The Re-Readability of YA

In his 1961 work An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis argues that the value of a literary work can be determined, not by how it is written, but how it is read.  “Literary” readers experience books as life-changing, enjoy reflecting on and talking about books, and reread their favorites multiple times.  In other words, a good book may be defined as one that is so powerful, so memorable, that readers want to return to it again and again.

I often think about Lewis’s definition when I read YA because, even though I consider myself a fan of YA, I almost never reread a young adult book.  In fact, I suspect that the only YA books I have reread are part of the Harry Potter and Keeper of the Lost Cities series–both of which actually exist on the divide between MG and YA.  (I have also reread classics like A Separate Peace, but such books are often cross-marketed to teens and not necessarily seen as part of the YA “genre”–those books specifically written for the YA market and consisting of familiar elements such as the love triangle, the “enemies to lovers” subplot, etc.).  This realization has made me increasingly uneasy over the years.  Does my disinclination to reread most YA mean that most YA isn’t any good?

Perhaps to some extent, the answer is yes.  When I reread classics, I am rereading a set of books that has already been vetted by a number of people who have decided that these books are worth preserving or worth bringing back to public attention.  In others words, I am ostensibly reading the “best of” the 1800s and ignoring the hundreds or thousands of other books that were published at the time–books that I am to assume “weren’t any good.”  (Though it’s worth noting that literary tastes change and authors do fall in and out of favor–even “classic” ones.)  When I read books on the current market, this vetting process has not yet occurred.  I am reading every book of the decade without knowing what will last and what will fall into obscurity.  I get the garbage along with the gold.

I think that the realities of the current market and the need to sell books is, in fact, what often makes me not want to reread YA.  Publishers sometimes seem to release books, not because anyone thinks they are very good, but because they know people will buy them.  This attitude is clearly seen in the ways the YA market goes through trends.  Twilight brought us love triangles and a paranormal romance fad.  The Hunger Games brought us scores of dystopia novels.  Six of Crows has ushered in a series of books about criminals and the underworld.  This is nothing new, of course.  Charles Dickens had his own struggle with knock-offs of his works.  But it does suggest that the really good books may be the ones that brought us the knock-offs–and that a good deal of the rest of the market will one day fade into obscurity.

Though my disinterest in rereading most YA does still make me uneasy–shouldn’t I want to reread more than two or three titles?–I am comforted to realize that maybe the problem is not that YA is, as a whole, just not good enough to be rereadable.  Maybe the reality is simply that hundreds of books are being published each year and not all of them can be amazing.

23 thoughts on “The Re-Readability of YA

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    The reality is definitely that most of the thousands of books published each year aren’t that great. It takes a lot of dross to find the gold, especially when you’re in the midst of the dross. And, as Tolkien once said, “All that is gold does not glitter”. We might not be able to recognize the great books of our time because they’re surrounded by subpar novels.

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  2. jenchaos76 says:

    I read books that can be read again. I also read junk. I have to say, there is an influx to low-quality books out there. YA is a supermarket. Toms get published. But only a handful are either readable or rereadable. The same goes for adult fantasy. So much is published, but only few are worth reading.

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    • Krysta says:

      We are living in a time when astonishing numbers of books are being produced! I suppose it’s only natural not all of them can be amazing. Still, even poorly written books keep publishers in business, so perhaps I can’t complain too much.

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  3. Grab the Lapels says:

    Now you really got me thinking. I can see why people like a lot of young adult novels, especially because they’re so digestible and you often come away feeling either really good that two people fell in love, or you feel like you’ve learned something that makes you a better person, like the huge response to The Hate U Give even though activists have been fighting against police brutality for about a hundred years in America. The main reason that I don’t tend to choose young adult novels (I’ve now been reading them more than ever thanks to my positive representation of fat women in fiction quest) is because the feelings presented in those novels are so easily digestible that I’m left feeling disgusted that things were made so easy. and if the feelings in those novels are fairly easy to digest, then what’s the point of rereading the book? You could just move on to a new book and get a new set of feelings and move forward.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do sometimes think of YA books as “disposable” because they are plot-driven, so much so that often logic and characterization are ignored because readers are supposed to be gripped by the action, the “twists,” and the steamy romance. However, if a book is only written for the surprise, then it’s not worth rereading. There’s not much to delve into once you know what happens. It makes me sad. I think the market can do better.

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  4. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I also like YA but also struggle with the fact that I rarely reread it. The ones I *have* reread often fell into the category of “I want to remember what happened in books 1-2 before book 3 comes out”, so it’s more about remembering the plot and less about thinking it’s quality literature worth a reread to find hidden themes or something. And the availability of plot summaries online makes rereading books to remember the plot kind of pointless these days.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do find myself relying on recaps more and more because I find I don’t want to reread the first book (or books!). This seems like a problem to me as there are books I would gladly read any number of times.

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  5. jennasthilaire says:

    I think you’re right that out of what gets published in any given day and age, only a small percentage will be quality, rereadable work. I think there’s a combination of engaging writing and deeply identifying with a story that makes it seem worth rereading, so even of the higher quality work, a limited number of people will probably find it rereadable, except in the case of a few works with particularly broad appeal.

