The Trouble With Reader-Shaming: A Y.A. Book List

by Jen Doll

Girl Reading Whatever The Fuck She Wants To Read At A Table, 1934

The great debate over whether grownups should read young adult literature — and further, what the nature of reading should be — has come up again, thanks to a piece in Slate telling adults they should feel ashamed about reading books for kids. The headline is particularly prickly: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

Swiftly, a number of smart people reacted to this piece, which is surely as was intended by its very publication (especially its prickly headline). After all, there’s a certain algorithm on the internet that has become known as a kind of success, and it involves presenting what may be an unpopular or controversial opinion and then relying not only on supporters of the argument but also, often in even larger measure, its detractors, who will help generate conversations, shares, and of course, page views. This isn’t to say that an argument isn’t valid or worth considering if it fits in this internet model. This is to say, though, that this sort of blogging often does well — and on the internet, very little that is gray has a chance of thriving, or going viral. As Annalee Newitz wrote on i09 last year, the stories we tend to share are those that “appeal to our urge to have the definitive explanation of what is true and right.” Whether they are actually true or right, however, is another story.

The article in Slate, by Ruth Graham, is an interesting example of this. What the piece itself rails against — that Y.A. offers pat, easy or at the very least “satisfying” solutions aimed at kids and doesn’t make adults think — could be said for the very type of internet writing it embodies. Here, precisely, is how you should feel, it says. Here are the answers, tied up in a bow: You be embarrassed for wasting your time reading Y.A., because Y.A. is not for adults, and you should be reading something appropriate to your age. It is easy and not challenging. You should not be “substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature.” This is an argument that speaks from a place of truth and rightness, or at least, intends to; there is little room for nuance.

Yet, nuance persists. There are many, many factors that go into what makes something complex, great, or “appropriate to one’s age,” and most of all this depends on who is reading it — not based in age, because age categorizations do not always match prescribed reading levels; just ask any kid sneaking illicit tomes off her parents’ bookshelf because all “her” books have already been devoured — but based in who that person is, what they want, and what they bring to the table. Additionally, as others have pointed out, Y.A. is a category so vast as to include everything ranging from genre fiction to memoir to poetry to literary fiction and nonfiction — not everything ends happily or “satisfyingly,” not everything is written to the same grade level or for the same readers, not everything is the same at all (nor is this so with adult literature, which contains everything from Nicholas Sparks to Danielle Steel to Shakespeare and James Joyce and Hilary Mantel). Saying Y.A. is easy is like saying “fiction” is easy. There are worlds contained within.

But to go back to my initial point, it is easier to make a strong argument when certain commonalities are assumed. Unfortunately for Graham’s argument, not all Y.A. is the same, just as not all readers are the same. But in the wake of the piece, I do think it’s heartening that all manner of responses came, showing we are as varied and different and full of opinions (and nuance!) about what we should read as there are Y.A. books.

I proudly love Y.A. books for many reasons, though, let it be known, I love a lot of books, in a range of categories and genres, and I can never read enough, there’s never enough time. The reason I read so much Y.A. is partly, yes, it’s because these books often make me happy. They tend to make me feel a little bit softer, less cynical and jaded. I can read them fast, usually, and this is of some value, though if adult fiction is fast-paced and plotty, I can usually read it in a night, too. Y.A. books do often give me hope, which is not to say that they gloss over hard issues or that everything ends up perfectly (or perfectly weepy) in the end. Things are tough in Y.A., just like things are in adult fiction and nonfiction, just like they are in life. (Oh, and for the record, adult literature has quite frequently left me with a sense of hope, too!)

As a 30-something reading Y.A., I think the closest I come to shame is in realizing I am often closer in age to the main character’s mother than to the main character. But this gives me a sense of layering that makes the books even more thought-provoking, usually — I can read them as a grownup, looking back; I can read them to try to understand or communicate with a younger generation; I can read them because often they more limberly tackle issues of our time; I can read them because they remind me that there is a certain universality of life and experience that transcends age. If I’m reading them for comfort, so be it. It’s as healthy as going to yoga; it’s Botox for the soul. But, just imagine if reading books caused us to regress to the age in which the characters are in the book, or to the age a marketer has decided the book will be targeted to, something Graham seems to fear. What would that mean for all the parents reading their kids children’s books, learning about themselves or thinking differently than they did the first time they read those stories? What would this mean for dermatologists plying actual Botox?

Here’s a truth: We don’t all have to like, praise, or get value from the same things. The idea that reading has one purpose, and that there is a way to do it right or wrong (and, if done wrong, we need feel ashamed about that) oversimplifies as badly as a badly written Y.A. book, or an internet argument that ignores our differences. Further, if we too easily believe and agree with what others tell us how to feel, we risk a dumbing down of everything that I think Graham herself would be staunchly against. So read, read Y.A., read adult literature, read blog posts, read magazines, read your box of Cheerios in the morning. Read all you can and want to read, acknowledging the easy and unchallenging and the difficult and complicated, and form your own opinions, trying to add a little room for nuance and understanding and openness in all that you do. That’s the best you can do as a reader, a writer, and a human.

10 Contemporary Y.A. Books That Made Me Think (and That I Loved)

1. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. A Y.A. novel set in Nazi Germany that features a girl who can’t read (but compulsively steals books anyway) and Death as a main character is guaranteed to provoke thought, no matter the age of the reader.

2. Everything Leads to You, by Nina LaCour. Young production designer Emi Price, still dealing the heartbreak of her last relationship, stumbles upon a Hollywood mystery and the possibility of new love in this totally romantic, totally special book about creating the life you want to lead for yourself.

3. Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith. This book, described as Vonnegut-like, pits two best friends against an “army of horny, hungry, six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things.” So, it’s probably not the sort of Y.A. you might expect.

4. Say What You Will, by Cammie McGovern. Amy has been born with cerebral palsy and needs a voice box to talk; Matthew, struggling with OCD, becomes Amy’s “peer helper.” The two are drawn to one another, but all does not end tied neatly with a bow.

5. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. First published in 1999, Speak has become a mainstay of high school rape prevention curriculum, and it remains as powerful as it was 15 years ago.

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Based on Alexie’s own experiences attending an all-white high school off the reservation, this book should be read by everyone.

7. Rapture Practice, Aaron Hartzler. When he turned 16, Hartzler started to wonder about the fundamentalist religion he grew up in — and in exploring and rebelling, learned how to be his own person. A valuable lesson for anyone, really.

8. We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart. Talk about endings that don’t “satisfy” in any easy way … this is the kind of book, featuring four best friends and their Secret History-esque destructive interrelationships, that will keep you up reading all night.

9. Going Over, by Beth Kephart. This book is about love and pain on each side of the Berlin Wall. There are plenty of adult books that don’t capture the tension and gut-wrenching truth — and historical accuracy — of Kephart’s.

10. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick. Grownups need to read this book about a boy who packs a pistol in his bag and heads to school on his 18th birthday with a plan to kill just as much as teens do.

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin and author of Save the Date.