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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
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So, adults, are you ashamed of reading young adult literature? Journalist Ruth Graham thinks you should be. Writing in an article titled “Against YA,” which appeared in the online magazine Slate, she averred, “Read whatever you want. But you should be embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” Really? Young adults are children? Since when?
Well, apparently since Graham herself was a YA, for, she writes, “Books like The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting provided some of the most intense reading experiences of my life.” Doesn’t she know those are children’s books? I wonder if, when she was a YA, she was embarrassed to be reading them. Apparently not, but she betrays the same kind of confusion when she goes on to write, of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, “Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds.” Say what? Thirteen-year-olds? Either this woman is entirely clueless or she’s trying to denigrate The Fault in Our Stars. Actually, replace the word or in the previous sentence with and, and we may be on to something—the fact that she’s trying to denigrate the entire body of young adult literature when apparently she knows only two YA novels: The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park, the only two she cites (well, she does mention Divergent and Twilight, for the opportunity of dismissing them, saying, “No one defends [them] as serious literature.” But who said they did?). If her article is, thus, an exercise in extrapolation, how can she reliably generalize by going on to say, “Even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”?
Reader, is your blood boiling? Mine is. After all, are adults in pursuit of escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia when they read Aidan Chambers’ This Is All, a closely observed, psychologically acute story of a teenage girl that ends (spoiler alert!) with her death? Or how about Markus Zusak’s thematically rich, award-winning The Book Thief? Are these exercises in escapism or instant gratification or nostalgia? I think not. But, wait, Graham has more to say: “But if [adult readers] are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.” Sure, there are maudlin teen dramas (whatever that means), but not all are maudlin by a long shot, and as for complexity, how about the work of David Almond, Philip Pullman, Margo Lanagan, or M. T. Anderson?
And then there are those endings: “YA endings are uniformly satisfying [her italics, not mine] whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.” Is the ending of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, which concludes with the world’s being taken over by giant carnivorous praying mantises, satisfactory? To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with your head being bitten off by a big bug!” This is more shudder-inducing than satisfying, I say. Or how about a YA classic, The Chocolate War? Is its dark ending “satisfying”? Yes, it is, but not in the way Graham uses the word. Nevertheless, she relentlessly continues: “But wanting endings like this” (ones that are “wrapped up neatly”) “is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with ‘likable’ protagonists.” For an unlikable protagonist, look no further than Amanda Maciel’s Tease and its protagonist, who is a teen who has bullied another teen to death. Or for a book whose ending is not wrapped up neatly, look no further than Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.
Most damning of Graham’s allegations is arguably her claim that “these are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.” The real shame is that Graham apparently feels there are no literary young adult novels. On the contrary, I can offer as examples all the winners of the Michael L. Printz Award and the many Printz Honor titles as well, all of which represent the best YA novels of the year based solely on literary merit. How about, for only two examples, M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing and Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land?
After all, these books are judged on such considerations as characterization, story, voice, style, setting, theme—all considerations that define adult literary fiction. In fact, YA literature satisfies all of T. S. Eliot’s three “permanent” reasons for reading: the acquisition of wisdom (of both the mind and the heart, I hasten to add), the enjoyment of art, and the pleasure of entertainment.
“Fellow grown-ups,” Graham concludes, “at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.” Replace “snobbish” with “pretentious,” I say, and you have a nice encapsulation of Graham’s entire article. After all, this is a woman who claims that her extracurricular reading in high school was John Updike and Alice Munro and that she’s experienced “purer plot-based highs recently from books by Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton.”
So why is it that she concludes her screed with a quote not from John Updike or Edith Wharton but from the 22-year-old actress Shailene Woodley, star of the film version of The Fault in Our Stars: “Last year when I made Fault, I could still empathize with adolescence, but I’m not a young adult anymore—I’m a young woman.” In fact, she’s still an adolescent, for psychologists and other professional observers are now identifying ages 18 to 25 or even 28 as being “the second period of adolescence.” But that’s a niggling argument. The bottom line is that readers of any age can empathize with the fully realized characters who inhabit the best of YA. And they can enjoy the pleasures of art, wisdom, and entertainment, too. For all of which I declare—despite Graham—“I’m PROUD to read young adult literature.”
And I’ll bet you are, too.
Michael Cart is the author of Cart’s Top 200 Adult Books for Young Adults: Two Decades in Review (ALA Editions, 2012).
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