CTV’s The Social Discusses YA Fiction, and I Respond

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After catching a great interview last week with Young Adult writer Rainbow Rowell on the Canadian TV talk show The Social, I went to the show’s website to see if I could learn more. There I found an opinion editorial written by their digital correspondent, Jessica Allen, on why she is not a fan of YA novels. Of course she is entitled to her opinion, but as I read through and then thought about her reasons why, I feel that as a fan of Young Adult writing I need to comment on a few of her thoughts.

First, Allen is totally within her right to not read this particular genre. She is very lucky in that she has found her reading voice. She has experience reading, has explored different genres, and has discovered what she is looking for in her literature and what she does not appreciate. However, others are not so lucky. At least a third of adults today have not read a book since they left high school, and some hold it up as a badge of honour. These people have not yet found their reading voice, and the way to solve that is to expose them to a variety of different genres so they can develop discriminating tastes and learn what they appreciate and do not appreciate in a work of literature. If that means they enjoy reading Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, or Rumiko Takahashi’s graphic novel series Mermaid Saga, let them experience it to discover their reading voice.

Allen seems to divide her reasoning behind why she will not read Young Adult literature into two sections. The first is that she dislikes the vast merchandising and commercialism that these novels generate. I don’t think this is a very strong argument, as the evils of marketing seem to be a catch-all argument in our society for those who want more purity in their pop culture. Teenagers and young adults have lots of disposable income, and people try to market towards that. But this does not mean that the merchandising will be successful. The failure of Percy Jackson and The Mortal Instruments movies at the box office demonstrates that the books are loved on their own, and that flocks of young people won’t simply make a book a success because an ad tells them to. You cannot take Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games as the “big three” of the young adult marketing scheme and think that it will apply to any YA book.

The second reason Allen gives is that she no longer feels the need to read novels where the adults are the problem, the kids are the heroes, and that life has the possibility of becoming better. She has many more adult novels that take priority on her to-read list before she would consider picking up a young adult work. That’s fine, but it seems to me that in this case she is criticizing the genre for being the genre. While it is true that young adult books often have the characteristic of young people saving the world or being the voice of reason, I find that having these main characters gives a sense of raw emotion that is just not present in much adult fiction. Too often in those books the theme or meaning is hidden behind complicated words, complex metaphors, or detailed illusions that show how “deep” the author is. But when I chuckle as I read about the surfer mumbling “bad ‘shrooms” as he paddles away from Percy Jackson emerging from the ocean in a translucent pearl, or cry out as I try to fathom infant euthanasia in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, I am experiencing uncomplicated, raw emotion. I would argue that this makes Young Adult books relatable to a wider audience, as we can have frank discussions about the obvious themes and conflicts in the books. As for Allen’s comment that Young Adult books usually have the theme of hope, and that life can get better, can someone please explain to me how one can outgrow a longing for that kind of warmth and security?

I am unique in that reading Young Adult fiction is part of my job. If I want to encourage reading, I have to read YA books so I can recommend them to students and help them find their reading voice. It can also get a little embarrassing in social situations where books are being discussed. One person has read Guns, Germs, and Steel, another has finished The Girl Who Played With Fire, and you have to confess that the best book you have read over the past couple of weeks has been Jennifer Holm’s Penny From Heaven. However, I like the YA genre. It gives me the opportunity to explore themes and emotions within a well-written setting and with likeable or interesting characters. And really, at their heart, I think that’s what most genuine readers are looking for.

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