A girl walks into a bookstore and asks the clerk where she can find the newest YAL (Young Adult Literature).
Guy at the counter eyes her slowly up, then down.
Girl becomes instantly aware that she hasn’t showered for 2 days.
Guy at the book store sighs, rolls his eyes, then nods his head vaguely in an almost direction and pointedly picks up his Kafka book. Guy wordlessly continues reading.
Girl feels a blush crawling up her face then suddenly the blush changes into something else. It becomes irritation. Then tight-lipped rage.
I was an English major, you know. Girl spits. And Kafka’s so. freaking. dour.
Girl leaves the bookstore and adds it to yet another place she’s going to have to avoid for the next few years.
This story about my friend perfectly illustrates the underlying disdain many avid readers (or even nonreaders) have toward YAL. In many cases, it’s a gut reaction, an instinct. A similar reaction happens when people say they’re reading “Chic Lit,” which I have an entirely different issue with because the last time I checked there was no “Bro Lit” or “Dude Lit”–it’s just assumed to be literature.
Don’t go down that rabbit hole today, Alice.
The title Young Adult Literature is a misnomer. Yes, the books are about Young Adult experiences, but calling the works YAL assumes that only YAs are privy to reading them. This is simply not the case.
As a (kind of) grown up, I read YA because it’s a powerful reminder. It reminds me of things my job, my money, my experiences, my “adult” anxieties have eroded. I’m reminded of core truths about humanity and diversity, and, in standard YA fashion, I’m reminded of the intense passion (sometimes known as angst) I’m capable of experiencing. Yes, as a teen that passion was directed at things like pimples or Jr. High dances or Buckle jeans, but it’s funny how quickly we forget just how capable we are of feeling things. All the things.
I love it when The Washington Post agrees with me:
To simply give up on […] young adult literature as hopeless categories of fiction, fit only for the weak-minded or young and incapable of improvement, is to embrace a kind of snobbery and rigidity about what is worthy and what is not. (Rosenberg)
Believe me, I get it. Many see books like Twilight or Divergent or The Hunger Games as wholly representative of the genre. Even though some of these books aren’t necessarily bad (yes, I’ve read them all), I think we shortchange the diversity present in YAL by believing YA authors are only capable of dystopian vampire romances.
If you enjoy the three books mentioned above, GREAT! I can recommend lots of otherworldly YA books that will knock your socks off. If you loathe them and find them shallow, No Problemo, there are YA books so deep and introspective, even the literati of the group won’t be able to resist them. That’s the beauty of YA, you can wade in the kiddy pool or dive head first into the deep end.
If you really give YAL a chance, you’ll find yourself immersed in a totally new, insanely unique library of books just waiting to be dusted off and devoured.
And that’s what we’re all looking for anyway, right? I good book that speaks to us.
Also, J.K. Rowling. *drops the mic and walks away*
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie is just the best. He makes you feel equal parts and elated and uncomfortable which is kind of a rush. This book is no different. Absolutely True Diary is about Arnold Spirit Jr. (aka Junior), a Spokane Indian who lives on a reservation with his family and friends. When he is given an opportunity to go off the reservation and begin attending classes at a rich, all white school (where “the only other Indian is the mascot”), he must make a huge decision–stay on the broken reservation or leave and endure being called a traitor by basically everyone he knows.
Alexie unappolegetically tackles Native American stereotypes through shoving them in your face, allowing them to come to fruition, then forcing you to see past the problems and into their origin. The book is poignant, heartbreaking, hilarious, raw, and (as expected from the mind of a 14-year old boy) kind of filthy. It’s no wonder it’s #1 of the top 10 books challenged according to the ALA. It’s been banned and burned and blasted by conservative moms and dads, so if you love drama and pictures (yep, its filled with Junior’s drawings…his funny, awful drawings) then try it the heck out already.
Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
I’ve recommended this book to a few friends and when they return the book to me and I ask if they liked it, invariably, their eyes become wide as they slowly shake their heads.
This isn’t a good book. It’s not a fun read. It’s incredibly difficult. Ironically, after reading Speak, it’s tough to articulate how it’s changed you, but it always creates an impact. The book is told from the perspective of Melinda, an outcast in her high school, disliked by her classmates for calling the cops on an end of the year party the previous summer. Slowly, subtly she isolates herself from everyone and basically becomes a mute. The book lulls you as a reader, and you long to know why Melinda, who is obviously depressed, refuses to speak up or speak at all. Her art class is the one reprieve from her depression, which you find out, originates from an upperclassman raping her. It’s a heartbreaking, honest work that shines a light on a dark reality that many people face and underscores a truth everyone needs to understand–things aren’t always what they seem.
Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
Gotta include a book with a ginger, people. It’s like in the handbook of earthtoginger blogging. Also, gotta write an earthtoginger handbook…
If you haven’t heard of Rainbow Rowell, then you’re welcome, because homegirl is amazing. She does a fabulous job of yanking on your heartstrings and tugging you back into the nostalgic, horrible, wonderful time in all of our lives–the time of young love (le sigh). In Eleanor & Park, Eleanor is a big-boned redhead who comes from a poor, broken home. She rides the bus and tries to avoid people since her clothes are kind of crazy, and her hair is straight up nuts. Park is a shy, half-Korean boy who loves music and comic books. The two meet and bond over rad 80s tunes (yes, this book is set in the hairspray-and-leggings-loving 80s, and yes, it’s wonderful) and share walkman listening sessions on their bus rides to school
Children, a walkman is a device from long ago. It played music from a thing called a tape which had tiny ribbons that you absolutely could not pull from their coil lest your older cousin discovered your sin and chased you down as you ran from him in terror.
The two find out that, despite their love for each other, sometimes a screwed up family, insecurities, and life get in the way and muck things up. As Goodreads puts it, E and P are “smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.”
Oomph. My heart.
What are your favorite YA books? Why?
If you hate YAL, por qué?
Image 1: Alexie
Image 2: Anderson
Image 3: Rowell
I find it so difficult to believe that anyone would have difficulty or be treated poorly for asking about YA literature anymore. YA lit is widely understood to be THE hot commodity right now in the publishing world, and it is well known that both teens and adults read it. Also – how does anyone in any bookstore ever know who a person is buying a book for? I frequently give books away as gifts, and I do not always choose books that I would tend to read or have read, myself, because different people have different literary tastes, and unfortunately, not everyone agrees that mine are correct (shocking, I know).
Anyone who is blithely denouncing an entire genre of literature, for any reason, is not a reader. There is great writing in any genre, not all of it is written by dead white guys, and some people are a bit “too cool” for their own good.
Interesting post; thanks for writing!
I was pretty surprised at the disgruntled employee, as well, so much so that I made an idiot of myself. haha. I think this was a single event of someone being way “too cool” and way too close-minded. There definitely is a stigma when you announce to people that you’re reading YA; however, I TOTALLY agree with you that times they are a changing. I think this is because more people are finally realizing it’s a vast, unique genre with (yes some bad works…like any other genre!) exciting, different works from diverse individuals. Thanks for the encouragement, though.
What types of YA books do you like? I’m always looking for good recommendations!
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I like all varieties of YA lit that are well written, and some that are poorly written that I loved as a teenager and bring back nostalgic memories. Yet I don’t actually read much YA anymore.
I’m a big Dessen fan, loving that her characters are so real and that her stories tend to have a positive, affirming life view. Her writing is a fresh ocean breeze, and I always leave her works feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
I like some of John Green’s work (but was not a very big fan of Looking for Alaska, which I feel has a lot of context that adds to the book’s caliber for many people), and, of course, Neil Gaiman, whether he’s writing for adults, teens, or children.
My guilty pleasures/cringe-inducing-nostalgia reads are Christopher Pike & L.J. Smith, horror YA writers from the nineties & early 2000s (although I think they’ve recently begun publishing some new work, particularly Smith, who penned the original The Vampire Diaries).
Sorry, that’s probably not much help!
I LOVED The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but didn’t really expect to. I read it for a class on using diverse literature to draw students in, and I had a student who called herself a part-time Indian so I was interested. I finished it in a day.
Have you read The Impossible Knife of Memory by Anderson? I’m currently reading, and enjoying, it. It makes me want to read Speak, but…I’m hesitant.
Another otherworldly series I read recently, and enjoyed, was the Matched Trilogy. It was in my classroom for my students and one of my girls wanted to talk about it so I read it for her and we discussed it over lunch for weeks. I also enjoyed the Selection Trilogy; it has more of a Christian undertone to it as well.
I read a LOT of YAL. Partly so I can talk to my students about what they’re reading and recommend books they might like to them, partly because I love the genre.
Speak is a tough one for sure, but it’s one I recommend at least trying. Alexie has several other adult works that are just as difficult but just as rewarding. His short stories are where it’s at, though. I recommend “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” if you’re interested.
I haven’t read the Matched Trilogy but several of my friends have recommended it! I’ll put it on my list. What sort of YA books do you teach with?
Glad you’re a fellow YA lover 🙂
Great post! I am about to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian–heard both bad and brilliant things about it, but I’ve been wanting to read it for ages now.
It’s definitely a controversial book, but one I highly recommend, in part, because I’ve never read another book like it. Alexie is an in your face author, but sometimes we need a little of that, you know?
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YAL is so fantastic. I love too many to even list them all. A few though:
13 Reasons Why — Jay Asher
Marcelo in the Real World — Francisco X. Stork
Crazy — Linda Vigen Phillips
Okay for Now — Gary D. Schmidt
The Truth About Forever — Sarah Dessen
And countless others…from fantasy to romance to heart-breaking coming of age, YAL will always have a place in my heart. 🙂 Also, I second your Eleanor & Park recommendation. I can’t wait to get my hands on more Rowell books.
I totally agree. Thanks for the recommendations; I’ll add them to my ever expanding book list! Also Rainbow Rowell gives me life and speaks my language.
Just finished E & P…ALL THE FEELINGS. So, so good. Thanks for the recommendation, girl!
YAY! Rainbow Rowell speaks to the core of my soul. Glad you liked it 🙂