Why I Read YA

Posted on June 18, 2014 at 6:00 am

By Sheri Boggs

Why I Read YA. Sheri Boggs responds to Slate's Against YA and talks about why she reads YA literature.

I read YA.

But Ruth Graham over at Slate says I shouldn’t. Or if I do, perhaps I should pin a large, scarlet “YA” of shame on my chest because — in spite of the fact that 55% of YA titles are bought by people older than 18, in spite of all the lists of “YA books adults will love,” in spite of the fact that I’ve managed to cobble together a pretty decent career based on books written for children and teens — Graham insists that “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”

But I don’t feel embarrassed. I see what she’s trying to do in this article (unambiguously titled “Against YA”). She’s trying to paint adult readers of YA as the kinds of middle-aged people who line up in their Hello Kitty pajamas for the midnight release of Catching Fire on DVD at Wal-Mart.  Although her stated aim is to exhort us all to read more age-appropriately, to sample from the endless banquet of literary fiction for adults, it’s also to mock. For mockery is classic click bait technique and if there’s one thing Slate likes, it’s more clicks.

Predictably, the bookish corners of the Internet blew up right after Graham’s piece ran and there are many excellent refutations and takedowns already posted everywhere from the Washington Post to Flavorwire. I’m a little late to the party in sharing mine, but it’s because my head has been so full of arguments, and wanting to share every mind-blowing snippet of YA prose I’ve read in the last six months, while simultaneously thinking about my own reasons for reading YA (or any of the other things I read, for that matter).

I read YA and children’s books in part because doing so helps me stay aware of trends when selecting titles for SCLD’s collection. But I also read it because I enjoy it — the sophistication behind some of the current crop of picture books, chapter books, juvenile nonfiction and teen novels is astonishing. I love how the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems continually flirt with crises both relational and existential while helping young children learn to read. I love the world Maggie Stiefvater creates in The Scorpio Races — an island of indeterminate Celtic origin where a stableboy and an orphan girl train for a terrifying annual event where carnivorous horses rise up from the surf and must be tamed (or fed, in the most ghastly manner possible).

There is an art to writing for children and young adults and I’ve learned that paying attention to the craft is almost as satisfying as reading the story itself. Libba Bray does amazing things with structure, dialogue, and detail — in The Diviners you feel led around the gas-lit streets of 1920s New York by ghostly wisps of memory and loss, even while her glamorous flapper heroine gets herself into one worldly scrape after another. And choosing the text for picture books and beginning readers is just as much an art  — some stories, no matter how simple, just seem to rise up off the page vibrating with sound while others lay flat, inert or weighed down with excess verbiage. It’s fascinating to see how the success of a story rests on the many decisions – both major and small – the author makes along the way.

Although Graham seems to suggest that adult YA readers wouldn’t go anywhere near an actual adult novel, I don’t know any adult readers of YA who only read YA. I, like many of my friends, read YA for the same reasons we read literature, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction. I read to learn, to see how a character handles the circumstances they’ve been given. I read to be surprised by language and characters and to see an author writing a familiar story in a completely new and engaging way. My friends and I who read YA and children’s books are not just seeking some frothy escapism, as Graham would suggest in her piece. We’re college educated and unapologetically literary. Some are parents of teens, some work with teens, and a few are themselves writing for teens. To care about children’s and teen lit is, to me, a natural extension of caring about children and teens.

Teen books matter, children’s books matter. To read them as an adult is to see how far you’ve come since your younger days, and to understand a little better the alternately maddening and loveable young people in your own life.  There’s something satisfying about having lived through some hard things, perhaps even some of the issues faced by a YA protagonist. You might even know, with the benefit of hindsight, that some of the issues of adolescence you thought you’d licked for good are going to come up again and again, in different guises, but essentially the same. How quietly rewarding it is to understand something of transitions and to know of a few books of which you could say “hey, here, maybe this story will help.”

The great thing about getting OLDER is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been. - Madeleine L'Engle. Why librarian, Sheri Boggs reads YA literature. www.scld.org

Ultimately I think the thing I resent the most about “Against YA” is the mean-spirited ageism. Right after finishing the article I went to find one of my favorite quotes by A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle, which is, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” There are places in Graham’s article where she sounds exactly like the kind of woman who also would have told me a 13-year-old shouldn’t be reading Judith Krantz . I reject the idea that I should only read things appropriate to my age group. I rejected that idea when I was 13 and I really reject it now. Let’s all pick our reading based on enjoyment, on craft, on the beauty of the language and leave the age-shaming out of it.

Bio_SheriB

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  • http://www.wondersofweird.com Kelly Milner Halls

    Go get ‘um, Sheri! I couldn’t agree with you or Ms. L’Engle more. I cherish every memory from every part of my life, and draw on them as I write or plan to write. But getting older gives us one more life changing freedom — the right to do what we want without giving a flying leap about what people think. Quiz Ruth Graham when she’s 50 and I’ll bet you a dollar her perspective will have shifted. Because, in the end, if we’re lucky we learn that joy is joy and connection is connection no matter where it comes.

    • Sheri Boggs

      Thanks, Kelly! Your ability to tap into the ages you’ve been is part of what makes your books so fun/compelling/interesting. Also, love this: “Because, in the end, if we’re lucky we learn that joy is joy and connection is connection no matter where it comes.”

  • Chris Dahl

    Sheri–

    Good piece. You lay out your argument nicely. I guess I feel that the issue is somewhat akin to eating at McDonald’s. It has its own rewards on occasion, but it’s not a good idea to make it a steady diet.

    • Sheri Boggs

      Chris,
      Thanks for commenting! One thing I neglected to say in this piece (but have seen elsewhere) is that YA is an age distinction more than it’s a genre. And as such it encompasses almost as many genres as adult fiction (including literary fare like China Mieville’s “Railsea”). So even within YA you can still have a widely varied reading diet (and even more so if you’re also reading adult fiction, nonfiction, The New Yorker, etc., etc.) I’m all for sampling from every dish at the literary buffet :)

  • Gwendolyn

    This made me remember one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis about literature: ““No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

  • Sheri Boggs

    So love that quote — thanks, Gwendolyn!

  • Jessica Nuckolls

    Thank you so much for your wonderful article. I just recently started working in the Children’s services department of my library and was asked to purchase YA fiction due to my passion for the genre. While my love of YA has given me a wonderful career opportunity I have faced a lot of criticism for reading YA. I’m seen as someone who is afraid to grow up and immature purely because of my adoration for YA. I have been trying to come up with a way to answer these critics and you have found the words that I have been searching for! I just want to thank you for that.

  • Sheri Boggs

    Jessica,
    Thanks so much for commenting! And congrats on being asked to select YA — as I’m sure you’re discovering, not only is it super fun, it’s great work experience. As for the critics, that’s unfortunately one that I’ve heard as well — that you must have something wrong with you if you’re still reading YA as an adult. I’ve found it to be exactly the opposite. Youth librarians, booksellers and authors are some of the hardest working, smartest, and wisest people I know.

    Did you happen to catch John Green on The Colbert Report last night? I laughed out loud when Stephen Colbert said “as far as I can tell, a young adult novel is a regular novel that people actually read.” Enjoy!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaV58mPDWQQ&feature=kp