Adults reading YA and being ambassadors of YA lit

September 6, 2010

A few weeks ago there was some discussion around “The Kids’ Books Are All Right”, a New York Times article by Pamela Paul about adults reading youth lit. I’ve been thinking about the article a lot, especially as I’ve been explaining my excitement about Mockingjay to my grownup friends, and today I noticed the woman next to me at the gym was reading a Harry Potter book.

In the article, Paul writes that it’s not just twenty-somethings who grew up with Harry Potter and are continuing to read YA as they move into adulthood; she interviews and discusses middle aged readers who were just as eager to get their hands on a copy of Mockingjay as teens were and notes that

[a]ccording to surveys by the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry, 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-old women and 24 percent of same-aged men say most of the books they buy are classified as young adult. The percentage of female Y.A. fans between the ages of 25 and 44 has nearly doubled in the past four years. Today, nearly one in five 35- to 44-year-olds say they most frequently buy Y.A. books. For themselves.

I think that this adult interest in YA books is largely just because of the increasing quality of YA books. The problem novels of the 70s certainly had their place, but YA lit has grown and gotten so much more complex and interesting in the last few decades. It’s honestly just good literature now, not just good… for kids.

But since YA lit isn’t written for adults, it’s going to seem different to grownups giving it a try. I think a few quotations from people Paul interviewed really illustrate this:

“A lot of adult literature is all art and no heart,” Foreman, who is currently working on a book about British involvement in the American Civil War, said. “But good Y.A. is like good television. There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging. Y.A. authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or ­disappointed people.”

[. . .]

Y.A. may also pierce the jadedness and cynicism of our adult selves. “When you talk to people about the books that have meant a lot to them, it’s usually books they read when they were younger because the books have this wonder in everyday things that isn’t bogged down by excessively grown-up concerns or the need to be subtle or coy,” explained Jesse Sheidlower, an editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary and member of Kidlit. “When you read these books as an adult, it tends to bring back the sense of newness and discovery that I tend not to get from adult fiction.”

“There’s an immediacy in the prose,” said Darcey Steinke, a novelist who says she reads about one Y.A. book a month (recent favorites: “Elsewhere,” by Gabrielle Zevin — “better than ‘The Lovely Bones’ — and anything by Francesca Lia Block of “Weetzie Bat” fame). “I like the way adolescent emotions are rawer, less canned.”

When we’re recommending YA books to grownups, we can highlight that freshness, that engaging immediacy. We can also mention that a lot of YA novels aren’t too long and so might be good beach reads or vacation reads (I recommended the Luxe series to my hair stylist, who was leaving on vacation and had read The Host wanted something with romance and intrigue that wasn’t too trashy, and she loved them). There are lengthy, complex YA novels to be sure, but quicker stuff might be just the gateway drug some adult needs. Of course, grownups who are looking for deep, character-driven tales of midlife misery and regret might not be able to find much in YA, but the lure of a high-action story or an intriguing fantasy world or a dystopian sci-fi tale that critiques society might convince other adult readers to give YA a shot.

And while YA lit often has a different flavor than a lot of adult lit, in some ways recommending YA books to adults is just like recommending adult books to adults–we still need to find out what they’re looking for and then pair them with a book that delivers that. My husband picked up The Hunger Games when I couldn’t stop talking about it and then read Catching Fire when I brought it home and has my copy of Mockingjay right now. But as much as I’ve gone on about how much I was surprised to enjoy the Luxe series, he’s just not interested. I asked him about what would make him pick up a YA book I was reading, and he said that he needs to be interested in the genre or the setting. He also mentioned format: he’s planning to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret because he’s intrigued by the automaton, but also because he’s a graphic novel enthusiast and is interested in the way the illustrations and text work together in Selznick’s book. (He’s also been more interested in reading it since he found out Scorsese’s directing the film adaptation.) While Casey might appreciate that he can finish a YA book more quickly than an adult book, the content of the story still needs to be interesting to him. In general I think this might make realistic fiction a little harder to sell and fantasy and sci-fi a little easier to get adult readers to try.

What really surprised me in our conversation, though, was that Casey said he doesn’t expect to be able to identify with the protagonist and often actually expects to feel frustrated with him or her. I thought this was especially interesting because it seems like identifying strongly with a character is what drives teen’s love or hate for a book. But since YA lit isn’t written for grownups, while they’re going to appreciate and love some of the same things that teen readers do, they’re also not going to like other parts as much or in the same way.

Since there are still tons of adults who still don’t read YA lit (adult services librarians included!), it seems like there needs to be someone acting as an ambassador from the world of YA lit to introduce an adult to it. It might be a relative or spouse or friend who’s a YA librarian, a friend who’s already discovered YA lit, or even a grownup’s own teenage child who recommends something she particularly likes. For those of us who are YA librarians or booksellers or high school English teachers, we can be those ambassadors. We can be the ones who talk up the great new book we read and pass it on not just to teen readers but to the grownups in our lives as well. Because YA lit really is legitimately good lit, not just kiddie lit. We know that, and it’s about time everyone else does, too.

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4 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Michelle  |  September 6, 2010 at 6:22 PM

    I like the idea of being an ambassador of YA lit. One interesting factor in that, though, is how to help adults reading YA to overcome the embarrasment they sometimes feel at doing so. There are so many that fear being judged for what they read, then add to that the fact that they feel they are reading below their age level and they get even more tight lipped. That would be an interesting follow-up to read :)

  • 2. Gretchen  |  September 9, 2010 at 4:00 PM

    Michelle: as much as adults are reading YA lately, I agree that there’s definitely still a stigma some feel they have to overcome! I think we can tackle that one-on-one when we’re recommending books, but also the more adults who’re reading YA, the more normal it becomes!

  • 3. Holden Caufield  |  December 7, 2010 at 7:15 PM

    I think it’s great that more adults are reading YA but in doing so adults have a tendency to be overbearing. Yesn you read YA but remember this belongs to TEENS first and formost. They have to have something that belongs to THEM-something they can claim as “their OWN”. Teens and their lives are already dominated by adults/parents/teachers/authority figures. Adults start to enroach too heavily into the YA, trying to claim it too heavily as their own there could eventually be a backlash from teens.

  • 4. Gretchen  |  December 7, 2010 at 10:25 PM

    Holden: I think my hope in showing adults how great YA lit can be is that they’ll grow to respect YA lit as *real* lit and not just think, “oh, that’s for kids.” I don’t want YA lit to be ghettoized and not treated seriously. And since there are some adults who are already reading a lot of YA lit (teachers and librarians and YA authors, for example), I think it’s important for us to bring that message to the grownups of the world.

    But you’re so very right that adults often don’t respect teens’ lives and interests–either by seeing those interests as legitimate or by not letting kids have their own spaces and worlds–and I agree that YA lit should stay, as you said, first and foremost for teens as a way of giving them room in their lives that’s just for them.

    I wrote a sort of related post on the history of YA lit for adults who are just now discovering it, and one commenter suggested that YA lit and adult lit were becoming indistinguishable, but I argued against that because I think YA lit occupies a unique position in literature that is both defined by teens’ lives and that can shape teens’ lives. Adults can read and appreciate YA lit, but they can never fully own it since it’s not their world.

    Do you think it’s possible for adults to enjoy and praise and respect and pass around YA lit without taking it from teens? Can we all enjoy it, or is the presence of adults in the world of YA lit an automatic turn-off for kids?

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