June 3, 2009

Shame

A week or two ago, I got a comment asking why I was reading (and reviewing) mostly young adult or children's books and then noting, with some astonishment, that there were all these other adults apparently reading them too, based on the comments.

And yeah, I can understand why people who don't read a lot of young adult books would think that. Does reading teen books mean you can't handle the possibly-more demanding language and themes in adult books? Does identifying with teen characters mean you're immature? Isn't reading teen literature a lot like an adult eating nothing but pureed fruits and vegatables instead of real actual adult food?

On the other hand, I can't really buy those arguments. I think it's just that most adults nowadays have no idea what the Young Adult Literature world looks like now. It used to be small; there weren't all that many books being published in that genre and many of them weren't particularly well-written. Books that would now be considered YA books were just published as general adult fiction.

Now? It does not look like that at all. Teen books are being published at an incredible rate and the cross-over appeal is getting higher. For me, a major sign of the change was when the New York Times Bestseller list started breaking up Adult and Children/Teen books because Harry Potter was dominating all the top spots on the list. The idea of an adult reading a book aimed at children and teens is getting less strange.

And for good reason - I cannot emphasize strongly enough how many terrifically written, interesting, and all-around phenomenal books there are out there.

Certainly there is still a bias against it. Sherman Alexie, after winning the National Book Award for his YA book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was asked if wished he'd won the award for an "adult, serious work." He said, "I thought I’d been condescended to as an Indian — that was nothing compared to the condescension for writing Y.A.” (Read the whole New York Times essay if you're interested in this topic).

Some people still are embarrassed to be reading a book that is marketed primarily towards children or teens, when they are in their thirties or forties or fifties (or hey, even their twenties). I am sympathetic to that, but I think they are missing out, whether out of some sense that there is something wrong with reading books for a younger audience or because they just don't know about all the good things there are to read that have a "YA" sticker slapped on the spine.

I absolutely sincerely believe there is nothing more "noble" about reading adult literature. They are all just books. Some are good, some are bad. Some focus on adults, some on teens or children. Some are just for fun, some are real works of literature.

And I refuse to be ashamed to walk in to the teen room at my local library.

29 comments:

  1. My name is Emily. I'm 24 (will be 25 very shortly) and I love YA fiction.

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  2. Just so you know, I am currently reading Ten Cents a Dance, after reading your review of it!

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  3. I'll be 41 in three months and that's all I read. I'm so lucky!

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  4. Agreed.

    And when the shame occasionally threatens to rear it's ugly head, I just tell myself it's the only responsible thing to do for my children's sake, right? No one showed me anything else to read when I tired of Beverly Cleary, so I skipped straight to Tom Clancy books left lying around by my dad. I gotta figure out what's out there, because at the rate Claire's going, she's gonna be hungry for these books sometime, oh probably next week...ugh.

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  5. I love that my 30 year old husband (so that makes him a man right?) takes your reviews as the ultimate word on his reading choices. What can I say, he's a sucker for teenage girl drama. :)

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  6. I am not ashamed to go into our YA section but I am uncomfortable, only because the YA librarian always looks at me strangely. It is starting to get better though and I hope so because I love my library. I am 35 and love YA.

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  7. I sometimes feel a little embarrassed when checking out the teen section. But their books are so much more interesting to me!

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  8. Well said! I agree with Gretchen: partly I read YA because I want to read what my kids are reading. And also because i want to be able to give good YA recommendations at work. But I like it also because it fits better into my lifestyle; I can read a YA novel much faster than an adult one. What people don't (obviously!) get yet is that YA doesn't equate to poorly written. Of course there are some books that are better than others, but I wish people would get over that connection. Thanks for a post that made me think this morning!

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  9. I'm a little bit guilty too. I wasn't ever judgemental. Just curious how there could be so many of your commentors who loved YA too. And of course, I am out of the book world altogher, so I was never one to judge. But now I am converted. Thanks for opening up a new world to me. Actually, one reason I stopped reading so frequently a few years ago was that a lot of the books (adult) were just plain dumb. So really, thank you. And keep reviewing.

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  10. I think a lot of the appeal of YA fiction is the themes dealt with in these works, in particular the "coming of age" idea, something I am sure will continue to fascinate us for ages. No matter who we eventually become, I think we can always remember and relate to that adolescent mind full of anxiety, caprice, angst, etc . . . While in my mind I'm telling the characters, "Stop! Just think about what you're doing," I can remember the rashness of my decisions when I was a teenager . . . and in college . . . and last week.

