Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shameless: Reading YA

So recently the Twitter-sphere was abuzz  with outrage over an article written by Ruth Graham on The Slate. The title of the article?

Against YA: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children. (read the full article here)

Now, when I say that the Twitter-sphere was abuzz, I mean buzzing. The article sparked the quickly trending hashtag #PromoteaYAInstead, and set the YA world aflame, both authors and readers alike.

She included this quote in the beginning of the article: "The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult fiction is now conventional wisdom." Following this is a list of statistics about how the category of YA fiction has grown to include many readers over the age of 18. The paragraph ends with this in parenthesis: "The definition of YA is increasingly fuzzy, but it generally refers to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds."

Here's where I have my first problem: The definition of YA really isn't that fuzzy, and no, it does not refer to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds. As a number of people on the Twitter-sphere have pointed out, the age range specified here (which you can find on most books, as well) is honestly just a way to make shelving books easier for booksellers. This does not mean that only people within that age group can read the book.

Graham's opinion is then written: "Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."

I want to state something right here, right now, before I get into the really murky things: I am not bashing Ruth Graham. Why? Because I'm one of those people who wholeheartedly believes that everybody is entitled to their own opinion *cue gasps*. In my opinion, Graham was being rather brave in writing this article and posting it on the internet, despite the backlash that she probably knew was going to head her way. She also has her reasons, which she states in her article.

However, it is also my opinion that Graham is wrong. This piece is not about Graham, though; I had my miniscule piece above. This is about YA.

Going by the definition that Graham uses as "adult" means that I should have left behind YA lit a year and a half ago. Yet I've bought over 50 books since my semester ended a month ago, very few of them being "adult" literature.

Yet I'm not going to talk to ya'll about reading YA; I want to talk to ya'll about writing it. Remember earlier in this post I talked about the authors who were outraged? I might only an amateur writer, but as I have aspirations for myself to one day become a published YA author, I was one of those.

I'm a junior at New Mexico State University. I'm studying Creative Writing. Last semester, Spring 2014, I took my first "real" creative writing class entitled Form & Technique in Fiction, and we studied a large variety of adult literature. Guess what? I enjoyed most of them. Yet when it came down to the assignment that was worth about 60% of my final grade-writing the first 40-60 pages of a novel-I began to find myself a little uncomfortable and getting downright pissed.

My professor wanted us to write adult literary novels. I told him that I was having a lot of trouble due to the fact that adult literary isn't my genre. So he asked what was, and I told him: I write YA.

Here's the thing about studying Creative Writing in my college (maybe more colleges, I can't say, but this is my experience): people look down on any kind of writing that isn't adult literary or in any way academic. You don't want to be the next Harper Lee, Khaled Hosseini, or Washington Irving?

Shame. Shame on you. Suddenly, everybody looks down their noses at you.

My professor told me: look, you can write an adult literary novel about teenagers.

The response that I thought but never said: Too true, my friend. But YA isn't just a book about teenagers.

I was trying to explain this to my roommate, and the one thing I kept repeating as I stumbled over my words was: "It's really hard to explain." Having immersed myself in the literary world since a young age, it was black and white to me, the same way a painter can look at two paintings that are exactly alike and say, "No, they're different. Look at the brush strokes."

When it came down to it, and I thought about it more and more, I realized this: in my experience (bolded, because I need to make sure ya'll know that I am not generalizing, here) adult literary work are largely internal battles of man vs self. There's a lot of growing as a person, and figuring things out about yourself through your own journey.

On the other hand, YA is almost exactly the same, right? Young adults trying to navigate their worlds and deal with all of the people and events around them while they grow as a person.

Yet I still argue that there's a difference.

In my experience, adult literary has things happen, but they happen in the background. Wars are fought and victories celebrated in the blurry black and white behind the protagonist while they analyze their roles in the present.

In my experience, young adult invites everything to happen all at the same time. The protagonist is trying to battle their own internal struggles with the war, with the victories, with the people and the settings and the problems and the solutions. Everything is vibrant technicolor and eardrum-bursting sound that's so loud they couldn't hear themselves scream even if they tried.

They can't slow down, because the world keeps happening around them.

Guess what? This is what happens to everybody.

