Of Course YA Books Can Be Complex

To use just one example, Stacey Donovan's Dive neatly dismantles the argument that fiction for teens can't also be serious, messy, thought-provoking literature.
A detail from one cover of Dive. (iUniverse.com)

Young-adult fiction, Ruth Graham argues at Slate, is escapist, intended for "instant gratification and nostalgia." Its books lack complexity, she argues, and are merely "maudlin teen dramas." Reading them is bad for you, your brain, and your moral fiber: "Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this."

There are certainly many mediocre YA books, as there are mediocre books in any genre, be it sci-fi or romance or literary fiction. But there are also some works that provide everything that Graham is asking for—complexity, ambiguity, depth, and even good writing. As one example, I'd urge Graham to try reading the wonderful novel 1994 Dive, by Stacey Donovan. 

It's not a famous book; it got positive reviews when it came out, but Donovan didn't write a follow-up, and it's been largely forgotten (except by Nora Olsen, who alerted me to its existence.) But it's firmly in the YA genre. Graham’s claim about books for children is a blanket dismissal, which means that counterexamples, however obscure, call her whole argument into question. If Dive is remarkable, then other YA books can be remarkable too.

In the book's brutal opening, Virginia Dunn's dog is hit by a car. She gets it to the vet with the help of a passing stranger. The doctor calls her mom to ask if she'll pay for an operation—and Virginia's mom says "no."

Contrary to the argument that YA is simplistic and satisfying, there are few neat ends in the ensuing tale. Virginia makes a deal with the vet to work for him in exchange for treating her dog—but her mother's decision is never explained, much less apologized for. Instead, the violent mess and the arbitrary cruelty of those first pages seep and spread across the whole book. Virginia's father develops an incurable, rare blood disease; her best friend suddenly pushes away from her, leaving her even more isolated with her own and her family's grief.

Donovan's first-person narration mirrors and intensifies the sense of instability and loss. Virginia's voice is a loose stream of consciousness, jumping off from mundane details to metaphor or allusion and then slipping back through memory:

Now that it's spring, baby rabbits wobble beneath the trees every time I look outside. They somersault in midair and end up facing the direction they were hopping from, all shocked, like they don't know how they landed there. I guess they don't. How much can any living thing know that's been around only for a few short weeks? It makes me wonder how much I knew when I was a tiny, wobbling baby. I admit I feel pretty confused now. I have hazel eyes. They go green when I cry.

They're still green today. Can my eyes have their own memories? It was yesterday I wept, the reverberations of a car crashing a hundred miles an hour, crashing into my bones.

That's a passage fairly at random from the book, but it neatly encapsulates the novel's themes: disorientation, the inseparability of past and present (is Virginia confused as a baby, or confused now?), and the way those you love are part of you (whose bones did the car crash into?).

This selection also explains, economically, why this book is YA, and why the distinction between books for kids and books for adults is largely meaningless. A grown-up like Graham might have you believe that those confused rabbits wobbling outside stand in for somebody else—grownups, with the wisdom of age, know just how they landed where they landed, facing in the direction they’re facing. But Donovan tells us it's not so easy: Whether we’ve lived a few short weeks or 15 short years, or 60—how much can we know?  We adults see those bunnies, or those young people, as unstable, foolish, undeveloped, just so we can pretend we're the opposite of all those things. But even as we see, our eyes keep changing.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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