Monday, April 9, 2012

In Defense Of YA

The other day one of my professors referred to the young adult (YA) genre as “juvenile fiction.” This term bothered me when she used it, and I told her that. But when I tried to defend why it bothered me I landed on the fact that the word “juvenile” often is equated with the word “immature.” YA fiction, at least the good stuff, is anything but immature.

This week, the class for which I am writing this blog (Please, Please Me, in the AMCV department) assigned the book Nothing by Janne Teller:

For those of you who have not read it, here is a review with a well-done summary. But, for the sake of those of you who are like me and choose to read books without knowing anything about them, I will spare you the summary and will simply link to the review for those of you who are curious.

Nothing is a book that no one would categorize as “juvenile.” The sentences are simple and the characters are children, but it is hardly immature. In fact, it is probably the deepest, most thought-provoking book that I have read in the last few years. I highly recommend that people read it. It is beautiful.

So why is this book categorized as YA? It deals with sophisticated, adult topics, its characters have depth, and the story is immensely powerful. I don’t cry often when I read, but this book struck me so deeply that I not only cried when I read it alone in my room, but I welled a bit when certain sentences were read in isolation during class. What is juvenile about that?

When we are young we believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. As we grow up we become jaded. We stop believing in magic, and it becomes harder for us to be moved by things. Forget magic, think about how many people stop believing in things like love or happiness as they grow up.

As a concrete example, think of a movie or TV show or even a commercial that scared you when you were a child. I used to watch the show Are You Afraid Of The Dark when I was young and I remember having trouble sleeping after watching this episode:

After watching it again, I cannot regain the fear I once had while watching it. Maybe I became jaded, but I think I just grew up.

Children have a hard time distinguishing reality from fiction, and often authors can take advantage of this fact when writing for a younger audience. Yes, I know that wizards and vampires and zombies don’t exist, but when I read a book I can pretend that they do. Books allow me to suspend my disbelief and appreciate the story as though it were real.

Many adults have a hard time with this suspension of disbelief. I am the only one in my family who enjoyed Harry Potter because my parents and sister couldn’t get over the fact that it couldn’t happen. The word that they kept using was “stupid,” which is not very descriptive, but it gets the point across. What they mean is that the book doesn’t make sense to them. The events within it cannot happen so they have trouble pretending it could happen enough to enjoy themselves.

Think about the movie The Blob:

Watching that movie in the 21st century is often comedic, not scary. But watching it when it first came out in 1958 was, I’m sure, a terrifying experience. We have gotten good at watching movies so that we have higher standards for what looks real and what doesn’t. In the case of The Blob we have trouble getting wrapped up in the terror that people in the 50’s felt because we are too distracted by the inaccurate graphics to suspend our disbelief.

Because YA writers are writing for children, the authors have the liberty to be more extreme in characters, plot, and setting because children will believe it (at least for a short time) and adults will not. With books like Harry Potter and Matilda the extremities are obvious because they include magic. But even when we look at YA books like Stargirl  and Maniac Magee and Holes, where the magic is less obvious if it exists at all, we see extremes of characters that we would never see in adult literature.

Whether you like this sort of book is a matter of taste. When I eat food I like extremities. I like extra-hot buffalo wings, I pour salt on everything, and I add chocolate to my oatmeal. The same goes with fiction. I like to feel something when I read and often that requires the literary equivalent of hot sauce, salt, or chocolate.

Twilight operates under these extremes of plot and character. Edward is a vampire, Jacob is a werewolf, and the love story is exaggerated and fantastical. But for salt-lovers like me, this is what gives the book its power. If you can suspend disbelief enough to immerse yourself in a world where this is plausible then you can give yourself over to the pleasure and enchantment of the book.

I know I truly loved a book when I leave the world wishing that I could live there, or at least that my world were as exciting as the one in which the book takes place. In many cases this is where the pleasure lies. The ability to suspend disbelief and live in a magical world is one of the things we remember the most fondly about our childhoods. When we read YA literature we can live in a magical world for a short period of time. Perhaps there is nostalgia involved in this type of pleasure, or perhaps it is just the raw pleasure of being somewhere entirely different from your own world. But it is pleasure.

I would not say that I loved Twilight, but that may be because I had trouble suspending my disbelief while reading it. I was too aware of its existence as a book. I was watching the page numbers increase, and I was checking for consistency between chapters in the story. But I think that was my problem, not the book’s. I went into the experience expecting something and that kept me distanced from the text, preventing me from allowing myself to be immersed in the world. But for someone who is lucky enough to be able to lose track of time while reading Twilight, good for them! I’m jealous!

We know that eating a greasy, salty burger is pleasurable, but we also know that filet mignon is better than a Big Mac. So some may argue that using these extremities of plot and character cheapens the pleasure you get from reading it.

But a good YA novel doesn’t have to be McDonald's. It can have just enough salt to make the other flavors dance. I’m not sure if Twilight actually accomplishes this, but the best YA novels absolutely do. The pleasure of a YA novel lies in the world being extreme enough to generate a strong emotional response and a certain enchantment for the reader. As long as a reader is able to suspend disbelief enough to trust the world in which the story lies, then the reader will have an intensely pleasurable experience.


  1. Delighted to see you posting regularly and giving this assignment much thought. Forge ahead!

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