Monday, June 9, 2014


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

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

31 Comments / Post A Comment

Mistress Sparrow

The one piece of "YA" literature I have read since being "YA" myself was "The Book Thief" because it came highly recommended by many readers I respect. It was an uncomfortable experiment because I thought the book was really bad. The writing was dull, and the narrator "Death" seemed tacked on in an attempt to make the novel seem "interesting"--Death brought no added insight to the story, and it seemed to serve no particular purpose. If this is held up as a shining example of "YA" literature, I can't compel myself to explore the genre further. Dragging myself through that book made me empathize with people who hate reading.

The experience also has me reevaluating the dear books of my childhood. I have read and re-read Anne of Green Gables so many times through the years that I scarcely view it as a piece of fiction outside myself anymore, so at least Anne is safe. But would "Number the Stars" fall as flat now as "The Book Thief" did? (I still sometimes think of the Star of David mark in Annemarie's palm after she yanked her friend's necklace from around her neck to protect her during a raid of their house.) Would I find "A Wrinkle in Time" trite and boring? "A Ring of Endless Light"? "The Giver"? "His Dark Materials"? Have I become a monster who can't appreciate the things of childhood?!?!?!

Mistress Sparrow

@de Pizan Yes! I think it's the "YA" title that bothers me. My intuition is that "A Wrinkle in Time" and the like are not good books for young adults, but simply good books. And I was under the suspicion that "YA" was being used as a code for "this book is kind of hack-y but maybe we can get away with it if we say it's for kids." Like when things are made "for women," aka, "not as good as the regular stuff." The assignment of genres for fiction really bothers me because great books necessarily bring something new to the table and assigning them to a genre obfuscates which books are doing that and which books were published because they'll make a buck.


@Mistress Sparrow As someone in her late 20s who only just read The Giver in the last year or two, I can attest it totally holds up. Also would like to second the Eleanor and Park love.


@Mistress Sparrow Thank you! Yes, the book thief gets a huge amount of praise, and yes, it is horrible. I feel very bad about this because I agree, intellectually, with the pro-YA argument laid out here- but I haven't read a book that's come out of this recent YA explosion that's actually been as good as an "adult" novel.

(Don't worry though, His Dark Materials is still amazing.)


@de Pizan I have never managed to get through The Book Thief and I have always felt vaguely guilty about it, like I'm betraying the Adult Readers of YA Books Club or something. So I'm kind of glad to learn I am not the only one who didn't like it.

I hear Code Name Verity is wonderful but very sad. I think I will give it a try anyway.

Mistress Sparrow

@de Pizan @ru_ri @disasterfactory @MarianTheLibrarian Thanks, everyone! You've emboldened me to try again.


@de Pizan Code Name Verity made me cry All The Tears. So, so good.


absolutely amazing.@l


Anytime people tell me YA is just for kids, I take out my copy of Terry Pratchett's NATION and smack them with it. For serious, I have read Joyce, I have read Hemingway, I have read Woolf and Eggers and Krakauer and whatever else the cool adults are reading (Marquez?) Nation is one of the weirdest, loveliest pieces of fiction I've read in the last... let's say 5 years. Maybe 10. And I'm not even really a Pratchett fan.


@angermonkey YES. Nation is such a great read for anyone of any age! Pratchett's other YA books are pretty good too--I especially enjoyed the Tiffany Aching books set in Discworld.


I read a lot and over many different genres, including "adult" literary fiction. I haven't read a book in the last few years that has affected me as much as Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park. I am not nearly as good a writer as Rowell, so the best I can do is to say that the writing is hauntingly beautiful, as elegant and effortless as Michael Chabon's writing in The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay.
Graham has this to say of E&P: "When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of 'He’d never get enough of her,' the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes?"
I don't think the reader is expected to swoon, I think s/he's supposed to understand that Park is deep in first love. If that's Graham's takeaway from E&P, I think she missed the point.


@themegnapkin Reading what this Graham person had to say about Eleanor & Park makes me think she should stick with reviewing cleaning products or something. That was a GREAT book.

Speaking of Chabon, have you read Summerland? Not as amazing as Kavalier & Clay, but a very worthwhile read (and aimed toward young adults) nonetheless.


@themegnapkin Also lest none forget the bestselling book in recent history, the execrable Fifty Shades series, is for adults. And I can't even.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

I haven't read much YA lately, but I did read the hell out of the Hunger Games trilogy, and I'm still not convinced that it was supposed to be geared toward teenagers. There's so much in it that I might have missed if I had read it at fourteen or fifteen, and so much that adults can take away from it. Jen Doll said better than I ever could.

Oh also by the way, I still haven't read that Slate piece, because I don't believe that Slate was written for adults.


@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that) Amen. Slate has some of the laziest, most inaccurate writing of any purportedly 'serious' website out there. Frankly speaking, they publish a lot of shit.


