Feature: YA, A Love Story
“Calling a book ‘young adult’ is only important in that it can help get a book to the right reader. After that, it’s a useless abstraction and should be discarded.”
– Eliot Schrefer
“I was a ‘young adult’ when I wrote ‘The Outsiders,’ although it was not a genre at the time. It’s an interesting time of life to write about, when your ideals get slammed up against reality, and you must compromise.”
– S. E. Hinton
I remember between 4th and 7th grade, I did not like reading. I hated almost every book we were forced to read as a class. Isle of the Blue Dolphin. Hatchet. Couldn’t stand them. I was a good reader, I just found no pleasure in reading these books. However, in 5th grade we had to read Number the Stars by Lois Lowery, and was so blown away by what I was reading, that I never wanted the class to end.
As I got older, I would go through spurts of reading and not reading. I was obsessed with The Orphans series by V.C. Andrews when I was about 13. I remember how dark and adult the themes felt to me when I read those books. They discussed heavy issues in those books that I had never really read about. I felt as if I shouldn’t be allowed to read them. I believe this was the first series I ever read, and I remember always wanting more of it and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the next one. I also had to read The Outsiders in junior high, and was obsessed with it. I loved the drama, the family dynamics, and the realness. I hated when we had to stop reading it for the day.
I really didn’t read much for pleasure when I was in high school and college. I enjoyed a lot of the books and stories we had to read in class, but I rarely did outside of the class reading. I did have to read Go Ask Alice by Anonymous my freshman year in high school. That was one of the best books I had read up until that time. I was so affected by this book and never read about drug addiction in the way it was presented in a diary format. I remember crying from reading that book. I do regret not reading as much back then because I feel as if I missed out on books that I could have related to and helped me through my insecurities as pre-teen and teenager. Music was my getaway from reality at that point instead of books. But I do feel I missed out on that part of YA that is relatable to its readers.
But never fret, I have made up for that lost reading time as an adult. After college, I got a job at a local middle school as a librarian assistant. I wasn’t required to know much about the books in the library, but I did feel a sense of duty to be familiar with the titles so I could recommend books to the students. Because I knew, just like me, being forced to read in school was not always the most fun. I started off reading some of the middle grade level books, and really just whatever seemed interesting.
Twilight. This is the series that got me hooked back into reading. The Twilight Series was HUGE around this time. I couldn’t tell you how many times I checked out these books to students. We had a waitlist. I finally gave into the hype of the books, and checked them out myself. I had so much fun reading these books. I devoured them. I felt kind of silly being 24 reading these books made for 13- and 14-year-old girls, but I loved them! Even if my opinion of that series has changed as I have gotten older, I do have a spot in my heart for it since it reignited that reading spark for me.
As much fun as I had reading the Twilight series, my love for Young Adult literature really bloomed with both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series. I never heard of Harry Potter until I was in college when the movies started coming out. I watched the first two movies and really enjoyed them, but never sought out to read them until my job as a librarian assistant. We had the whole series, and I was checking these books out to a lot of the kids. I took home the first few books during Christmas break, and I absolutely fell in love with this world. Harry Potter starts off as a children’s/middle grade book, but as the series progresses it really deals with many heavy obstacles and issues in these characters’ lives. Even as an adult, I could see myself in many of these characters. I related to the underlining storylines. The books brought me back to being a kid feeling insecure, trying to find my voice, learning to be independent, and trying to find my moral ground as a person. I was still dealing with those feelings and challenges as an adult. I’ve re-read this series, and it still holds up. That’s one thing I really do love about the series. It’s timeless in its themes.
Then, the Hunger Games series came out. I felt that really changed how I saw YA. It felt so raw, unhinged, that the stakes were high. The characters in this book had to grow up so fast, and make life threatening decisions. Characters are dealing with an injustice classist government system that literally wanted you to kill each other for entertainment. This was the YA book that didn’t feel so YA to me. These were issues that adults usually deal with or care about. In the midst of trying to start a revolution and change the country for the better, characters were still dealing with typical teenage feelings such as first loves. I was so in awe of how “grown up” this book felt, and how it incorporated heavy topics so that it was understandable by most reading levels. Then you get into the second book of the Hunger Games series, and you get into topics such as PTSD and other mental health issues. This series was so complex, and really opened up a dialogue with its readers. I was discussing these books with students and adults. It was really great to see how different ages could discuss the book and the topics in it.
I was all in at this point with YA. I was reading SO much. If it sounded good, I was reading it. I think I read almost every genre in YA. Fantasy. Dystopian. Coming of age. Romance. Horror. Contemporary. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I may have felt silly for a little while reading books that weren’t made for my age, but I came to a point that I didn’t care. These books made for younger readers felt a million times more relatable for me than any book written for adults. I was still dealing with some of the same issues as an adult was when I was a teenager. Just because you become an adult doesn’t mean all your insecurities and problems are magically solved and go away. Characters like Eleanor from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park were very relatable to me even as an adult. Reading about characters that looked and felt like me allowed myself to get lost in YA books.
Some people will think that YA is just lighthearted reading. But that’s hardly the case anymore. Young Adult novels have now done an amazing job of incorporating mental health, LGBTQ, addictions, toxic relationships, not great home lives, among other topics into their writings.
You have books like A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness that talks about how a child deals with death, guilt, and depression in such a way that your heart literally breaks. You are able to empathize with the character because the words are written so beautifully, you have no choice but to. Then there are books like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak that helps young people understand our history and the importance of remembering what happened during World War II and the Holocaust by using characters and world building so well developed that you feel you are right there with them in the story. The Unwind series by Neal Shusterman is pretty much a series about pro-life and pro-choice set in a dystopian world. Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda deals with a teenage boy who isn’t openly gay, but someone founds out and has to deal with being blackmailed. Every Day by David Levithan is about a character that has no gender or body – it wakes up in a new body every day and just lives. Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why goes into the topic about depression and suicide.
All of these topics, but the many others YA novels touch on, are so important for young people and adults to not be afraid to read or talk about. No matter the age, these worlds and characters make us feel not alone in the world. Books are such a great way to open a dialogue and discussion with someone. I believe using YA books is a great way to do that. Young Adult reading is meant for everyone. I spent about two or three years reading 90% Young Adult books, and I do not regret it one bit. It was some of the best reading I’ve ever done. Let go and immerse yourself.
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Article originally Published in the February / March Issue: Young Adult.