The Adult Lessons of YA Fiction

Stories about growth, change, and epiphanies resonate in a different way when you're older.
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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.

I don’t mean to delegitimize young adult books’ primary audience by suggesting their only value is to provide adults with a window into teens’ lives, or that the stories are only good if grownups can like them. What I do mean to say is that things made for teenagers are not inherently less worthy of our time, attention, and critical consideration, simply because they’re for and about teens.

The best part of a story, to me, has always been watching characters change. And what unites works of YA fiction, whether set on suburban streets or on a spaceship in the future, is how quickly and how dramatically its characters experience change. It makes sense—teenage years are the time of greatest turmoil, of most radical growth. And narratives of change always resonate, even if, as adults, our own changes often happen more subtly. It seems naïve to separate our growth as humans into periods arbitrarily bounded by age. The process of personhood might slow with age, but it doesn’t stop.

And if the conclusions of YA books are “simple,” as Graham says (debatable), well, are we really so grown up as to be beyond simple lessons? When John Green writes, “What a treacherous thing to believe a person is more than a person,” should we roll our eyes because that straightforward, true sentiment doesn’t totally blow our minds the way it might have when we were younger? In the course of my “adult” reading this year, I came across a quote from Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, tucked into the afterward of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams:

I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever. … I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work all our lives to remember the most basic things.

Just because you learn something once at 16, doesn’t mean you won’t have to re-learn it over and over again throughout your life. The big, important things are often crowded out of our heads by small daily concerns.

Everyone still has gaps between who they are and who they could be. To help close those gaps, we could stand be reminded now and again of the elemental truths that we first encountered as teenagers. If reading YA as adults makes us feel older and wiser than the characters, if we remember but don’t relate to the people we used to be, it is only an illustration of our capacity for change.

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

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