International Youth Day: Why I love reading young adult books as an adult
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story at all.” -CS LEWIS
I started reading young adult or YA books around the age of 15 and stuck with this habit until my mid-twenties. As I approach the age of 30, I realized that YA literature depicts a fleeting time that many of us look back on with nostalgia.
For the most part, YA books are written for ages 12 to 18. As such, the protagonists generally fall into this age range.
Through these novels, I think back to how I felt during my teenage years and, at the same time, how I have grown since. I feel a serious connection to my earlier, often more vulnerable and inquisitive self, while accessing a pure form of the complications, losses and transformations of youth, now filtered through the compassion and perceptions of my older self. .
Friendship and family issues, fast pace and easy reading keep me flipping through the pages. The books are generally light in tone, and I find myself drawn to them among novels with more complex language and subject matter.
But if YA is a genre designed to cover growing up between 12 and 18, one would expect a wide range of prose styles. Teens are a diverse demographic, with reading levels that often don’t match their age.
Unfortunately, there’s little personality in the prose of many books for young teens, and it feels like the writers are writing for the widest possible audience.
I was very aware of this while reading The selection (2012) by Kiera Cass recently. Eight castes based on social and economic status define the world in which America Singer, the protagonist of The selection, Lives. The country is Illea, a United States 300 years in the future. America belongs to caste five, made up of artists and musicians, many of whom are poor.
I was baffled by how little effort was put into describing the novel or developing the characters. Often the dialogues were just “said” and the plot seemed very superficial. While there is a place for straightforward prose, writers writing YA fiction should consider whether they are truly using their true narrative voice or pandering to an audience they perceive as less capable.
The 2010s saw the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of the dystopian YA genre, with The hunger Games and its followers dominating headlines and popular culture.
The protagonist of The hunger Games (2008), Katniss Everdeen, is relatable and down-to-earth: she doesn’t want to become a revolutionary or a heroine, she just wants to protect her little sister. His deteriorating sanity seems realistic, and it was mostly unprecedented in a genre full of daring teenage heroes who have come through the most gruesome adventures completely unscathed.
Novels like Divergent (2011) and The maze Runner (2010) sought to emulate the dystopian formula, a fact that became increasingly evident as the shelves filled with different attempts at similar trilogies, in which the main character found himself embroiled in a sinister and mysterious conflict orchestrated by a government entity. The stories end up becoming the center of a resistance and overturning the social order.
The amount of carelessly constructed dystopian fiction was baffling at this point. I’m sure like me, many others have been put off by the repetitions of the formula.
I loved The maze Runnereven if I abandoned the other books of the trilogy. Divergent is a prime example of a frustrating attempt to shock rather than tell a compelling story. Although the concept is interesting, the author fails to take the plot out of the surprise of the readers with harshness.
But that said, there are YA novels with deeper subject matter and a greater diversity of authors and characters that don’t rely heavily on tropes.
The hate you give (2017) by Angie Thomas follows an African-American teenager as she faces pressure from various communities and tries to stand up for what is right after witnessing the police shooting of her best friend.
The novel tackles a very current and controversial subject, the murder of black men by law enforcement in the United States. It’s an important story because it lets us into the Black Lives Matter movement in ways we won’t experience through the filters of television or social media.
Meanwhile, Markus Zusak The book thief (2005) revolves around a girl who lives with her adoptive parents in Nazi Germany. She finds solace in the horrors around her by stealing books from the mayor’s house to learn new words.
The story offers the politically incorrect perspective of a German family in the infamously well-documented era of the Holocaust. The fictional town of Molching (near non-fictional Munich) and its inhabitants together serve as a catalyst to shape the protagonist’s character and encourage her theft of books.
The themes of friendship, identity, discrimination, fear, politics and family give Harry Potter universal appeal. The publishers appealed to everyone by publishing two different covers: one for “kids”, with colorful illustrations, and a more subtle and calm one for adults.
The boundaries of YA book audiences have become blurred today, with literary critics and commentators claiming the market extends into 30-year-olds.
Even if adults don’t read YA books themselves, chances are they are consuming YA media in another form. Film franchises—Divergent, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games– raked in billions at the box office. TV adaptations like Pretty little Liars (2010-2017) and Gossip Girl (2007-2012) continue to reach millions of consumers.
We are drawn to stories of first experiences, and children’s literature is full of them. The first experiences attract us because they are the crucible of change. And while we expect adult characters to deal with change, that’s obviously not the essence of the adult experience in the same way as that of youth.
So, there is no denying that YA literature is attractive and appreciated. There are many up-and-coming writers trying out new ideas in this genre, but with that, those in the publishing industry should give more consideration to a wider range of concepts instead of saturating the shelves with tropes that they consider profitable.
Chababa Iqbal graduated in Media and Communications from the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB). Email: [email protected]