In Defense of Y.A.
Growing up, I always loved reading. Some of my best childhood memories are of warm summer nights spent reading with the window open, or one of my elementary school teachers announcing it was silent reading time. As a child, I fed myself a steady diet of fantasy series like Percy Jackson, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Chronicles of Narnia. As I grew into a young adult, I found there was an entire genre of books that inherited the fantasy elements of children's stories but also featured an acute sensitivity for the plights of growing up. The books that accompanied me into the confusing ages of 13 and 14 were, as it is for many young readers, “young adult literature,” which in our time has become a genre surrounded by controversy. While young adult literature, or Y.A., is definitely not without fault, the level of critique it receives is not in proportion to its quality and often comes from the wrong place. In defense of Y.A., this is a genre that has produced many all-time favorite classics, inspired a love of reading in many, and has the potential to communicate with the youth.
For whatever reason, the Y.A. genre has become the chosen home of fantastic, out of this world plots that allow young readers of a variety of age groups to escape their everyday lives and be thrown into exciting adventures. My friend, Erika Pasia (‘2020), also an avid reader, agreed with this analysis. “I really enjoy the wealth of creative storylines you can find in the category,” Pasia said. “You’ll find yourself being pulled from a dystopian America to vampires to runaways headed for a place to call home.”
While some of these storylines are often called unrealistic or even grossly far-fetched at worst(looking at you Divergent series), they are also just plain fun. That being said, only consuming fun, uncomplicated books denies one the chance of being exposed to topics outside the Y.A. realm, but when balanced with a reading canon of other genres, there is nothing wrong with it.
Some valid and simply beautiful points can be found in Y.A. when given the chance. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, for example, the main character is thrown into the center of a prophecy so that the fate of the wizarding world depends on him. He finds that anyone could have been “the chosen one,” but by a stroke of chance, he is the one who must take on this formidable role. Despite realizing his ordinariness, Harry decides to step up to the plate and sets out to defeat the malicious Lord Voldemort so that he can save the Wizarding World he has come to love. The message that the reader is left with is that anyone can be special, anyone can do amazing things; there is no innate quality that makes someone “the chosen one.” This is a valuable lesson in morality to learn as a young adult constantly seeking an identity, what sets them apart from the rest, or what their place in the world is.
Many Y.A. books have also opened up serious conversations about heavy topics like how women are portrayed in literature. John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for example, explores the dangers of idealizing a person and the falsehoods that surround the image of the manic pixie dream girl. The main character, Miles Halter, better known as “Pudge,” goes to a boarding school in the south where he is gloriously far from his parents and where he meets Alaska Young, who he takes to be everything that is good in the world. Pudge blatantly ignores Alaska’s self-destructive habits by writing off her mental instability as a display of her wild and carefree beauty. However, the exact severity of Alaska’s problems makes itself known as the story unfolds, thus problematizing the idealization of the perfect girl.
I wholeheartedly agree that there are some inexcusable flaws in Y.A. that demand our attention and stand as legitimate reasons for the genre to be critiqued. However, I challenge critics to make sure that the derision they have is coming from a place of wanting better books for the youth and not just from jumping on the bandwagon of instinctively disregarding the interests of the younger generations, those of girls especially. As you may remember, Twilight Mania rocked the world from 2008 to 2011 as a never before seen social phenomenon defined by young girls (and often their mothers) being obsessed with Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight series. The books explored a messy love triangle between teenager Bella Swan, her dreamy (or creepily possessive, depending on your interpretation) vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen, and Bella’s childhood friend Jacob Black, who is actually a werewolf. While the plot of this iconic piece of young adult literature is wild all on its own, I am particularly interested in the effect it had on society. The infamy that surrounded Twilight earned it titles like “Worst Book of All Time,” “Worst Thing Ever,” and “Most Complained About Library Book.” Twilight Mania created a sharp divide between those who unabashedly loved the series and those who mercilessly bashed on those investing so much passion into a silly, and worst of all girly book. The need to shame those who enjoyed the Twilight series, who were often young girls, is deeply rooted in misogyny and in the need to remind young women that their interests automatically hold less cultural capital. In her video “Dear Stephanie Meyer,” video essayist, movie critic, and filmmaker Lindsay Ellis, who received her BA in Film Studies from New York University, apologized to Stephanie Meyer for the virulent hate she received when Twilight Mania was all the rage. Ellis quotes Melissa Rosenberg, the screenplay writer of Twilight in driving this point home.
