Every once in a while, I think back to an author event I attended a few years ago, where an elderly gentleman in the crowd asked, respectfully and with sincerity, why he should be interested in reading books written for teens. (For context: I believe he was in attendance to sort of generally support the event/bookstore/authors there and not because he had a great interest in YA books, and one of the authors had read an except from her book which was a lengthy description of a teenage girl getting a pap smear. You can some of my past thoughts about this event and this question here.) The author seemed a bit put off the question, apparently interpreting it as another “YA books are stupid” hot take instead of an older gentleman genuinely inquiring why he should be reading about teens and possibly teens having private experiences and possibly sex, and one of the answers she gave was that reading YA books would allow him to understand younger people better. If he had teen granddaughters, perhaps he would understand or relate to them better. But, I have to ask: Does reading YA books really help the reader understand teens?
The elephant in the room here is that the vast, vast majority of YA books are written by adults for teens, not written by teens. That means the story is always told through the lens of how the adult author imagines teens think, feel, and experience the world. Of course, authors may be more or less talented at this. Authors might, for instance, think back and draw strongly on their own emotions and experiences when they were teens, or they might know a lot of teens and try to see things through their eyes. For instance, perhaps they teach high school students and try to draw on that when writing, or perhaps they are parents to teenagers.
But still: there’s always a level of removal. On a superficial level, a lot of authors talk about the struggle, when writing contemporary YA books, of referring to current pop culture and trends. They’ll blithely reference music, films, TV shows, and memes in a draft, only to be told by their editors that, hey, it’s 2021. The teens in the story were born around about 2005; they do not watch to or listen to the same things the author did as a teen.
And if an author can’t even figure out what movies and music today’s teens are listening to, what else are they missing out on when trying to represent today’s youth in books? Are they truly getting their pulse on more major things, like how today’s teens use and relate to technology and social media, what they think about politics, how they relate to sex and gender, how they’re being parented, what they’re learning in school? I’m not a teen either, so without polling some teens, or looking through a large selection of Goodreads reviews to see if there are some by teens that comment on whether they think the book is or is not authentically capturing their experience, I have no idea.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of fantasy novels. I imagine when this author told this man that reading YA books would help him understand teens, she was thinking primarily of contemporary novels like the one she was promoting at the time. Because while, of course, fantasy comments on things like politics and identity and the patriarchy and a wide variety of topics, it’s widely acknowledged that many of the teen protagonists in YA fantasy novels sound as if they’re closer to 25 years old than 15. I think Six of Crows is an amazing book, but if someone read it hoping to “understand today’s teens,” I don’t think it would help!
I love YA books, and I think there are many that really do capture today’s teenage experience. But I don’t think they ALL do, and I don’t think pitching “relating to and understanding today’s teens” as one of the primary benefits of reading the genre makes a lot of sense. Perhaps someone (hopefully an actual teen!) might come up with a curated list of books that really resonate with teens and speak to what they think and feel and experience today, but telling someone to blithely go off into the YA section of the bookstore and read whatever they find isn’t really going to cut it.
What do you think?