    It’s interesting that middle grade sometimes seems to tend more rereadable… I’ve been back through some of Shannon Hale’s books multiple times.

    YA I’ve found revisitable—and I hardly ever reread these days, because college and toddler keep me hopping—is in the upper echelons of well written plus speaks to modern day issues with particular eloquence. I reread most of The Miseducation of Cameron Post (emily m. danforth) last year, in the three weeks I had it borrowed. Same with a couple of Anna-Marie McLemore’s magical realist novels this year. I could see rereading some of Maggie Stiefvater’s work, especially The Raven Boys and All the Crooked Saints. And I remember reading Cindy Pon’s book Silver Phoenix and thinking, oh my goodness, this is numinous… may reread that someday, but I need to get my hands on the sequel first!

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    • Krysta says:

      I do find that there are more MG books I want to reread than YA. I think this is in part because MG isn’t as trendy? It doesn’t tend to go through vampire cycles, then dystopian cycles, and so forth. I also think some books that could be marketed as YA end up in MG because they don’t fit the YA mold and, I guess, seem less marketable there?

      I haven’t read any of those YA books! Not even Stiefvater, though I know she’s very popular!

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  6. Shannon @ Shelfish For Books says:

    This is a super cool post! I haven’t reread a lot of ya books myself, so I definitely think that this is a good way of looking at how ‘good’ books are 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      I do agree with Lewis that a good book is rereadable. It doesn’t matter if I already know how the story ends. I still relate to the characters. I want to return to the world. I see something new each time.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    That’s such an interesting point, because I do think there are a lot of YA books that are designed to be kind of “disposable”- like the ones that latch onto trends of vampires/dystopias/angels and demons etc. All of the copycat books often feel like they’re just the publishers latching onto a market and when I think about a lot of those books, I have to admit, I never reread them. I do think there is something to be said about books with true quality being designed to be reread. However, while there is this issue of a lot of YA books being “read once” books, I think there are select few examples of contemporary adult books I would want to read more than once too (especially in genres like thrillers or romance).

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah…I could see other markets having books that aren’t rereadable. And, to be fair, publishers need to put out books they know will sell in order to subsidize riskier, perhaps more artistic ventures. I just don’t know much about the adult market because I don’t read many contemporary adult novels! XD

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  8. Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf says:

    I do think rereadability is a factor in books’ longevity, but I’ve been disinclined to reread books since I graduated high school. I blame some of that on the high volume of books being published weekly, the blogging pressure to read more books (if not the newest, most popular thing), and the difference in available free time between high school and adulthood. If I find I do want to reread a book, I want to either reread it immediately or reread it at a different point in my life. For example, I reread the Twilight Saga shortly after the first time because I loved it that much. I’ve only wanted to reread it recently (after deciding I wouldn’t want to years ago) because some hate has died down, the last watch of the movie disturbed me where it didn’t before, and the audiobook would be a different format. There are different reasons for rereading books, and at different times.

    As I think about quality of the book, I read some books and think that the author intended for the book to last or not last. Sometimes I think neither was the intention. If these are things that authors consider when they write something, I don’t think it’s bad if an author didn’t plan on the book becoming a classic because there will always be different reasons for creating art.

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    • Krysta says:

      True! Time constraints as well as blogging schedules can make rereads more difficult! I know some bloggers don’t reread because they don’t want to write a second review. I usually try to make a discussion post out of something that occurred to me while I was rereading. But I know people worry that discussion posts on books won’t get many reviews. I’ve found they generally do. Some don’t, but I’ve never been able to figure out what the difference is or why one post will get tons of views and another less.

      I do wonder how many authors expect their books to be classics! To be sure, some people just publish for the money, or because they can, or because they had an idea one day and went for it. However, I guess I imagined that the average YA author thinks their book is good and that’s why they spent so much time on it? That isn’t to say they expect it will be a classic, but I suppose that the average author doesn’t want me to read their book, think “meh,” and immediately donate it because I never envision myself reading it again. They probably imagine me enjoying their work and setting it on my bookshelf, at the least.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. tomesandteablog says:

    As someone who only keeps books that I personally would like to reread, I have definitely seen a lot of rotation in and out of my collection. Especially after joining the book community a little over a year ago, I’ve been picking up on the trend of a great book being published and a lot of knock-off stories following. The most disappointing thing about this trend is that it seems like publishing companies will pick up anything that is even remotely similar to a newly popular book and it feels like there is no vetting process to weed out the truly good stories. As someone who grew up as YA was becoming more and more popular, I hate that I have lost trust in YA books in general. It’s kind of bittersweet though, because I’m happy that so many authors are able to get their work recognized. I will say though, I don’t think this is an exclusively YA problem, it’s in adult as well.

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  10. DoingDewey says:

    For me, this isn’t a problem unique to YA and there are a few YA books that I’d re-read. I mostly just struggle to re-read books when there are so many new to me books I could pick up instead!

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    • Krysta says:

      A few people have said they feel the same about contemporary adult literature. I just don’t read enough contemporary adult literature to know! But I agree that finding time to reread is difficult when there are so many books to read!

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