One of my most traumatic experiences involved a high school classroom and a romance novel. I was fifteen and devouring pretty much any book I could get my hands on, especially adult romances—the more torrid, the better. I had one of these books in my backpack when a male friend pulled it out and started to read a particularly lurid passage aloud. The whole class laughed; I was suitably mortified. It was the first time I ever felt that I should be ashamed of what I loved, and the moment has stuck with me my entire life.
So reading Ruth Graham’s article in Slate, “Yes, Adults Should be Embarrassed to Read Young Adult Books,” struck a nerve. Not only do I read YA, I also write it. And this time I refuse to try and hide my book behind my back, waiting for the laughter to stop.
It is clear that Graham did a (very) little bit of homework, reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, two extremely popular contemporary YA novels. I’ve read and enjoyed both of these novels, and to hear Graham reduce them to a proverbial eye-roll was more than a little disappointing. Are these love stories? Yes. Do they sometimes employ romantic language that, as Graham put it, “left me saying ‘Oh brother,’ out loud more than once?” Perhaps. But at their heart, these are complicated stories about family, class, death, and how we form connections with people when our everyday lives are filled with turmoil. They’re about love, too, but to claim that they are only cheesy love stories with “uniformly satisfying” endings is a lazy reading of two well-written, moving novels.
It’s easy to read two books in a genre and then make large sweeping generalizations about it. But YA is vastly more complex, diverse, and interesting than Graham gives it credit for. She claims that “even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.” What, I wonder, is escapist about Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a lush and beautiful zombie novel where a young girl watches almost everyone she loves get killed? Where is the instant gratification in Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, where two British teens crash a spy plane in 1943 Nazi-occupied France? And how are these stories about coming of age under extreme circumstances presenting “the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way”?
Here’s why I write YA: the novels that have mattered the most to me were the ones I read as a teen. Anne of Green Gables, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.—these are the books I devoured under my covers with a flashlight long after I should have been asleep. They were the stories that made me fall in love with reading and with writing. I want to give another reader the same kind of pleasure, whether that reader is a teen or an adult.
I also write YA because I find the subject matter fascinating. It’s not that the most dramatic events happened to me in high school, but it’s the age where I felt the most dramatic. There were high stakes for everything—if my crush looked at me, if I passed my science test, if I was invited to a party. There is something extremely satisfying about writing characters who have the capacity to feel so passionately.
Lastly, I write YA because it’s a genre that is constantly evolving, is rich with ideas and distinctive characters, and offers limitless possibility. While adult fiction has been sectioned off into rigid genres, YA is an umbrella term that encompasses subjects as varied as dystopian wastelands, changeling children falling in love, and, yes, teenage cancer. It’s a genre where you can still write a lyrical, literary novel that is also sci-fi or apocalyptic. There are stories with happy endings, and stories that leave you gutted. There are novels set in high school cafeterias or in 1920s New York. YA is not a monolith, not just love stories or epic dystopian novels.
I read YA for simpler reasons: I like it. Sure, I could wax poetic about how layered and interesting teen characters can be, about how so many YA novels (Every Day by David Levithan, September Girls by Bennett Madison) could hold up against adult literature for their brave and complex subject matter. But do I really have to? Isn’t it enough that I know these novels challenge me as a writer and a reader? I’m not a teenager anymore—as Graham would be quick to point out—so why do I feel like I'm still in that high school classroom, my face beet-red, trying to defend something I love?
"There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark," Graham writes, "akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up." She's not only perpetuating a hierarchy of reading, but also suggesting that YA and adult fiction are mutually exclusive—that readers of books indulge in only one or the other, and that only mature, sophisticated readers graduate from the former to the latter. But reading literature is nothing like attending school (and thank God for that). I might read John Green one day, and Cormac McCarthy the next, but that does not make one reading experience more valuable than another.
There is a thrill to growing up. But there's also a thrill to looking back, to remembering how you grew up. If nothing else, it's a healthy reminder that some things never change: From high school classmates to professional writing colleagues, there will always be someone trying to pick themselves up by putting you down.