Soapbox: Casting Judgment on YA Lit

Every once in a while (at least once a month) someone writes an article using one or two examples to cast judgment on all of young adult literature and all of its readers. Usually I just skim, sigh, and move on. But sometimes I’m compelled to jump up on my soapbox and respond.

Exhibit A: “Actually, Not-So-Young Adults, Please Don’t Be Ashamed”

Exhibit B: “Why Young Adult Fiction is a Dangerous Fantasy “

This article, written by education consultant Joe Nutt for an England-based teachers’ network, uses a Twilight screenshot for its header photo and goes on to deride today’s young adult literature:

[It] amounts to nothing more than gossip fodder, the endless recycling of petty anxieties and celebrity confessions that choke the pages of magazines placed strategically at the supermarket checkout.

As a result of the publishing industry’s utter lack of standards, he says, recent generations of teens “have been effectively prevented from ever becoming literate adults.” And the depravity doesn’t stop there.

We have systematically deprived thousands of children of their literary inheritance.

It’s funny, though. As a 20-something who grew up in the wake of YA’s emergence into popularity, I don’t feel like the publishing industry, or society, has let me down.

And I certainly consider myself a literate adult. I can generally string two sentences together on a page and I’ve read all sorts of books — from classics this author would surely approve of, to historical fiction, to poetry, to YA and, yes, even Twilight.

So let me offer a couple suggestions as to why Mr. Nutt’s view might be a little off base:

1. One book is not, and can never be, representative of a whole genre.

Granted, I’m making an assumption here, but the author’s choice of Twilightas the framework for his article indicates he hasn’t actually spent much time in the young adult section at Waterstones. And the snarky book proposal he opens with indicates he really has no idea who young adult readers are meeting in their books. (In fact, wouldn’t it be great if there were more transgender characters with autism?)

So let’s say the author’s assessment of the young adult world is based on a dozen or so books, and four of those are the Twilight series. That feels an awful lot like reading the 50 Shades trilogy, plus Bridget Jones’ Diary and anything by Tucker Max, and then labeling all adult-oriented fiction as skeezy, soppy, and poorly written.

But nobody would claim these as the standard bearers of adult fiction. They might cite Anthony Doerr and Khaled Hosseini and Donna Tart and so many others as wildly different authors writing for the same audience. And I would identify Jacqueline Woodson, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Ransom Riggs as just a few authors who represent other corners of the young adult fiction universe.

Just like “Adult Fiction,” “Young Adult Fiction” describes an audience, not a template. There are trashy books and good books and all kinds in between, in every genre, for every audience.

2. With the emergence of young adult literature, kids have more reading choices than ever before.

Once upon a time, young readers jumped directly from juvenile fiction to books about grown-up adults. Now, in-between childhood and adulthood, teens have shelves and shelves of books about kids their own age dealing with all kids of problems in all kinds of worlds. Kids who might have otherwise been discouraged from reading by the traditional English curricula — or who just want to read something different in their leisure time — have countless options available to them.

My point here is, it’s nobody’s job to judge anybody else by what they’re reading. I have my problems with Twilight and its ilk, as do a lot of people. But that small subsection of YA literature has encouraged thousands of people — many of whom might have otherwise stayed away from the library — to devour book after book after book.

Toward the end of his article, Nutt lobs one more criticism at the publishing industry of today:

For far too long publishers and others have patronised or turned teenagers off reading entirely with books they think are good for them, instead of helping them seek out and enjoy books that matter.

I have to ask, who chooses which books matter? And in terms of turning teens off reading by deciding what’s good for them, who’s really to blame?