Does Reading YA Books Help Readers “Understand the Teen Experience”?

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?

Briana

24 thoughts on “Does Reading YA Books Help Readers “Understand the Teen Experience”?

  1. Abinayasundari Ravi says:

    I agree to you, Briana. The thing is not all the ya represent the mind of teens. Well I think because authors are focusing on how to make the book intresting and also not all the authors will dive brilliantly inside the mind of the teens; write from a point of view that’s not theirs at all; stepping outside of themselves and it’s hard too. I love 13 reasons why by Jay Asher

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  2. Megan | Bookstacks 'n Golden Moms says:

    I really wish more YA books were written by teens. I read them mostly to decompress, as they’re not quite as intense as, say, a high fantasy novel. Do I think they help us understand teens? No, not really. They help us understand the adults who write about teens.

    Great discussion!
    -Megan Bookstacks & Golden Moms

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      On one hand, I think it would be interesting to see a YA book written by a teen. On the other hand, I remember what my writing skills were like when I was a teen . . . and I would not have given me a book deal! :p It’s always fun when there’s a breakout teen writer, though, so the talent does exist!

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  3. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    That’s interesting question. I think teens and those who have teens in the house can relate to some of books written for them but otherwise it would just a story for general audience. I don’t think it’s bad thing and it really depends a lot on perspective of reader. If that elderly would just pick a book thinking it’s for teen he would not enjoy it but if he picks book without thinking about age range, he might end up enjoying it. It might take him back to his time as teen or time when his kids were teen, or the one in neighbour he is observing and relate likewise. It’s really tricky thing and categorising has divided readers. I mean everybody enjoyed Anne of Green Gables or Alice in the Wonderland even though it was for kids before all these age rage categories came.

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  4. Shaharee says:

    Librarians should squash that YA marketing term and reverse to Teenage classification. I honestly have difficulties to relate with this abundance of teenage protagonists in recent literature. It must have something to do with this mixture of morbidity and eroticism in teenage protagonists that attracts so many adult readers. We seem to have an increasing amount of eternal teenagers in today’s society.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I do think labelling it “teen” would be clearer. A lot of people not familiar with the book industry aren’t even sure what “young adult literature” means or who it’s written for. I think it people don’t want to read about teens, though, they could easily read adult novels instead of YA!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. opinionsofawolf says:

    I think that the teens in the YA books I read have very very little in common (if anything at all) with what my experience was like as a teen! I wouldn’t say they should be read to understand a particular teen for that reason – you can’t broad sweep all teenage experience into a whole genre. I feel like if one wants to understand a grandchild, the better thing to do would be to ask them what their favorite book is and why and go read it so you can talk about it together.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, that’s a great point, too! I read about teens partying and drinking and smoking and driving, and I did none of those things as a teen and don’t relate at all! Also, the passage about a pap smear might be more about understanding women in general than teens. I guess something about the stress of college applications might be more about “relating to teens.”

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  6. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    Hmmm…. I remember reading someone that a lot of YA is also consumed by adults so in a sense YA is also adults writing for other adults who like YA (and maybe the intended audience as well)?

    But honestly I’ve never felt like I related to YA protagonists more while I was a teen so I don’t know if they can really help others relate to other teens! I would like to think that in general, fiction helps you to relate better to others by allowing you to see the world through different eyes, but that’s not something that’s exclusive to the YA genre.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think that’s an excellent point, too! *Ostensibly* the books are for teens, but so many adults read them that many authors have started seeing adults as the audience instead!

      Oh, yes, I hadn’t thought much about how I felt about YA as a teen, but I agree that I didn’t necessarily even think at the time that the characters were “like me” in any particular sense. Partially because I read a lot of fantasy, I’m sure, but the characters in contemporary novels are always doing things I never did as a teen, ranging from going to prom to having drugs to having dramatic fights with their best friends. So I can see how reading YA might help someone understand a teen who did these things, but it certainly wouldn’t have made them understand ME!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Krysta says:

    It doesn’t quite seem right to me to suggest that YA books will help people “understand teens” because, in theory, YA books are written FOR teens, not to help outsiders understand teens. They are supposed to be books that teens will maybe relate to, but at least find interesting. (We do know that in recent years more YA books are written by adults for adults, but is the average YA writer going to stand on stage and announce that they wrote their teen book not for teens? I doubt it.) There is no universal “teen experience” that YA books are all drawing upon. And, honestly, if someone is struggling that much to understand a close family member, it seems to me that they would be better off speaking to that family member to ask about their own story, instead of reading some random YA books that might have characters nothing like that one particular family member.

