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This is Not Why YA is Important

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I just read online for the thousandth time that Young Adult literature is important because “it’s important for teens to have something of their own.” And for the first time in five years, I actually thought about that statement.

“It’s important for teens to have something of their own.”

Is it?

I actually don’t think it is. I think it’s important for teens to have something that matters.

I think I might be getting over this prevalent idea of teenhood and adulthood as separate countries, connected only by a wobbly rope-bridge that some fall off. I’m beginning to suspect that this demarcation is actually a symptom of our subtly ageist society — a consequence of America’s deeply held belief that youth is grand and foolish, age is wise but uncool.

“It’s important for teens to have something of their own.”

Why is it important for it to be only theirs? Because once adults get ahold of it, it’s no longer cool?

It strikes me more and more as a back-handed compliment.

When we laugh about something not being cool to teens as soon as adults embrace it — Facebook, Chucks, Radiohead — what we’re also saying to teens is: adulthood is many things, but cool is probably not one of them. It’s an echo of the ever-so-subtle message always encouraging us to look back fondly on our high school and college years — that fleeting time when we were young and pretty (and good for billboards) and our relationships mattered (to Hollywood) because we were young and pretty. It’s all downhill from there, says society! Get used to settling for less, kiddos, because that’s adulthood!

(here is a common compliment for women: “oh, you look so young!” — what happens when she looks old?)

When we say that YA fiction is important because it’s important for teens to have something of their own, what we’re also saying is: YA literature is only for teens, not for adults, so put that down, you random adult holding Divergent or The Book Thief or whatnot. Or at least have a damn good excuse for reading it, adult! Are you a teacher? Or remedial, maybe? If you were a real adult, you’d be reading grown up books!

(here is a common insult for a man: “oh, grow up!” — that means, irrational emotions are for children only!)

“It’s important for teens to have something of their own.”

It’s important to have books of all kinds, at all reading levels, about all genders and colors and classes of people. It’s important to have sad books and happy books, books that stick with you forever and books that you love for just an afternoon. It’s important to have books about ponies and dolphins and cancer and space travel and everything in this world.

Teenhood and adulthood aren’t separate countries at all. Once you survive puberty, you’re thrown into a nebulous time-space continuum where from moment to moment, you can be wise and foolish, old and young, profound and silly. And it lasts the rest of your life. The bridge between those two countries? It never ends.

I think the young adult section of the bookstore is important for a lot of reasons, but putting teens into their own box is not one of them.

  • Lyn South

    It is interesting to hear statements like that (need something of their own) because in addition to the ageist attitudes prevalent in society and the media, the statement also implies that teens aren’t intelligent or mature enough to understand, enjoy, and learn from books marketed toward “adults”. I wonder whether the person who made that statement has read many YA books (I tend to think they haven’t, if they can make a comment like that). Thanks for the great blog post.

  • John Barnes

    Bravo! Exactly.

  • John Barnes

    I also think it’s another way of prolonging adolescence for as long as possible, probably driven by the fact that stereotypical adolescent behavior is in fact exactly the behavior most marketers would like to see consumers exhibit (impulse buying, “gotta have that,” obsessions with non functional aspects of the product/service, status-driven replacement, frequent changes in taste, etc etc etc). Teenagers having “books of their own” = teen issues being “teens only,” instead of being the beginnings of at least some issues that will be lifelong. Same reason why Hollywood has now standardized the Hero’s Journey as the meta-outline of all scripts: because it’s fundamentally a teenage experience catering to to the fantasies of inexperienced people hoping to have power someday, i.e. playing it over and over is a way to keep people stuck in their coming of age.

  • Honestly, I rather be an adult than a teen any day. Although we have more responsibilities, we also have more freedoms including choice. YA and teen are genres like Science Fiction and Lifestyle. Readers should read what entertains them regardless of age. When I was a teen, no one told me I was too young for the adult section, so adults shouldn’t be seen too old for the kids section. Books are books and stories are stories regardless where they are placed in a book store.
    I don’t think Facebook and other social media outlets became less cool when adults start using it. They become less cool when they add advertisements and new stations/ TV shows tag episodes with hashtags and advertise they are now on ‘fill-in-the-blank.’

  • XineLively

    YA is important because it tells teens and young adults that their experiences matter and are worth telling. I’m 42 and I read a ton of YA. I love reading about adolescents’ experiences and feelings not because they are foreign to me, but because it’s a time of life that is rarely celebrated or acknowledged as being important. Teens live with a huge list of things that they shouldn’t do and are often left feeling like their lives won’t really start or matter until they are adults. YA shows how important and meaningful adolescence is, which is and should be important to teens and even more so to adults. We’ve all lived through it and survived. Teens are important, their feelings are real, and acknowledging that is healing and helpful to all ages.

    • Dylan

      I like the sentiment, but I don’t agree with its relevance. This implies that the writers, rather than the target audience, are the ones described by the genre. YA books aren’t necessarily reflective of teen experiences or viewpoints because, as often as not, they aren’t written by young adults or teens, and the stories likewise aren’t even always *about* young adults or teens.

  • elle

    i think the first reason i read ya was because it seemed the only thing available. my middle school library was filled with it; it’s a reasonable transition from elementary age make believe storytelling, maybe?

    it’s also the best escape. it imprints clearly what the rules of this particular world are, and the barrier to entry is v low. compared to when i was younger, i now have a better idea of analysis/synthesis and what i like and don’t. i still fall into certain ya. (if I’m lucky, it’s good (and good for me) in different ways) (like the raven cycle :3)

    also i wonder if it’s easier to be vulnerable to ya. when you read a book where the author has thought of the reader as an adult, … hm i haven’t clearly thought about this. maybe it’s just different types of storytelling?

  • Sherri Stevenson Buck

    Looking for the title of your first book to Hunted

  • Sophie

    Just find that you wrote story about Cole and Isabel. (You said in September last year but I just found out.) Really excited about that.

    I am an oversea reader and I really love the trilogy. I think I will read the English book if no Chinese edition is published.

    My dreamcast of Cole St. Clair is George Craig. He is member of a band One Night Only and was a model of Burberry. He is good-looking. To me, he had that feeling of Cole.

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  • Ella Galindo,

    I’m 13 and thats exactly how I feel

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  • Alisa S.

    As a teenager, I don’t think adults are lame. A lot of adults write kick ass YA novels that I love. What’s uncool is when adults think that they know what kids think about them solely because they’re younger than them. Adults (and teens) need to get over their adult (or teen) complex and just act like people. I think it’s important to get over what other people want you to like, and just like what YOU think is cool.

  • Olivia

    It shouldn’t be about cool factor or age, just appreciation. I’m thirteen, and I wouldn’t blink an eye at an adult reading a YA book, but if I see someone calling it trash, that’s horrible. We should just all be able to appreciate good literature and discuss it as equals.

  • Ishta Mercurio-Wentworth

    I have never actually heard that said about YA books, but I homeschool, which equates to living under a rock. In any case, the idea that it is important because teens should have something of their own is BS. YA is important because it validates the practice of questioning the way things are done, and of asking oneself if a better way can be found. And that is something that I hope I never stop doing, no matter how old I get.

  • Kelly Canner Pagano

    Fabulous and true. Well said.

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Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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