I’ve realized in the past year or so that my literary sweet spot is coming-of-age stories. I love ’em. I love reliving those teen years, when every positive and negative emotion is heightened, when every single door in life is still wide open. I love reading about teenage and young adult characters as they are just figuring out who they are, often in the midst of heart wrenching struggles and while displaying great resilience and courage. I am not the only reader captivated by these types of stories. A brief scroll through the Best Seller’s List or the movie showings at your local theater will confirm the popularity of YA books. In fact, there are currently two films in theaters right now that are based on YA books: The Divergent Series: Insurgent and The DUFF. YA authors, some of whom have spent years and even decades writing compelling novels that incite cult-like fandom, are receiving increasing attention and praise. John Green, the reigning king of realistic YA fiction (and perhaps even YA fiction in general), has an entire table at Barnes and Noble devoted to showcasing his books! I know this because every time I stop by the bookstore to browse, my eyes somehow always find the John Green display and I have to remind myself that I already own every book, so there is no logical reason to buy second and third copies.
The American Library Association also recognizes the relevance of this genre and has designated April 16th as Teen Literature Day. If nothing else, I hope this brief essay will help you to appreciate young adult literature as a valuable asset to libraries, classrooms and home bookshelves. What I would also like, however, is to convince you to give YA books a chance, no matter your age.
Young Adult literature is a diverse genre—more diverse than even my reading habits reflect. I like my YA books realistic (see: the collected works of John Green, Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, If I Stay, Where She Went, The Sky is Everywhere); sometimes packing especially heavy emotional and topical punches (Wintergirls, Thirteen Reasons Why, Speak, The Book Thief); and with the occasional non-realistic trilogy thrown in the mix (The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga, The Divergent Series). I am not as keen on fantasy, which excludes best sellers like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Golden Compass, and The Mortal Instruments, among many others. YA literature also includes Manga and comic books—genres that I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with despite their overwhelming popularity (it would be a great accomplishment if I can break out of my YA box and truly enjoy at least a single book from one of these genres. Any recommendations for a beginner would be appreciated!).
One of the many things that I have learned from working at the Levittown Public Library, where our Teen Lounge is always buzzing with activity, is that YA literature is like magical glue, bonding teens from disparate backgrounds and with varying other interests into safe communities in which the books—and the topics touched upon in those books—can be passionately discussed, and personal differences are either accepted for what they are or completely ignored. Good YA books, which I consider to be those books that are honest, original and that never pander or condescend, are so important because they give voice to emotions and hardships that can be difficult for young people to articulate. When you don’t know the words to put to a feeling, chances are that the perfect description has already been written by an author. Teens need to know that they are not alone in feeling whatever it is they are feeling.
And parents, take notice: YA books are for you, too! Read what your kids are reading and start a conversation that doesn’t revolve around curfews and basketball practices and messy bedrooms.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll come to like YA books, too.
Happy (YA) Reading,