About two weeks ago now, Ruth Graham told adults that they should be ashamed if they read YA books. I’m not going to link to the article here, but I will link to io9’s response as well as The Daily Dot‘s, because that’s how I found out about Ms. Graham’s diatribe. And I’ll admit it: my first reaction involved me wanting to scream and rage and cry and possibly hit a pillow a lot. I’ve had to spend some time thinking about this, until I could figure out why my reaction was so visceral.
Here’s what I’ve come up with.
The stories we tell children are only simplistic in style. Fairy tales have complicated morals and motives and messages that we simplify for those who have less experience with the world at large. But children and young adults pick up on those complicated things anyway. That’s why we tell them those stories, why we have continued to tell those stories for centuries upon centuries. We trust those stories to impart their wisdom without us, the adults, having to complicate them by explaining them outright.
The best YA stories do the same thing: they tell young adults complicated and important truths, and they do it in a way that doesn’t make those important and complicated truths too hard to be grasped by the readers. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna ignores the conventions for women of her time and pursues her dreams despite the people who tell her those dreams are impossible. This is no less important for girls and young women and even adult women to hear because Ms. Pierce’s books were written for and marketed towards only the younger set.
The YA books I was reading were Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series, Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, in addition to Tamora Pierce’s Alanna stories, The Song of the Lioness Quartet. What I remember most about these books is that they were often about people who were leaving their Young Adult stages and moving into the Adult part of life and about figuring out how to do that. Yes, Alanna’s story begins when she’s 12 (if I recall correctly) but books 3 and 4 chronicled her adventures as a newly adult person. Sabriel and Lirael’s stories both started when it was time to leave childhood—or even Young Adulthood—behind. Stardust‘s Tristram heads off to find the star so that he can propose marriage to Victoria. And Cimorene’s story begins with her fleeing a marriage she doesn’t want and continues until she has a son old enough to have his own adventures.
These were the heroes and heroines I loved reading about. They weren’t teenagers. They weren’t girls and boys in search of a first kiss, or a date to the prom, or acceptance in high school; they were women and men who carried with them adult responsibilities.
Yet these books are still considered YA books.
I don’t read a lot of YA that features 15-17 year old main characters, and I didn’t even when I was the target audience. Their problems always felt too small to me. And while it’s true that this particular subset of the YA genre seems to be saturating the market, I am still capable of recognizing that this isn’t the only thing in the YA genre—just as I am capable of recognizing that bodice rippers aren’t the only sub-genre of romance, and mysteries aren’t the only sub-genre of fiction. To condemn all YA fiction as too juvenile, and to deride the adults who choose to read within that genre, is to be willfully ignorant of of all the things that YA has to offer beyond the thing you’ve decided you don’t like.
I find Ms. Graham’s article frustrating not only because we live in a day and age where reading for pleasure is a dying hobby, where adult illiteracy is an alarmingly high statistic that we should be more concerned with and anyone who shames someone else for reading anything they choose should be shown a few more statistics and told to shut up… but also because the YA genre she seems to be talking about isn’t same one I know and love.