I have, in several instances, found "adult literature" to be really inferior, generally speaking, to many of the YA books I have read. Of course there are exceptions, but a lot of modern "litrachah" gets really wrapped up in symbolism and language and seems to regard the story as being completely beside the point. In my view, a book must have at its heart a good, compelling story to be worthwhile. Several well-reviewed books I have attempted lately (I am specially thinking of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) had all the MFA frills and none of the substance to make a properly satisfying read. I'd rather be subjected to the worst thing Daniel Pinkwater ever wrote than slog through another chapter of that sort of horseshit.


*continues to read 'Howl's Moving Castle', 'Catherine, Called Birdy' (which reminds me HEY IT HOLDS UP), and the 'Skullduggery Pleasant' books while Icona Pop's seminal 'I Love It' plays and I'm singing the chorus*


@pollypeachum Oh man I LOVED Catherine, Called Birdy, I had forgotten about that book.


@NellyBly Isn't it awesome?! Birdy was pretty much my favorite heroine growing up, and she probably is now, because I like my female characters prickly and unorthodox.


@pollypeachum YES, Birdy totally holds up. So does saying "it grumbles my guts."




A Wrinkle in Time is actually considered Middle Grade and it's too bad we insist on these labels. A good book is a good book no matter how old the protagonists are or what the reading level is judged to be. Some of the best writing is currently happening in the 8- to 12-year-old range. (If you liked A Wrinkle in Time, you'll most likely enjoy When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. It won the Newbery Medal a few years ago.) Sadly, it's mostly only parents of said age group and librarians who know this.

Then there are the few cross-age authors with a huge following whose "kids" books sometimes get shelved the adult ones (Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, for instance) at least by some independent bookstores. To them I say, hooray!


Ruth Graham is an idiot (how's that for nuance).

I've read books that were shuffled under YA that I think were pretty clearly not YA books, they just got marketed that way because they 1. happened to have a protagonist that is, at least for part of the book, a teenager or young adult and 2. the YA market is more lucrative.

I just finished The Extraordinary Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I which is marketed as a YA book because Octavian is sixish when the book starts and about 17 when it ends, but it is a very heavy book and I really do not think it was meant as a YA book. (It is fantastic, BTW.)

Often authors have little say over how/where a book is marketed.


The ONLY standard definition for YA is a story in which the protagonist is a young adult (teen). That's it. So yeah, this lady sucks.

Better to Eat You With

My small press has a YA imprint, so I'm very, very pro-YA. But I will say that I have known a ton of grown-ups over the years who expressly prefer YA over novels meant for adults *because* they don't challenge them as much ethically or morally, because they are "easier" reads, etc. These people are not necessarily reading the best, most complex YA books, for sure. But there's a perspective out in the ether that I encounter relatively frequently that probably does need to consider something along the lines of what Gordon's after in the Slate piece.


@Better to Eat You With And yet, Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is usually classified as YA and he LITERALLY has a scene in it where they kill god.


@Better to Eat You With I get what you're saying, but if adults gravitate towards books that don't challenge them ethically or morally, that is not the fault of YA. If they were only reading chick lit or books by John Grisham (as many adults do), couldn't you make the exact same argument? The responsibility lies solely with the readers - and if they wanted to read books within the YA genre that did challenge them in those ways, they could certainly find them.

I was an English major and I definitely believe in the power of complex, deeply considered literature to make us more empathetic human beings. But not everyone feels like spending their free time reading the last 10 years of Pulitzer Prize winners or whatever. And that is OK! Read what you want and feel no shame.

The Attic Wife

What I find completely perplexing about this entire debate is the assumption that books marketed for adults are automatically complex and challenging. There is a huge difference between reading a book by, say, Margaret Atwood or Christopher Moore (just to pick two writers at random with very different styles). They're both "adult" writers, I would argue one is generally more challenging to read than the other. I would argue there's a comparable difference between YA books written by Rainbow Rowell and Meg Chabot. What Graham doesn't seem to understand is that books that fall under the banner of "YA" are hugely diverse. YA is not a genre in and of itself, it's a marketing demographic and to assume that all YA literature is fluff is lazy thinking. It's just as absurd as (for example) picking a James Patterson book at random and saying that his style and quality of writing is representative of all adult literature as a whole.


Huckleberry Finn, all of James Fenimore Cooper's books, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Chocolate War, Romeo and Juliet, Clarissa, Pamela, Northanger Abbey, Evelina, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations: All great works of literature, all equally conceived of as works for what we now refer to as a "YA audience." Also, what do you do with Roald Dahl, whose books are for a slightly younger-than YA audience but who offers none of the comforts or easily resolved simplicities that the Slate piece attributes to YA fiction?

Princess Gigglyfart

The Amber Spyglass makes me cry every time.

Added this list to The To-Read List<3


Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article. Thanks! keep rocking! come eliminare la cellulite

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