With the much-buzzed-about movie version of cult young adult book “The Fault In Our Stars” hitting theaters this weekend, Young Adult fiction (or YA, as its known) has found itself in the the spotlight in a big way. The John Green-penned novel focuses on two teens struggling to survive cancer, developing mutual connections and—you guessed it—finding real love through their shared ups and downs.
As a genre, YA has been pretty much dominating current pop culture recently, with hits like If I Stay, Eleanor & Park and The Duff—all following in TFIOS‘ footsteps and being optioned for major motion pictures. Even Kylie and Kendall Jenner jumped on the dystopian YA bandwagon and released their first novel Rebels: City Of Indra: The Story Of Lex And Livia this week.
Now, while one might assume that the YA section in any given bookstore would be frequented by true young adults (technically defined as the 12-17 set), it really should come as no surprise that a large number of YA readers are actually full-on adults. And why not? After all, Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games were all cross-generational hits, creating fantasy worlds that captured the imaginations of adults and teens alike.
I am one of those readers. I read YA novels and I’m certainly not in the “young adult” category. I’m thrilled that these novels are getting more buzz and more acclaim. I love talking about them and I definitely think they deserve the praise that they’re getting. But with the spotlight, of course, comes the inevitable backlash, as in the case of a recent piece published on Slate that claims adults reading YA novels “should feel embarrassed.”
I, for one, will read any book that comes with a great recommendation—whether it’s The Goldfinch, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or even If I Stay. Some claim YA books are too “childish” for adult readers, but they’re still books—mostly meant for our enjoyment, simple as that. We read in our free time to relax, so why not read what we want to?
Granted, as an online editor, I also like to know what young people are talking about and what’s dominating the world of pop culture—not just because it helps with my career, but because I feel it helps us to be more understanding people in general, as corny as that may sound. From my experience, many YA books actually touch on some pretty big issues, albeit from gentler angles—often providing a softer way to digest some of life’s toughest lessons, teasing out very complex problems that anyone can appreciate (young or old). Working with everything from love and friendship to death and suicide, YA authors are deliberately packaging their story lines for a younger audience, though that doesn’t meant that, as an adult, I don’t appreciate being handed a way to approach the topic of, say, suicide in a way that isn’t reading Anna Karenina.
I was having a conversation the other day about my love for YA novels, and was struck by the fact that most of the ones I’ve read lately have pretty dark story lines. If I Stay, for example, is based on a girl who is in a coma, looking outside herself at the world without her as she fights to come back. Thirteen Reasons Why centers around a boy left to discover the reasons (left in cassette tapes) of why his classmate committed suicide. Reconstructing Amelia is based on a mother whose daughter mysteriously dies at her fancy Brooklyn prep school, leaving her to figure out if it was a suicide—or not.
While all of these tales do make engaging “stories,” it’s also interesting to see young adult authors tailoring some pretty heavy topics to young readers. For teenagers, sometimes it’s easier to understand complex subjects when it’s written in a book using likeable characters, as opposed to learning about things like suicide and cancer in school, or from parents.
For adults reading YA novels, it’s nice to have an easy read that plays out hard, all-too-real, subject lines—things that you could potentially relate to, and that can also help you feel real feelings as you read—and save on those monthly therapy bills.
YA authors may be writing for a younger audience, but they certainly aren’t dumb. They often work extremely hard to create a well-rounded, well-researched “world” for every one of their books. John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, actually worked in a children’s hospital as a Chaplain and had a long-time friendship with a fan who ended up passing away after a battle with thyroid cancer. That’s what makes his witty cancer-sufferer Hazel so wonderfully real and relatable— she’s not some cheesy teen girl in love, as many naysayers may critique. The real-life experiences from Green shine through in the book, and are appreciated and felt by his fans. If those experiences aren’t “highbrow” enough, well, that’s up to you— I’m certainly not ashamed by the fact that I needed an entire box of tissues to make it through.
Sure, it’s fair to say that reading YA novels is also a lot like watching reality TV or a melodramatic drama—it’s a great stress-reliever. (Hey, we all know that stress does nothing good for the body – it speeds up aging, and increases risk of diseases and depression.) If, at the end of the day, I’m relaxing by curling up with a good book, who can judge me? As an adult, our lives are lousy with terrifying grown-up realities —from work and relationships to kids and bills. Personally, I’m more than happy to get lost in a fantasy world of an “easy read” that more often than not has a happy ending. In today’s world, we often need that.