The Adult Lessons of YA Fiction

Stories about growth, change, and epiphanies resonate in a different way when you're older.
A still from the film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars. (Fox)

“When critics decide its time to pull up the gates and seal us all inside our castle of grown-up things, they cease to be people who deserve being listened to.”

So writes author John Warner, in his commentary during website The Morning News’s annual Tournament of Books literary bracket, after judge Natasha Vargas-Cooper classified John Green’s breakaway young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and Chris Ware’s graphic novel Building Stories (which is not young adult) as “juvenilia.”

“So much of our culture has already been ceded to the grubby hands and blunted tastes of teenagers, I refuse to surrender my reading choices to them as well,” Vargas-Cooper wrote.

When something takes off the way young adult fiction has in recent years, you’re bound to get backlash. The latest naysayer was Ruth Graham, in her controversial Slate piece “Against YA,” published last week, which argued that adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books.

Vargas-Cooper and Graham express one of the two arguments I most commonly hear used to dismiss YA as unserious and unworthy. It boils down to, “It’s for children, and I’m not a child.” (The other argument is just “It’s bad,” which is the reductive dismissal of someone who doesn’t read YA but has heard of Twilight.)

According to this line of thinking, books from the perspective of teenagers are distasteful to mature, grown-up palates. Having entered adulthood, we should now exclusively read books aimed at and written by adults. Which is kind of like moving to France and then deciding you’ll only read French novels.

As this is far from the first time this argument has come up (and it won’t be the last), there are a couple stock defenses of YA at this point. One is, “Don’t make people feel bad for reading. People should read whatever they want.” And that’s correct. The other is that YA is varied and multifaceted, and if only skeptics did more research, they’d find many great books. This is true, too, although listing examples of great YA books feels a little to me like listing examples of funny women—of course they exist. I shouldn’t have to prove it to you.

In an article in New York on reading YA as an adult, Jen Doll cites an “undeniable nostalgic lure.” I won’t deny that some of the appeal may lie in reading and remembering what it’s like to be that age, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I don’t read these books to recapture a lost youth. I read them because the stories are good and meaningful to me now.

And what, exactly, makes them good and meaningful? One of the great values of literature is its ability to convey experiences different from our own, to let us see inside the heads of characters from different time periods, different countries, different races, classes, and, yes, ages. Every time a grownup reads a YA book, they widen their perspective in important ways.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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