On the Merits of Young Adult Fiction

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

When bubbling excitedly about a novel I have just finished reading, I am often met with the same uninterested shrug. “I don’t care for young adult books.” I see questions on Goodreads below new releases, anxiously asking whether they are adult books, because how improper would it be to enjoy something aimed at teenagers. So I cannot help myself but try to articulate how this folly against young adult literature is misinformed on multiple levels.

Level 1: There are two sides to every coin.

Young adult books are not by definition insubstantial – take The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, chock-full of literary and cultural allusions to rival (and better) most adult books I have read. Nor are they necessarily lacking originality – Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a favourite example. It is true that publishers are far more generous when it comes to green-lighting young adult books, which allows a much greater volume of less-than-stellar novels to be made available for public purchase. But obversely, this also enables fledgling writers to take greater risks with idiosyncratic ideas and writing styles. Most of my favourite authors were first found through their young adult books, rather than their adult ones.

And on the other side of the coin, adult books are not necessarily deliciously complex either. In fact, with the additional burden of having to prove themselves unconventional enough or controversial enough or profound enough, many just come off as pretentious try-hards, for want of a more elegant phrase. There are delicate balancing acts between showing and telling, and then there are broken sequences of such shapeless impressions that you wonder whether the author himself has any idea what he wants his readers to be mystified about in the first place.

Level 2: Do not judge a book by its cover (or blurb or genre).

Perhaps the irony is that even beautifully articulate and sufficiently phantasmagorical adult works are frequently shelved as ‘young adult’ books. Not because of their content or tone or whether the author usually writes for young adults. But because they are fantasy novels. I have seen The Night Circus and The Magicians in the young adult section in bookstores and on Goodreads. The problem with thinking of young adult and adult as genres is that they simply are not. They are audiences, both perfectly capable of reading sci-fi and romance and horror and thrillers set in sleepy suburbs. The distinction is better drawn between the themes that they are more likely to be interested in (perhaps adults are less inclined to read coming-of-age fiction, because it does not reverberate with their current circumstances).

In an effort to circumvent this preconception, yet another age group has been coined ‘New Adult’, which loosely encompasses the years between 18 and 30. Supposedly, the books in this category provide much better ‘insight’ than properly young adult books, because they show the protagonists’ life experiences gradually eclipsing their childhood innocence. Personally, I do not see why this label is needed at all. The primary purpose of many young adult books is precisely to explore this transition, albeit some fulfilling it better than others. But the same goes for whatever books might be in this new category. There are always well-written and less well-written novels, regardless of who you lump them with. Though I suppose, from a purely commercial perspective, it makes simultaneously marketing the books to young adults and adults easier. (Which simply supports my point that the separation between young adult and adult is often arbitrary.)

Level 3: Implications.

Besides, labelling any and all fantasy publications with relatively young protagonists as young adult, when combined with the presumptions discussed under Level 1, implies that adults have no time for such frivolous escapism. Which sounds rather dull and unfortunate to me. Surely, there is a reason that popular children’s books are cherished as tales for all to read? The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series… all classics today. They fill us with childlike wonder as they whisper lessons on love and friendship and courage and faith. Fantasy is no juvenile plaything to be trifled with.

I do hope that you are nearing the age where you will start reading fairy tales again. Or young adult for that matter. Or whatever book you like, without a care for these categories or what people might say.

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