Why I Read YA as an Adult

Recently, I have been making an effort to diversify and expand my reading interests beyond just the usual sci-fi/fantasy YA series. I’ve discovered some delightful books I would not have otherwise experienced and learned many new things, but at the same time also reaffirmed the value and enjoyment that I find in YA and rarely find elsewhere. There’s something about the casual infidelity, ubiquitous abuse, and general ennui that suffuses adult works that makes me long for the hopeful fighting spirit of YA novels. While I still feel a twinge of embarrassment when admitting in intellectual circles that I read more YA than “literary” works, I stand by my reading choice because it makes me happy. Here’s why:

Nearly every time I open a work of fiction geared towards adults, I experience a moment of heart-sinking, stomach-turning dismay that makes me ask, “Why am I reading this?” It happened during the graphic rape scene of Geraldine Brooks’ acclaimed biblical retelling, The Secret Cord. It happened while reading about the giant family where every single marriage is unhappy in Maria Arana’s magical realist work Cellophane. It happened while reading depictions of the domestic abuse in Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, and while watching the protagonist sabotage her own relationships out of pure listlessness in Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Is this all I have to look forward to? I ask myself as I read these various accounts of adult life, differing in genre but identical in their assertion that love dies, happiness is brief, and life is cruel.

Some of the adult reads on my shelf

Some may argue that such senseless violence and callousness are part of real life and that these novels are particularly artistic for being realistic. While I agree that these elements exist in real life, they are not the only things that do and are certainly not the only ones worth writing about. If the prevalence of misery shows anything, it is that happiness and lasting love are special and rare, rather than simple and boring. Besides, I read fiction primarily to escape the woes of real life, to immerse myself in the magic of the page and forget my problems for a bit. As such, I gain much more from reading about hope than about despair.

It’s not that bad things don’t happen in YA. In Angie Thomas’ The Hate You Give, teenage Starr witnesses her childhood friend lose his life to race-based police violence. After putting herself through stress and scrutiny as a witness in the court case over the police officer’s indictment, she faces the fact that the system is not going to change any time soon. But at the same time, she discovers her voice as an activist and also watches the community she was once embarrassed of come together in the wake of tragedy. The novel contains commentary about modern society, messages about discrimination, institutionalized racism, and microagressions, but also inspires its readers rather than depressing them.

Some of the YA reads on my shelf

YA is derided as ranging from “transparently trashy” to merely “uncritical” with unrealistic over-the-top emotions and overly simplistic satisfying emotions. Tell that to the readers of the Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, which uses complex meta story-telling techniques to describe the life of a young writer trying to make it in the NYC publishing scene as well as the very story she is writing. Tell it to the readers of Feed by M.T. Anderson, of The Barcode Tattoo by Suzanne Wyn, and every other sci-fi novel that makes us critically examine our dependence on technology.
Furthermore, YA is on the cutting edge of movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices, which promote representation of minority groups in both characters and authors. YA adapts far more quickly to the changing needs of our society than more “literary” adult genres.

One of my favorite YA authors, Maggie Stiefvater, addressed the phenomenon of adults reading YA in a series of tweets arguing against the theory that adults like YA because it is simple and easy to read ,but rather that we feel drawn to it as a movement that represents a certain worldview – one that is progressive, optimistic, and doesn’t accept a miserable status quo. I found myself nodding along at all of the comments as readers in their mid-twenties and thirties stepped forward to proclaim their love for YA and the issues they have with most adult lit. Many mentioned hopefulness as a factor, and others noted the dreary sameness of book after book about failing marriages and mid-life crises. I was glad to see my own thoughts and feelings shared and expressed so eloquently.

The point of this post is not to say that adult lit is bad, but just to say that it is not everyone’s cup of tea and also perhaps should not be the absolute standard by which we judge “literariness.” There are some adult works that I was glad I read, despite my issues with them. For example, while Americanah’s protagonist had me banging my head against the wall with her self-destructiveness, I also learned more about Nigeria than I ever knew before, and went on to read and love the author’s nonfiction feminist essays. But nine times out of ten, when I’m looking for a book to rock my world, it will be a YA title that hits the spot. There is much that adults can learn from YA, as we trudge through the hell of dead-end jobs, political turmoil, and financial worries, especially the idea that we do have the power to overcome obstacles and change the world. So let’s stop calling YA trashy and in fact, even encourage other adults to try it out.

That’s my two cents. What do you think? Are there any adult works that give you faith in the world? Let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Why I Read YA as an Adult”

  1. I have complete faith in the value of YA and I think we should all read what makes us happy. But I don’t see the world of adult lit as negatively as you do. I see it as a more complex understanding of the world where good and bad are very closely mingled and sometimes indistinguishable. I think it’s not so much about being realistically pessimistic and more about asking these really tricky questions about where we find meaning in our lives. And when I am also asking those questions in my life, I like books that acknowledge that things don’t have easy answers. I think YA can do that too…. but it kind of depends on what questions you’re asking.

    1. Maybe I need to ask different questions. Or just find some works that portray that complex understanding without resorting to sexual violence

      1. Well, it’s also within your rights as a reader to avoid topics that are not healthy for you to engage with. I do read about sexual violence because it’s important to me (The Round House by Louise Erdrich is a book that deals with it well, for example), but if it’s going to be an “uplifting” story about someone “battling” cancer I say no thanks.

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