“We’ve seen more than our fair share of bad action movies geared towards men or 13-year old boys, and you know the reviews are like ‘okay that was crappy, but it was a fun ride. But no one says ‘Oh my god, if you go see this movie you’re a complete [expletive] idiot’... and that’s the tone which people attack Twilight,” Rosenberg said.
It’s true that unapologetically bad movies like Transformers or The Fast and the Furious seem to escape receiving critique, at least at the same derisive level that Twilight received. Yet these other examples of pop culture are just as guilty of cliché writing as Twilight is; the only difference is that they were marketed towards a male audience. So how can we account for this?
“We as a culture kind of hate teenage girls. We hate their music. We hate their vanity, their makeup, their stupid books,” Ellis explained in response to this question.
I will be the first to admit that as a middle schooler I was quick to distance myself as far as possible from being like, yes I am going to say it, other girls *shudders*. I saw the lack of respect young girls and their interests held in society, so I, a horribly misguided middle schooler, understood that the only way I could earn respect was by being as un-female as possible. This included being a proud Twilight-basher who would not be caught dead with a Meyer book in my hand. I look back to this time in my life and I cringe when I think about how deeply I had internalized the misogyny that surrounded me and how I actively participated in shaming girls for the things that they liked.
Ellis quotes Rosenberg once more, saying “It’s also because it’s female, it’s worthy of contempt. Because it [Twilight] feels female, it is less than.”
So, was Twilight really so bad that it deserved all the sharp contempt it received? The Twilight Saga was by no means perfect, as it relied on romance for its only vehicle of character development (which books of many genres outside the Y.A. genre are also guilty of). But when we compare it to other books like the incredibly successful Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which features an angsty nerd who feels superior because he can quote every line of Star Wars and that somehow makes him a better person, can we honestly say Twilight is the worst thing that has ever happened to literature?
As someone who grew up consuming book after book, I can attest that the books you read at a young age stay with you in a particular and powerful way. New responsibilities are thrust at you as a young adult; everything is exciting and new, but at the same time, life can be scary and at times hopelessly confusing. I looked and felt as though I found many of the answers to questions I had in the books I read. It is essential that we provide teenagers or young adults during these formative years with books that lend them new points of view and that challenge them. Yet,one of the greatest problems of the Y.A. genre is the way it only pushes out books that publishers think will be marketable to a large and generalized demographic.Otis Roffman, a writer with the college student-produced magazine and website, Study Break, wrote an article titled “5 Problems with Y.A. Literature and How to Fix Them," exploring potential remedies for this situation.
“Teenagers are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for, and the Y.A. market is depriving them of potentially excellent and inventive works, because they think that teens will find them too hard to read.”, Roffman said.
The Y.A genre needs new innovative ideas that stimulate young readers, however, this often does not happen because the publisher’s main concern is the marketability of a book. When I asked one of my friends about her problem with Y.A. literature, she responded, “the category often finds itself oversaturated in heteronormative romance.” It is well known that until recently, most romantic Y.A. only ever portrayed heterosexual relationships. The examples of Y.A. books that make it big almost always focus on heteronormative relationships like the ones between Peeta and Katniss in The Hunger Games, and most couples in John Green novels. This one-sided approach is also reflected through race, as most main characters are white.
My desire to become a writer started when I was thrown into magical worlds like the ones in Harry Potter and Percy Jackson which made me realize I could create one of these worlds of my own for someone else to make a second home out of, as I so often have done. For reasons like this, I will always be grateful for Y.A. and I will always advocate for it, but that does not mean I or anyone should allow this genre to continue making the same mistakes it is currently making. As of late, some notable works have been published that break away from the strictly white and heteronormative characters that tend to be found in Y.A. For example, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. These same books have had great enough success to make it to the box office, giving me great hope for the development of Y.A. into a more inclusive genre. They also should remind us of what a useful vehicle for social change this genre can be. Y.A. has become a booming market all its own so we must demand only the best from it while also appreciating it for what it is: books that have made growing up just a little bit easier.