    Oh, geez.

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  11. I have to admit that when I went to the library on Monday night I felt really embarrassed that I was getting Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, mostly because they had to look around for a copy for me since the catalog said there was one on the shelf when there wasn't. I didn't feel silly at all about picking up The Wednesday Wars. And I really shouldn't feel silly about anything since what I mostly read are not YA books.

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  12. I agree with you. It doesn't matter what the target audience is--it only matters if you enjoy the writing, plot, characters, etc. I ALWAYS read your book reviews and you have directed me to some of my favorite books.

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  13. Heavens, I'm 55, and I never feel shame or guilt or embarrassment about reading YA or even little children's books. I guess I worked as a reading aide too long too give much thought.

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  14. PS - Sorry for the typos. I do know how to spell better than that.

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  15. You know I am all about YA fiction, and that question to Sherman Alexie is horribly ignorant. But... sometimes I wish I could share my adult fiction (although I call it modern fiction so as to take away the squick feel) with you and see what you think! Would you be game?

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  16. Great post! I've been reading more and more YA fiction recently since so much of it is so good

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  17. I have tried my hand at a few YA books and truly enjoy them. Your reviews are excellent and have made me try more than I normally would. It's called expanding your interests.

    I say bravo for you. I'm not as brave as you, I've held off on posting too much on my blog concerning my reading selection because I am a hard-core romance reader aka a romantically challenged woman to some people (not even remotely the truth, but is assumed when people see my reading material). So kudos to you and keep it up!

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  18. It drives me crazy how many people are fine with my reading choices if they're described in the context of my job as a children's librarian, but refuse to accept them as a personal decision that I've made. I had this conversation several times at BEA this weekend, and ended up feeling very condescended-to. Ugh. I don't feel embarrassed about it, but I do feel frustrated by the attitudes I encounter sometimes. Oh well, just gotta keep trying to attack this stereotype of YA and kidlit being somehow less than "real" books.

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  19. Nice response! I read YA and I've never felt odd about it until the last trip when a teenager kept staring at me. The librarians have never made me feel like I shouldn't be though.

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  20. I guess this is a good time to say that I read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks based on your recommendation (and happening to see it on the end of the shelf at the library) and I loved it. I've been recommending it to other adults too. I don't think there is any shame in reading YA fiction. Some if it is better than "adult" fiction I've read.

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  21. Thanks for writing this! It's so true!

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  22. I have no problem admitting my love of YA and Children's Lit. I very unashamedly peruse the YA stacks at the library and bookstores.

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  23. I'm not embarrassed or ashamed either. I love that I can read it and it's pure entertainment and not laden with smut, sex and swear words.

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  24. I recall admitting to a group of my colleagues that I am fan of YA books. Their response: "What are YA books? You mean stuff like Harry Potter and Twilight?" And yes, those series do fall under YA, but THERE IS SO MUCH MORE! People seem to be completely unaware of the diversity of books which are classified as YA. All they associate with the category is romance and wizardry.

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  25. Thanks for quoting from my NY Times essay! I live in Austin, too--there are actually a ton of YA authors here. We're actually doing a panel about YA lit at Bookpeople on June 13--if you're around, you should come! It would be fun to meet you in person and talk about all this stuff.

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  26. Books that would now be considered YA books were just published as general adult fiction.

    That's so true. The market has changed, and I think it's alienated a few adult readers who would normally have been gung-ho for the sorts of books currently being published as YA. They're looking at the labels, not the content, and that's a sad thing to see.

    For the record, I'm twenty-five and I love YA.

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  27. I don't think anyone should be ashamed of their reading choices. While I am not a big fan of YA fiction in general, I have read some great books that fall under that umbrella.

    It reminds me of the whole "shame" associated with reading genre fiction, be it romance, crime fiction or fantasy/sci fi. It doesn't matter the type of book or genre when it comes right down to it. All that really matters is that we get out of our reading what we hope to and that we enjoy it.

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  28. I like to tell people a good story is a good story. It doesn't really matter how it's classified or defined. I think this about YA fiction, Romance, Sci-fi, horror, you name it. :)

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  29. i feel like i don't read enough YA books - though being a high school librarian, i could be biased. would i be reading only adult novels if i didn't work with teens?
    thanks for the sherman alexie quote. i gotta remember that one.

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