Young adults books, of course, have received their share of insults both from the media and from casual readers as people accuse it of not being “good” literature, being overly simplistic, being too commercial, being “only” for children, etc. In response, YA fans have offered a lot of good responses about the value of YA for both its teen target audience and readers at large, and they’ve become used to pointing out that people should read whatever they like and enjoy. In spite of this last point, however, that people are free to like different things, I’ve still noticed a strange converse trend where YA readers will sniff at and dismiss readers who don’t read or have no interest in YA literature–and I increasingly think this is unfair.
Of course, I think anyone who actively bashes YA books, particularly in public places and platforms, should face opposition for that–especially if they’re insulting the entire group of books without having read any. However, not all the comments I’ve seen are about these types of uninformed critics; often they are complaints about individual readers who just don’t see anything of interest in YA. These can range from disgruntlement that “My professor whose specialization is nineteenth century literature doesn’t read YA” to “My elderly neighbor doesn’t read YA and seems not to have heard of it” to “Some guy in his 30’s at my work who doesn’t have or seem to know kids thinks YA is not worth reading.” And in these cases, as long as the people aren’t being rude to people who do read YA, I have to wonder…does it matter?
Personally, I do not think books need to be “relatable” and believe it’s important to read widely, about people who are like you and people who are nothing like you at all. However, a very large percentage of YA fans say they like the books very specifically because they are “relatable.”And doesn’t that leave room for a reader, for example, who is in their fifties to say they don’t find YA interesting because it’s not relatable to them? Isn’t it fair if adults want to read about adults because they find the experiences of those characters more relevant or interesting with regards to their own lives?
I think often of a book event I was at with Elana K. Arnold and another author where an older gentleman asked after the reading of an excerpt of Arnold’s book (which included a fairly detailed description of a teenage girl getting a pap smear) why he should be interested in YA. I’m not a great judge of ages, but I would say this man was perhaps in his sixties, and it was clear he had barely even heard of YA as a book category before. He listed to the readings and author talks because he happened to be in the bookstore when the event began and apparently thought it might be interesting. His question of why YA would be of interest to him was polite and, to me, seemed genuine. He sincerely wanted to know. Arnold, however, was clearly offended, and as much as I like and defend and value YA, I’m not sure she gave a good answer.
The man persisted (another sign I think he actually wanted to understand and was not trying to insult YA as a category) and asked follow-up questions about why he, an older man, should be expected to pick up a book about teenagers and really enjoy it. He also had questions about the content and seemed a bit baffled by the idea of reading about teenagers having pap smears or having sex and whether it would actually be widely perceived as a positive if he went around pointing out he read frequently about teenage girls and their sexual experiences. Arnold pointed out that it’s good to understand other people and maybe if he had grandchildren he could relate to them if he read YA, but one could also argue that he could relate to his hypothetical granddaughters by talking to them and he could understand things about pap smears or sex by reading nonfiction or experiences had by adults rather than minors.
So…who was wrong? Is this man–and everyone who doesn’t really relate to YA and the trials and tribulations of teenagers–some kind of bigot who doesn’t care about or understand the youth? Or is it fair to say if teens like reading about teens and should be encouraged to do so that it’s also fair if older people would like to stick mainly to reading about adults?