    I think the real answer to, “Why should I, as a grown person, read a book written (supposedly) for teens” is simply, “Because it’s a good story.” It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that, and we don’t have to pretend that all YA books will impart some deep, mystical understanding about the “teen mind.”

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think focusing on the fact that it’s a good story and might generally help one consider different POVs is much more useful.

      Even the pap smear scene is just one character’s experience of it, and maybe it would enlighten a man and make him think, “Oh, that’s not a fun experience?”, but that’s more about “women” than about “teens,” and it’s not even EVERY woman’s experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Mary Drover says:

    This is such a great post! I’m working on one discussing how YA is not a genre, and THIS. We treat YA so differently than what it’s actually supposed to be, and it just does not represent how most teens think/feel/act in current times. This is why I’m such a big supporter for NA because adults are clearly trying to write stories that feel like YA, but that have older protagonists, and it’s creating this weird pocket in YA that has “teenage” characters that don’t reflect actual teenagers at all.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Reading today’s YA, I feel as if I can tell a lot of it is now being written by millennials. The attitudes about literally anything — teens having sex, social issues, technology, whatever — often seem like what millennials believe or ideally think teens should believe, and it’s clearly not an accurate representation of what the “average” teen from 2021 might actually think or do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mary Drover says:

        YES! Things are SO different now than when millennials were growing up in HUGE ways, and it means our teenage years are just too vastly different to be able to understand today’s teens. I was busy worrying about my Neopets growing up, not climate change!

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  9. Michael J. Miller says:

    I admit I’m not an avid reader of YA. There are plenty of series I’ve read but when I think “YA reader” – especially in regard to the blogging world – I know I’m far from the “well versed” category. But I do read YA and I do enjoy them yet I wouldn’t say they help me “understand teens.” I would say there are a lot in YA books that accurately reflect the teenage experience but I think a well written story does that for its audience. I can see facets of my life reflected in a YA character’s journey in the same way my students can see facets of their life reflected in one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters (which may seem a random comparison but a) I’m rereading some Vonnegut now and b) my students read Vonnegut in some of their Literature and Art History classes each year).

    When I talk to my students about the books they love – YA included – they never seem to say the YA books “capture” their experience more. The novels they talk to me about loving, YA or not, are ones they love for the characters or plot or the way it pulls them into the world. I’ve never had a student cite YA as clearly being “their experience.” And I grant this is 100% anecdotal experience but I’d still bet it holds pretty true across the board.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I was thinking a lot about the books I read as a teen and if I thought they reflected my life or worldview or something, and that was not the case. Partially because I wasn’t looking for that – I read a lot of classics and then a lot of backlist YA that was written in the 80s or whatever – but also . . . I don’t think many authors are really that great at capturing the teen experience exactly as it is in the year they are writing. Mostly I would relate to general experiences. Like I identify with L. M. Montgomery’s child characters being forced by adults to wear clothes they hate, but those books are set in the 1800s and early 1900s!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        This is a completely unfinished thought – it is literally forming as I type this so I apologize in advance if this doesn’t take us anywhere worthwhile XD – but I wonder if looking to literature is even the right place to “capture” the teen experience. I think if someone really wanted to know “how kids today” are feeling/thinking than their music would make a better point of reference. Granted, music has the potential to be cross-generational, too. But I think our music forms such a personal part of our identity and I think, for many at least, that is particularly true in our teen years.

        But, to your point about the 1800s and 1900s, the majority of the music I listened to in high school was from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s XD. Very few ’90s bands were in heavy rotation for me (although I’ve come to appreciate many of them more, not). So what the heck do I know?

        So ends my stream-of-consciousness reply. Feel free to put your seat and tray tables back in their upright position and thank you for taking this journey with me.

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          That’s a good point about music. At least there are more teen singer-songwriters than there are teen authors, like Taylor Swift when she started or Olivia Rodrigo now. Though I still think Rodrigo’s music is both fairly personal (I didn’t have a driver’s license, a career, or a devastating breakup as a teen, so none of those things would have paralleled my life), and general (As you say, it’s cross-generational, and people of all ages seem to think they would have resonated with it as a teen). So in some sense she’s still capturing generally the essence of being a teen (big emotions, first experiences, insecurities, etc.) and maybe not specifically what it’s like to be a teen in 2021.

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