I Used to Agree With Ruth Graham That YA Novels Aren't Worth Reading ... and I Write Them

3 years ago

If you've been alive in the United States over the past ten years, you've seen a tremendous mainstream embrace of young adult novels. They've been made into movies, plastered on billboards and, for book wonks, the children/young adult category grew more than 40 percent since last year. It was only going to be so long before the backlash started. Last week in the post heard around the book-reading Internet, Ruth Graham at Slate wrote:

Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.

Credit Image: Anna Gutermuth on Flickr

Foz of Shattersnipe actually has seen this lament so many times, she created a bingo card. My personal favorite? "Compares modern YA with stories written over a century ago."

Cough, Ruth: "I’ve also gotten purer plot-based highs recently from books by Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton, whose age and canonhood have not stopped them from feeling fresh, true, and surprising. Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long."

Noah Berlatsky, writing at The Atlantic, makes an excellent point:

There’s no firm wall between childhood and adulthood, just as there isn't a wall between YA and literature—as Rimbaud, who never wrote after he turned 20, could tell you.

Author Kathleen Hale took a different tack, satirizing Ruth's argument in a vampire-and-cancer-filled post at Nerve:

“The novel was invented in the 19th century,” I whispered, inhaling the sweet perfume of her glossy robot hair. “It was written for mass consumption and primarily consumed by women and poor people. Jane Austen and the Brontes? Rich white men would have been ashamed to read that stuff. They pored over what was then called serious literature—Latin and Greek texts that were hundreds or thousands of years old. Like you, they probably argued that the drudgery of simply getting through a text was a vehicle for meaning making. But does that make it right, Ruth? Does it?”

There was a cliffhanger.

I've got a confession to make. When I started writing my young adult novel, The Obvious Game, I felt silly about reading all the YA I needed to read in order to understand the genre. I thought my literary friends would judge me for reading books aimed at teenagers. I knew my book needed to be YA, because I wanted to catch my readers at the age of my protagonist, and I knew I needed to read as much as I was writing, because that is how you grow as an author. But ... I wasn't sure I wanted anyone to see me doing it. I mean, hello, Western canon.

I realize how ridiculous this sounds coming from a YA author, but Ruth's opinion is indeed widely shared in society. It's insidious, and the only way to break free is to read more widely and see for yourself. Is romance frivolous, or are there great love stories? Is science fiction actually the best way to discuss issues of race and class? Can you learn more about engineering from a thriller than from a NOVA special? What do you care about as a reader, and where can you find people talking about it?

After reading about ten YA books, I realized that novels of any genre are stories, and I love stories. I prefer stories that observe the human condition, and these can be found everywhere. To be a happy reader, I must seek out those books that make my heart flutter and not worry about how they are shelved. This realization opened me up to the idea that adults might actually like my novel, as well, and indeed, the majority of my Goodreads reviews have come from adults whose reading lists are intimidatingly long and diverse. And with that, I started posting about not only other YA authors, but also middle grade books I read with my 10-year-old, and any book of any genre that strikes my fancy.

As Julie Beck so eloquently puts it at The Atlantic:

Everyone still has gaps between who they are and who they could be. To help close those gaps, we could stand be reminded now and again of the elemental truths that we first encountered as teenagers. If reading YA as adults makes us feel older and wiser than the characters, if we remember but don’t relate to the people we used to be, it is only an illustration of our capacity for change.

At first I wasn't going to write this post, as I dismissed Ruth's essay as linkbait and figured the outcry from the YA community would quickly put it to rest, but what stuck in my head all weekend was this: I used to believe her. Do you?

Life is too short to read all the books. Trust your friends, trust librarians, trust book bloggers and Goodreads reviewers. Seek out the good stories, regardless of genre. We learn who we are from what we like to read.

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the deputy editor of BlogHer.com. Find more at www.ritaarens.com.

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