Why YA? Joel Stein says don’t read this. I say think for yourself.
I am an adult. Well, I at least play one on tv (or in real life). Mostly. I also read YA fiction. Joel Stein recently said in a New York Times article that I should not. Sure, I could stand at a dinner party after you asked me what I read and make a defense for myself and declare I have to read YA for my job, I am a teen services librarian after all. But the truth is, I also like it. No, I love it. I find that I often close the back cover of my book and rejoice that once again I have read such great fiction. That didn’t happen when I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. To be honest, I didn’t even finsh that one. And in my personal universe it is almost a sin not to finish a book.
In the past few years I have read 1,000s (and no, that is not an exaggeration) of teen (or ya) books. And I have read a couple hundred adult ones. And I have liked a great deal of both to be honest. Yet, I find ya fiction to be well written, engaging, soul stirring, sometimes life changing, thoughtful, and yes – entertaining. I read it all, zombies, angels, mermaids, demons. I also read the quiet, thoughtful contemporaries. Edgy stuff. Fluff. It all has value. And to be fair, adult fiction has all the same different types as well.
There is a Message in What You Value
My concern with Stein’s statement is this: teens today already feel that they are outcasts in society. They feel that the world is hostile to them; that adults perceive them as “other” and a “nuisance”. They need, and deserve, literature that speaks to them – who they are in this moment. They also need, and deserve, adults who are willing to spend time in their world. Adults who are willing to spend time in their world trying to understand them, engage them and send the message – we value you, we need you, we love you and because we do, we are going to sit here in this place with you. We need to have adults who can talk, intelligently and passionately, with teens about the things that they care about. Parents, teachers, lawmakers, doctors, lawyers – everyone who is in a position to influence the life of a teen should spend some time in the world of teen. You can not serve and meet the needs of people you do not know and understand. And when we say we don’t value the world of teens – be it literature, tv or music – we also are saying that we do not value teens. Spend some time reflecting on the 40 Developmental Assets. If we want our teens to make good life decisions, we need to create a culture which sends one very important message: we value the teens in our communities. It’s such a simple thing to do for our teens with big rewards for us as a culture.
Teens Are Not Other
As a teen, I couldn’t wait to be a grown up. Middle school and high school vexed me so. I knew that once I threw my cap in the air and tore off my robe that I would enter into a new and glorious future where no one told me what to do, social politics didn’t matter and the world would finally embrace me and allow me to fullfill my destiny. It turns out, real life isn’t really that different than the teenage years: social politics still reign supreme, people still tell me what to do, and I am still waiting for the world to recognize my glorious contributions. I have been an adult and a professional long enough to know some imporant life facts: Sometimes the most qualified person doesn’t get the job but the person with the most connection does, the popular kids are still reigning supreme while those on the fringes are still often left on the fringes, and life is still not fair. It’s not like you wake up on your 18th birthday and the world magically changes: Behold, you are now an adult put down that YA title as it is no longer relevant to your new adult world. The adult world is so similar to high school it can send shivers down your spine.
You see, literature is a mirror that reflects the world we live in and there is much universal truth in ya literature. As Mia lays on her deathbed and considers whether or not she is going to stay in this world or cross over into the next, she wrestles with universal questions that affect us all: the meaning of life, love, what it means to be alive (If I Stay by Gayle Forman). The character may be a teenager, but the writing is beautiful and the story is universal. When Hazel contemplates what type of space she will leave in Augustus’ life when she dies – well I believe that every person faced with a terminal illness wrestles with these same questions (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green). Adults struggle with relationships in many of the same ways that the characters in the works of Sarah Dessen struggle with relationships. Adults still wrestle with bullies and relationships and what it means to be a member of a family, a community. Teens are not other, they are simply a different version of us.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
As a Christian, I know that the Bible says that we should be like a child, to humble ourselves like one (Matthew 18:4). Sadly, too many of us lose our wonder at the world. We close our inner childhood eyes and we forget what it means to marvel at the sunset, to delight in the rain, to rejoice in a hug. And we forget those glorious feeling of first love: that moment when a young man grabs your hands for the first time and your fingers interlace and your heart – oh your heart soars and sings and fireworks burst! We forget what it was like to be a teen and all those glorious firsts that come with being a teen. Your first love, your first kiss, your first time behind the wheel of a car. We forget what it is like to discover and rediscover self. We put up blinders and close ourselves off and “grow up”. We also close our minds to new information, holding steady in our beliefs because they are somehow now TRUTH and there can be no new truth that might make us have to change our mind. But if we could all keep even one tiny little toe in that world and just kind of peek out a sliver of an opening of one eye, maybe we could all open ourselves up a little bit more to continue to change and grow as adults. Teen literature reminds us that the world is vast, that there are ample opportunities before us, that we – and the world we live in – is ever changing and we must be open to change ourselves. Teen fiction reminds us that the world we live in is not set in stone and to live in it fully we ourselves must not be either.
Joel Stein also seems to suggest that YA fiction is simply not well written and to be honest, as a fan of many teen writers I sputter in protest. There are many a ya title that made my heart soar, made tears flow from my eyes, and left me contemplating for days, weeks and months what it means to be a member of the human race. YA literature speaks to the heart of us all. It speaks universal truths. It questions, challenges, incites . . . The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins makes us really think about the role that the media, and violence, plays in our world. Delirium and Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver challenges us to think about what it means to love and be free. Many teen titles ask us to think about what it means to be in a community, to live with honor, or to die with integrity. It has been over 10 years since I have read the book If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson and I still think of it often. Quotes from that book stay on my fridge and help me remember to love, to truly love, the people in my life because our moments may be few. I tell every person I meet to read Pandemonium, that book touched the core of me. It is relevant to our times, it captures the spirit of who we are and questions who we may become. The ya authors I read write beautiful sentences, speak deep truths, and know how to entertain. And yes, there is value in simply being entertained.
So adults, please – plase go out and read some ya fiction. Do it to send a an important message: we value the teens in our community. Do it to remember. Do it to open yourself up once again to the possibilities of this world. Do it because it really is well written. Do it because Joel Stein told you not to and you can still be the type of individual who questions what others say and thinks for yourself. Here are just a few of my favorites that I recommend . . .
If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (and anything else he wrote)
Delirium and Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Shiver by Maggie Steifvater
The Downside of Being Charlie by Jenny Torres Sanchez
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Anything by Chris Crutcher (especially Whale Talk, Deadline or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes) or Sarah Dessen (especially Dreamland and Just Listen)
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Rot & Ruin and Dust & Decay by Jonathan Maberry
Honestly, there are so many. I could go on. Stop by your public library and talk to the teen librarian there, ask them what they recommend. Spend some time browsing online, there are lots of great blogs out there with reviews and recommendations. Read the TLT reviews here. Whatever you do, don’t listen to Joel Stein because you will be closing yourself off to a great amount of amazing story. You may be missing out on the one story that changes your life.
What other teen titles do you recommend? Tell us in the comments. And please leave your blog url so others know where else they can go looking for reviews and recs.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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