Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Let's Talk About... "Young Adult" as a Stigma

So I want everyone to be honest. When you tell people you're a blogger, are you always a little afraid of their reaction to what you blog about (if you're a young adult blogger, at least)? When you're reading a YA novel in public, do you ever dread someone looking at the cover and scoffing at you? Do you cringe a little bit inside to tell even your friends what you've been reading all weekend? I am not ashamed to say that, at times, I answer yes to every one of these questions.

As an English major, I think people expect me to be reading Tolstoy all the time. Don't get me wrong, I ADORE Tolstoy. But I get worn out reading serious books all the time. When I read for fun, I actually want it to be fun! I want to relax, get lost in a new world, not worry if I'm really understanding the undertones of what the author is saying or doing research on the time period the book was written to better get the commentary. These are things I enjoy but they do, in fact, feel like work. Reading young adult, though, is just enjoyable. It makes me happy and it makes me a more relaxed person.

On the flip side, in most people's eyes, I am considered an adult. I'll turn 21 next month and, with that, I can pretty much do everything an adult can do--except rent a car, right? As an "adult", I think there's the idea that I should be reading "adult" books. But when I look at a lot of adult fiction, it doesn't deal with characters remotely close to my age or who are dealing with problems I can imagine or remember myself dealing with. That's not to say I can imagine being the leader of a revolution in a post-apocalyptic world, but I can remember the concurrent experiences of the character leading the revolution. I'm not saying I don't enjoy adult fiction. I do, but there's a certain limitation to what I enjoy. I imagine, as I get older I'll grow to appreciate more and more of it, but I don't think that will eliminate my love of young adult fiction, either.

I honestly believe that there is a stigma attached to young adult fiction. If you're not strictly a teenager, you shouldn't be reading it. There's the idea that the writing is juvenile and simplified or doesn't deal with complicated and social issues. All of that is wrong! First, I believe some of the best writers out there right now are writing young adult. Everyone can relate to being a teenager at some point. I know from firsthand knowledge how receptive the young adult reading community is, as well! As an author, I would much rather put my pain, sweat, and tears into a work that attracts a passionate audience. Authors are also exploring more interesting issues in young adult novels because the readers are less cynical and readier to accept a more far fetched premise. This means we're getting the best and most creative books out on the market.

Alethea at Read Now Sleep Later wrote an amazing post on this subject a few months ago when Isaac Marion, author of Warm Bodies (a book you should know by now that I am completely in love with) kind of put his foot in his mouth when he made a comment about his book being shelved as young adult in bookstores. (You can read the whole story of that in her post, linked above.) She perfectly summarizes my thoughts when she says, "...YA is intended to explore the challenges of changing from child to adult, that YA is inclusive of the interests of both children and adults, and that you shouldn't let a label prevent you from exposing yourself to great books". The problem lies with those who don't understand young adult; those who have never read it and therefore think it's an arbitrary delineation between books dealing with juvenile topics and books dealing with adult topics. Marion states he views young adult as a mark to warn people looking for complex and mature themes to stay away, because they won't find them there.

To me, young adult books are very much a reflection of the age they're generally geared towards. Your high school years are hard years. You're changing in so many ways and you really don't get what's going on. It's such a relief to get lost in a world where you don't have to deal with your own problems, yet you see a protagonist who's dealing with problems similar to your own, albeit in a heightened reality or fantasy. You see you're not the odd man out; everyone has trouble. Feeling awkward, alone, and out of your depth are natural for teenagers, but they're common all through life. Just because I'm not a teenager anymore doesn't mean I don't feel alone in the world at times. As a teenager, I needed characters I could relate to--ones I couldn't find in the adult or childrens sections. As an adult, I no longer need those characters, but that doesn't mean I can't relate to them and find comfort in reading about them.

With the popularity of so many young adult movie franchises and the reach of the genre growing, I can only hope that one day the general public will learn there's nothing to be ashamed of in reading young adult. One day they'll all realize what we've known along: Not only are young adult novels just as important as adult novels, they deal with complex and mature themes that not only entertain, but challenge, readers.

What's your opinion on the outside view of young adult? Are you an adult who reads YA? Why? Why is it important to you? Do you think it'll ever get the respect we crave?

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