The Verdict Is In on YA Literature v. Intellectual Snobs

woman reading

Over here at The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, we love all books. (By “we,” I really mean me, all by my lonely self. “We” just sounds cooler, like there’s a whole professional task force taking shifts on a 24/7 classic reading schedule.)

At least, I love all kinds of books. And while there are particular titles that I predict will never make it onto my reading list (East of Eden comes to mind; also Twilight, the eye roll heard ’round the world), there’s no genre or style or author I would outright refuse to read. I don’t have any sweeping literary prejudices equivalent to some people’s generalized hostility toward, say, country music.

Other readers, apparently, do—and they’re entitled to their opinion, like all of us. But the line between “having an opinion” and “declaring yours is the only acceptable opinion” is not so fine that it’s invisible, and it’s across this line that we find the likes of Ruth Graham.

Ruth Graham does not like YA literature. And so, her logic goes, no adult should like YA literature. It’s, like, a syllogism, or something. (Hint: It’s not.)

It apparently hasn’t occurred to Ms. Graham that she may be applying too narrow a definition to the YA category—or, at the very least, over-generalizing:

YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.

Hmm. Let me know when you’ve read them all, Ruthie, mmkay?

It also apparently hasn’t occurred to her that the “YA” label is really just a marketing tool. Authors don’t always write with a specific audience or genre in mind; mostly, they try really hard to write an awesome book. Madeleine L’Engle famously refused to pigeonhole A Wrinkle in Time: “It’s a book,” she asserted. “I don’t like categorizing.”

In any case, Graham’s arguments against adults brazenly, unabashedly reading YA novels are mainly intellectual:

If they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something,

she proclaims. This statement presumes (falsely) that adults who take up YA literature read exclusively YA literature. And while I think there are compelling reasons to read classic and adult-oriented literature (obviously), some of the most extraordinary, hilarious, breathtaking, and unforgettable books I’ve ever encountered have been classed as “YA”:

  • The Princess Diaries was the first book to teach me that writing can be both smart and funny. I’ve read it every year since I was twelve.
  • Code Name Verity is a story that has haunted me from the moment I finished reading it last summer, and it’s the book I keep buying for my adult friends.
  • The Book Thief plays host to some incredible writing, as well as an enduring message on the power of the written word.

And let’s not leave out the Harry Potter series, which literally changed the world. The readers of the best-selling book series of all time can’t all be wrong: Over 450 million copies of the books had been sold as of 2011, many to adults with adult brains.

These kinds of statistics might lead one to think that Ruth Graham is overlooking some literary gems in her unqualified stance against adult enjoyment of YA books.

She charges the YA category with various literary crimes:

YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.

…Wait. Come to think of it, she’s right! That sounds terrible. Why would anyone want to feel satisfaction?

The emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.

…Again, maybe she made a few bad choices—I didn’t like Eleanor & Park either, and I was wildly unimpressed with Divergent. But to condemn an entire pool of novels into which she has dipped a couple of toes is both careless and shortsighted. For all her intellectual hauteur, Ms. Graham seems to have forgotten that an open-minded attitude goes hand in hand with intelligence and life experience.

“Fellow grown-ups,” Graham writes, “at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.” For the record, Ruth—bless your soul—this does make you sound snobbish and joyless and old. But don’t take her word for it, she says. Listen to Shailene Woodley, the Goddess of Wisdom herself.

Well, don’t take my word for it either. Novelist Chuck Wendig also has some high praise for YA:

Some of the bravest, strangest, coolest stories right now are being told in the young adult space. It’s stuff that doesn’t fly by tropes or adhere to rules.

Why, I ask you, would we let the kids have all the fun? This isn’t Puritan New England. I’ll take my revelry without the limitations, thank you.

“Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” Graham concludes on our collective behalf. A better conclusion, perhaps: YA books aren’t for you, Ruth. And that’s cool. No one is going to take away your Dickens and your Wharton, and replace them with The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Tuck Everlasting.

But I’ll be over here in the other camp, sharing a tent with W. H. Auden and shouting his rallying cry:

There are no good books which are only for children.