True, it is a popular notion that this difference exists because young adults are in that period of time where they're no longer children and they're not yet adults. They can't have adult supervision all the time, but they're not trusted  in the big-bad world alone. They see the world around them in new ways because, guess what, they can think for themselves, and it challenges everything they've been taught. They're the next generation. They're discovering love and loss and pain and joy, and at the same time they're trying not to let the world crush them.

Whether it's a teenager maneuvering high school or trying to start a revolution in a futuristic world, o trying to survive an apocalypse: the problems and struggles are the same.

Here's where I return to the argument that adults should not be ashamed to read YA. People really overlook the fact that the "adults" have struggles, too. Their worlds are changing or have changed. They're the people who are old enough to remember what it used to be like to live, and the ones who can either hope for a better future or simply fear change, because they're so used to the way things are now that maybe it's easier if things stay the same.

Everybody wants a better world. Everybody knows that changing it is the hardest part. everybody knows that it costs something.

Just because you grow up, doesn't mean you grow out of your struggles with the world. You don't fade into the blurry background of somebody else's story. To you, everything is still that rainbow-filled world and everything is still exploding around you as you struggle to discover what you have control over and what you don't, and hope that you don't get destroyed in the process.

Isn't that what YA is about? Struggle. Not just internal, but with the world. It's man vs society and man vs god and man vs man all wrapped up in one untidy little package, and maybe-just maybe-the protagonist gets to learn a little bit about themselves in the process.

When I write YA, I'm writing to figure out my world. That might set you off-guard, right? You probably know by now that I write about settings that are not in the present, and heck they might not be in the future. These worlds are somewhere else and don't bear a single resemblence to the United States of America or anything else on this Earth.

Or do they?

Something a friend of mine talk about a lot is how YA reflects the world the author lives in, in some way or another. It deals with an issue that the author is or has dealt with, or sees in their communities. YA doesn't preach how to be a better human being, it suggests the fact that the world is messy and not everybody can exist with a silver crystal heart and soul. Everybody has smudges.

And it says that it's okay.

That's why I write YA. Not for the love stories and the "hopeful" endings that Graham talks about. Not for the sake of shoving another piece of literature down the throats of teenagers and adults alike. It's because I'm just as lost, sometimes, as the characters in my books, and I know that I'm not the only one.

Now tell me: is that something to be ashamed of?

I'm pressing the "publish" button on this post, now. I'm not going back to reread what I wrote because I'm afraid I'll try to change things, and that's something I really don't want to do. These are my thoughts, take them or leave them. Respond to them. Point out a typo.

Above all: think.

And I'm going to end this with a quote written by Kate Hart on her blog one year ago: "I write YA because a girl's problems can be trivial, but she is not. And that's something she should know at every age."

This goes for boys and girls, and nobody should give a damn how old they are.



  1. OH MY GOODNESS YOU ARE AMAZING. It was very clear to me during my Intro to Creative writing class that because I write mysteries and commerical fiction, that I was a second tier writer. Becuase I write to tell a good story, to put a smile on someone's face. I'm a second tier writer because my books don't have some deep meaning that high school english classes can annotate the sh*t out of. Some of us write becuase we want to tell a story and make people happy. rant over.

  2. I absolutely couldn't agree with you more, Race! There was actually a similar post to the Slate one a couple years ago that I wrote a very heated rant about on my blog. (And that I turned into a passionate speech titled, "Why Shouldn't Adults Read Kids Books?" that eventually won 6th place in a speech competition).

    But I really like how you took this and turned it into a thing about writers writing YA. I have a friend who's convinced that anything that's not adult literary isn't worth writing because its not *respectable*. So he only writes adult literary books, even though he wants to write genre fiction, because he doesn't think that the writing world (academia apparently) will respect him if he does. And I think its sad that he feels he can't branch out and at least try it.

    But I think its stupid how people can't see 'genre fiction' (or YA in this case) as real literature, as something worth reading or even writing. Just because it doesn't ponder our existence in the world for fifty pages straight, doesn't mean it can't do the same thing and make for an EPIC READ. Because the people who write YA put their heart and soul into it. Does that mean they should all get awards? Not always, but at least the respect of their fellow writers and readers. Because, honestly, the fact they even wrote and published a book in the first place is pretty epic.