facts speak for themselves. All the recent surveys I’ve been able to find suggest that well over 55% of the readership for YA literature is made up of people 18 years old and up. Namely, adults. I read a heck of a lot of YA. And that’s not just as research. That’s because I enjoy it, I find it instructive, and quite frankly some of the very best writing in English today is categorized by the publishing houses and the booksellers as being for the young adult market.
So about half the people reading YA are adults. The other half are teens and a few bright middle graders.
What’s the Appeal?
Just search the many YA blogs and forums online, or attend the book signing of a YA author, and you’ll see the truth of this for yourself. Many publishers are canny to this phenomenon, too. They’ll frequently produce two simultaneous editions of the same YA book. One will have a cover supposedly more “adult” in tone, and the other one more geared to its intended audience. This is so that grown-ups can read YA on the daily commute, or in the park, or some other public place, without feeling embarrassed to be seen reading a “children’s book.” This issue of embarrassment I’ll deal with later. And I’ll deal with it pretty severely.
So there are a couple of things to unpick here. One is, why do books purporting to be written for teenagers have such a strong appeal to so many adult readers? And the other is, should adults feel embarrassed if they enjoy reading this material? As I think the second question will be answered largely by the first, let me deal with that first question now. Why do adults read YA fiction?
You Can’t Honestly Appreciate Literature and be a Snob
I should nail my colors to the mast, as they say, at the outset. I don’t have a grain of snobbery in me when it comes to literature, or culture generally. I’m perfectly capable of discernment. I can distinguish the fine and subtle qualities which characterize rich, complex and subtle works of art in any medium and enjoy them. Equally, I can enjoy the excitement, the thrill, the laughter and simple entertainment afforded by popular media and pulp fiction.
I throw it all into the same bag. It’s all art. It all requires dedication and skill and craft on the part of the creator. I won’t pretend to like something I don’t like simply because it’s been deemed a “classic,” and I won’t turn my nose up at something which the arbiters of culture have condemned as trash if it’s something I thoroughly enjoy. High art and popular culture are for me entirely avoidable terms which, if they mean anything at all, simply refer to different threads woven into the same rug. Chaucer’s bawdy tales were nothing but the popular culture of his day.
Many Young Adult Tales are Rich in Unbridled Fantasy
One of the key functions of any literature, any fiction, is to furnish an opportunity for escape from the pain, the suffering, or simply the humdrum round of everyday life. Everyone needs a little relief from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with that. So why do adults read YA fiction? Because a lot of YA output provides exactly that escape. When set in an alternative fantasy world, or taking us back nostalgically to an age of innocence and experimentation, or reminding us of the important values it is so easy to lose sight of under the pressures of an adult existence, YA books are very often just the tonic many adults need.
That, in my opinion, is a sufficient argument in itself.
Ethical Dilemmas and Identity Issues Are Experienced by Adults, Too
But for those of you who require something more “profound,” there is this, too: the more philosophical or socially engaged works in YA fiction frequently deal with issues of identity and meaning. If there was ever time when these issues were the sole preserve of people in their teen years, that time has passed. In our rapidly changing world: a world in which we must live through the paradox of increased channels of communication coupled to an increased sense of purposelessness and isolation; in which our cultures are fluid, fragmented, and lacking universal applicability or coherence; a world in which the boundaries which once defined who and what we are, and the rites and rituals which transmitted to us the certainty of what we should do and why we should do it, are all but dissolved; in a world such as this, many adults will turn to YA literature because they know that there they’ll find an honest and direct attempt to tackle and make sense of these very issues.
One of the reasons why I often write for this market is because even as I rocket toward my 50th birthday (just one and a half years to go) I find that on a daily basis I’m still burning about the big questions of identity, the meaning of life and death, society, relationships, gender, race, and sexuality. Don’t be in any doubt that these are all issues which our younger adults think about deeply, feel keenly, and have both the wit and beautiful audacity to confront in an honest and direct way.
Five minutes of a “grown-up” Parliamentary debate can destroy your soul and leave you feeling empty inside. Who are these ridiculous, red-faced, shouting men? An hour or two spent reading a YA novel can restore your faith in humanity and our global future.
YA books are children’s books that have grown up. I’m quite fed up of hearing my peers moaning and grumbling and disparaging “the youth of today.”
What in hell’s name are they talking about?
They are clearly completely out of touch. They’ve possibly never spent any time at all with modern teens. Today’s young people are far more “switched on,” reflective, daring and honest than any previous generation of which I’m aware. Certainly they express these qualities in far greater abundance than my own generation ever did or do. In many ways they are much, much smarter than we are. Reading YA literature is just one way that older adults might attempt to catch up.
What are we supposed to have against teenagers and new adults? They are the throbbing lifeblood of our culture in all fields of endeavor: music, art, theater, television, comedy, books, new media. Our young adults are old enough to be discerning and critical, and young enough to be daring and open-minded. No wonder, then, that some of the best literature of our times is not only written for them, but quite frequently by them, too.
That’s my answer to the first question, “why do adults read YA fiction?”
The second, should we be embarrassed or ashamed to read YA as adults? Well, I think you understand my answer to that from my answer to the first. My answer is a clear, and resounding NO.
Read Freely, Without Shame
There should be no shame. No shame whatsoever. On the contrary, those who on some snotty point of misguided principle would refuse to read YA literature, are the ones who should feel shame. And it is a deep shame they should feel. They are not only denying themselves one of the most exciting aspects of our contemporary literary scene, but also debasing and insulting people who are not their elders certainly, but most probably their betters. You should be free to read whatever you enjoy. And besides, I don’t think that adulthood should mean exchanging one thing for another; you know, swapping out all your childhood and teenage interests for more “grown-up” ones. A healthy transition into adulthood is just about being able to add other layers, too. It’s not about attrition, it’s about accretion.
I’m happy to read YA, and write it, because I still feel all the same questions it asks, and the values it affirms, very keenly. I’m also happy to read Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes and Dr. Zeuss. Just as I’m delighted by Shakespeare, Dickens, Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan, A. S. Byatt, and Dostoevsky. I also enjoy Jane Yolen, Katherine Langrish, Ransom Riggs, John Green, Philip Pullman, Mark Haddon, Chris Wooding, Libba Bray, Linda Buckley-Archer, Michael Jecks, Neil Gaiman, Alan Garner, Umberto Eco, Lindsay Buroker, Rod Duncan, Joanne Harris, Suzanne Collins, Jeanette Winterson, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Waters, Joss Whedon, Scott Westerfield, Catherine Woodfine, Joan Aiken, Sarah Crossan, Sarah Crowe, and so many hundreds of others. My taste in literature is broad and deep and wide and vital and knows no boundaries.
Why should I ever tire of such brilliant stuff, whatever the powers-that-be determine as its intended market?
So to conclude:
Why Do Adults Read YA Fiction?
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