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Don’t Tell Me Not to Read Young Adult Literature

YA books

I did something yesterday that I’ve never done before: I posted a comment on another author’s article.

Much to my late father-in-law’s chagrin, I depend on on-line media for the majority of today’s news. My father-in-law was a diehard reader of The Globe and Mail, and more recently, The Toronto Star, and he loved the feel of the paper between his fingers and the challenge of the Sunday crossword puzzle. I prefer the ease in which the Web allows me to compare stories and check facts.

Unlike paper newspapers which print readers’ responses days following the original publication, on-line sites provide an instantaneous discussion forum for readers via the comments section. I don’t spend a lot of time reading through them, mainly because of my own intolerance for people attacking one another’s opinions. I’ve seen one too many mature, thoughtful discussions derail into mud-slinging, name-calling arguments, or worse, uncensored opportunities to soapbox.

Nevertheless, I decided to join a conversation yesterday after reading Kat Kinsman’s article, “Grownups: Don’t be Ashamed of Your YA Habit” (CNN). In it, Kinsman blasts Slate writer Ruth Graham’s claim that adults should be embarrassed to read books targeted at younger readers. Kinsman is rightfully vexed, mainly due to Graham’s superior belief in her own preferences. Ultimately, Kinsman’s message is to read books, YA focused or not, with which you feel a personal connection.

Within hours of publication hundreds of readers had shared the titles of their favourite children’s and YA books. People lovingly remembered stories read to them by parents and grandparents, and discussed how reading books with their own children is one of their greatest pleasures. Of course there were some naysayers who claimed that those of us who enjoy YA lit are childish, but c’est la vie.

As a high school English teacher and a YA book reviewer, I chimed in with my own comment only after someone claimed that YA authors “dumb down” their material so teens can “get it.” While I certainly recognize that this fact may be true in some instances, to state it as a certainty for the entire genre is false.

I explained in my comment that

books written for YA audiences aren’t ‘dumbed down’: they are written in a style that allows developing minds to grapple with complex topics like identity, sexuality, social justice, illness, relationships, and death. Like books written for audiences of other ages, some YA books are higher quality than others.

The responses to my comment? One person stated that the topics I listed weren’t complex. He/she then went on to say that

[t]here’s no attempt [by YA authors] to deal with issues such as whether it’s reasonable to have two wives or what it’s like to be a hermaphrodite.

Okay, I’ll admit that this is probably a true enough claim.

 

Another response stated,

YA fiction is dumbed down because [authors/ publishers] are feeding kids what they want ie [sic] easy to read, drama or action packed books that explore the issues you mention in only the shallowest way, and then invariably wrap things up into neat satisfying endings with trite new agey [sic] messages to be your own person, authority is not to be trusted etc. I understand that many adults never mature into full adulthood, and cling desperately to the trappings of childhood forever, but please don’t act like that’s something that people shouldn’t make fun of you for.

Wow. Between this comment and Ruth Graham’s claim, I should be feeling awfully embarrassed that I read books targeted at young audiences.

And I am embarrassed. I’m embarrassed about a lot of things actually. I’m embarrassed about the way I spoke to my mother when I was a teenager; I’m embarrassed that I harbour negative thoughts toward people who have wronged me; I’m embarrassed that I obsess about my body image while telling my daughter and nieces to love and cherish their own bodies.

What I’m not embarrassed about is the fact that I appreciate and enjoy YA literature. I am well read: I have a Master’s Degree in English and have studied the works of Chaucer, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Socrates, Aristotle, and numerous others. Some of my favourite authors include Rohinton Mistry, Abraham Verghese, and John Irving. I have published articles on encouraging reluctant readers to find joy in books. I have dedicated a blog to connecting teens with books they’ll love.

My message to Ruth Graham and others who suggest that YA lit isn’t worthy of my time? Be careful not to overgeneralize; it is a dangerous habit. As I stated in my final response to Kat Kinsman’s article,

I personally haven’t come across any YA books focusing on hermaphrodites or polygamy, but issues including childhood cancer, climate change, sexual and physical abuse, child marriage, and the silencing of female voices — all topics I group under ‘complex’ — are featured in exceptionally well-written books targeted at teen audiences. I agree that there are many YA books centered around popular folklore and stereotypical ‘teen’ topics like first love and rebellion, but to clump books like Bassoff and DeLuca’s Lost Girl Found or Walker’s The Age of Miracles with them is like claiming that James’s book Fifty Shades of Grey represents the entire genre of adult fiction.

Today I’ll be reading and reviewing Marthe Jocelyn’s YA novel What We Hide. I plan on enjoying every minute of it. No embarrassment here.

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