• Gina Denny

Why You’re Wrong About YA

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

There have been several high-profile editorials and blogs posted lately that are slamming YA fiction. I’m not going to link to them because I think each of those writers A) gets more than enough traffic, B) has received more than a sufficient number of ego-strokes, and C) aren’t really worthy of your time anyway.

Oh, I’m sorry, was that mean?

That’s what they’re saying about YA, at any rate: it isn’t worthy of your time. They’re saying that YA books are bad, YA authors are substandard and you just shouldn’t bother with any of it.

They’re wrong.

First of all, YA isn’t a genre. It’s a category. Within the YA category, every genre conceivable exists, just as it does in Adult fiction. YA includes science fiction, fantasy, dystopia, romance, paranormal, contemporary, horror, crime, drama, western (though these, admittedly are not particularly popular right now… which, by the way, why not? who doesn’t love cowboys?), action, adventure, mystery and anything else you could possibly think of.

The YA category as we know it today has been around for centuries. Literally, hundreds of years. The first time a book was written with a teen-aged person in mind, the YA category was born. (That was in 1802, by the way.) Young adults are whole, valid, and important people. Why should they be ignored? Why should that portion of the human experience be skimmed over or treated as inferior?

It shouldn’t. It’s as simple as that.

There are a lot of arguments about what makes a book a YA book, and I think all of them are simultaneously valid and invalid.

“It’s YA if the main character is a teenager!”

Valid: We tend to see ourselves as the protagonist, and somebody who is in the same phase of life as us is easiest to relate to.

Invalid: Not all teens are in the same place in life, and not all teens see themselves reflected in fictionalized teenagers. Plus, there are many who argue content and theme is more important in categorizing a novel.

“It’s YA if the protagonist is trying to figure out how they fit into the world or what they want out of life!”

Valid: This is what most teens are going through and speaks to their personal issues. Questions of “Who am I?” or “What do I stand for?” or “Where am I going?” all speak to the young adult experience.

Invalid: These themes are not unique to teenagers. Especially in our culture’s protracted version of childhood (do you know any recent grad school graduates who are living at home with their parents?), these questions reflect a human experience, not just a teen experience.

“It can’t be YA if it’s dirty/violent/political/otherwise edgy.”

Valid: Teens are still, in a very real sense, children. Do they need to read all the filth that this world has to offer? No. Is some of that filth irredeemable? Yes. Some of it is just garbage: filth for filth’s sake.

Invalid: Teens live in the real world, and learning how to navigate the real world and all its difficulties is imperative. Some of what gets labeled as “filth” is not only redeemable, but it offers excellent opportunities for discussion and introspection. I mean, really, would you kill twenty-three of your peers if it meant your family and community would no longer be on the brink of starvation and would have access to medicines they need? Would you turn around and sacrifice that relative safety in pursuit of national freedom?

The category is broad and blurry around the edges. The line between “YA Fiction” and “Fiction” is indistinct and subjective. But the bottom line is this: Anytime a book is aimed at or is about a person who has started down the path to adulthood but not yet completed that path, it is a YA book, at least in some respects. This means that a great deal of highly-acclaimed literary fiction is actually also YA fiction.

Catcher in the Rye Lord of the Flies The Chronicles of Narnia A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Atonement Call it Sleep The Death of the Heart The Heart is a Lonely Hunter The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

All YA books, and each one is listed as one of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century by outlets from the Modern American Library to TIME Magazine.

Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, The Giver, His Dark Materials, The Book Thief, A Wrinkle in Time, Bridge to Terabithia, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Charlotte’s Web, The Outsiders, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Tuck Everlasting, and Ender’s Game are all YA novels or series that have won major critical acclaim and literary awards. I don’t think one book on that list could be disputed as quality work, and most people would label each of them as classics (or classics in the making, in the case of the newest titles).

In the early days of marketing and labeling YA (looooooong after the first true YA novels were actually written), publishers and critics declared five novels to be the “fab five” of YA fiction. These five novels were published in 1970s and gave clout to the YA category, helping critics and the public to take YA seriously. What are those five novels, you ask?

The Friends I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings The Bell Jar Bless the Beasts and Children Deathwatch

Hardly what any respectable critic today would refer to as fluff, yet they were all written with a teenaged audience in mind. They were- and are- YA novels.

Even something like Pride and Prejudice would likely be marketed as a YA novel today; 20 year old Lizzie Bennet and her teenaged sisters flounce from one party to the next, hunting for boys. Actually, something like Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t be published at all today. It’s full of “adult” themes: pursuit of marriage, statutory rape and observations on society. It’s a “YA” character: 20 years old with no real life experiences, trying to figure out what she wants in life and how she fits in the world. It’s a marketing nightmare.

And make no mistake about it: The YA label is a marketing tactic, nothing more, nothing less. Many YA books appeal to a broad audience, including well-educated adults, and many teens enjoy reading books that are not labeled as YA. Frankly, that’s how it should be. I read what I want to read, regardless of what some publisher’s marketing team has decided is appropriate for me to read.

Let me repeat: I READ WHAT I WANT TO READ. Sometimes that’s YA, sometimes it’s not. It isn’t up to a pretentious columnist on the internet to tell me what my tastes are, or that they are somehow something to be ashamed of because they are not the same as his.

Yes, some YA sucks. This seems to be the thrust of the anti-YA campaign, and there’s a teensy-tiny grain of truth to it. Because YA has absolutely exploded over the last decade or so, the floodgates have been opened, and some substandard work has been released. But guess what? Some adult fiction sucks. Some children’s books suck. But in every category, there is brilliance. There are plenty of YA authors out there creating wonderful stories, full of deep characters, rich settings and thought-provoking themes.

There are lots of funny, articulate, educated and talented people writing YA fiction. YA doesn’t shy away from the grittiest human experiences, nor does it ignore the most beautiful aspects of our lives.

Let’s encourage everybody to read, period. Let’s encourage authors to write quality work, period. Let’s encourage both authors and readers to stretch their limits, find new characters, new places and new situations. Let’s challenge beliefs, give readers something to think about.

And above all, let’s enjoy ourselves. Because let’s face it: Reading is a leisure activity, and it’s meant to be enjoyable.

TL;DR Version: First of all, isn’t it a little ironic that you couldn’t even read a 1300 word blog post, but you’re complaining about other people reading “stupid” YA books?

Second, YA is a broad category, with a lot of well-written books, touching on every theme and genre available. Last, it’s not your job to tell me what I like.

Do you love YA fiction? Tell me in the comments why. Or, if you’d rather, tell me some of your favorite YA books or authors. I’m always looking for a good recommendation 🙂

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