Young Adult Novels Aren’t Just for Young Adults

The Importance of Books

While the number of books I’ve met and not liked are well under double digits, give me fantastic lands, magical qualities, and a dose of steampunk or urban fantasy over realistic fiction any day. I’ve found plenty of authors and books in those categories that tickle my fancy (China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Francesca Lia Block, to name a few), it seems like most books that fit the bill come from the young adult category which, more often than not, seems to get a bad rap on the notion that it’s just a genre for “kids”. I’ve never been drawn to the top-sellers list at the book store (I wish I could say why) and most summer must-reads in popular magazines strike me as incredibly boring beach reading. And while I love a heartfelt, heavy story – I just finished The Kite Runner which is a far cry from the magical, urban-fantasy I love so much and loved it equally – I’m more at home with an element of fantasy. Maybe I overdosed on reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a bunch of Anne Rice novels growing up. Yeah, sure, we’ll blame it on that. Yet somehow, society is less likely, for whatever reason, to admit magic and fantasy into the mainstream, instead constraining the genre largely to seventeen-year olds and their real world reading counterparts. Just because a story features younger characters or a fantastic setting, or is even labeled “YA” doesn’t mean the writing and story are rubbish or underneath any one reading level and it kills me to see stories not taken seriously because, “Oh, that’s a book for kids”.

 I remember the first time I “consciously” read a YA series – The Hunger Games was recommended to me by a dear friend whose tastes I trust and I breezed through the two books that were already out in a matter of hours. It was a captivating story, and one that I still feel is way past the traditional topics covered by a genre considered to be “young adult”; not inappropriate, per say, but just more advanced, dealing with hunger and consumerism and emptiness in a way I would not have expected in a book largely targeted at a young adult age group.

There are a number of series that I’ve read and deplore, but not on the basis that they’re YA. My criteria for shunning any book, adult or not remains relatively the same; bad writing, one-dimensional characters, unimaginative descriptions, and a wonky plot (amongst other things) are an instant turn-off  regardless of the intended audience or supposed reading level. There is the added tendency to judge a YA book on the values in its content; there a number of times where I’ve enjoyed a story, but questioned some of the lessons being enforced or hinted at on the sole basis that kids are primarily reading this and how will that influence them? There’s definitely a judgmental air about the lessons being taught, something that isn’t so worried about in adult fiction. And while sometimes the message may not be the most desirable for a certain age group, there can still be merit in the story itself, or the way it is written.

Whatever topic a book touches on, be it the timeless values of loyalty and friendship as in Harry Potter (which is somewhat of an anomaly for me, as I was a “young adult” when the series first came out) or the very adult topics of a dystopian future in The Hunger Games, it seems like anything that features young protagonists or a magical element often gets slapped with the young adult label whether truly deserving or not. Since when did magic become limited to preteens? The connection seems arbitrary and so many works get shunned or undervalued because of it.

So what do you think about the Young Adult novel craze? 

  • You wrote exactly what I’ve been thinking! I am a hard addict of fantasy as well, and also of YA. It drives me nuts when people dismiss all YA as ‘kids books’ – my boyfriend is guilty of this, and I usually give him a look and explain that children’s books and young adult books are two very different things. I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet. But he liked the Hunger Games movie, so maybe he’s coming around, haha. I think YA can be just as powerful and well-written as adult fiction.

    I would have to disagree that books featuring magic are limited to the YA label, though. Some good authors of adult fiction with magic/fantastical elements: Carol Berg, Steven Brust, Robin Hobb, Jim Butcher, Sarah Monette, Jacqueline Carey, etc. (some of them have also written YA, but they are not restricted to it).

    • I guess I should say limited, but it seems like magical elements in YA fiction outnumber those in adult fic. I’ve seen shelves of YA books that are 80% fantasy based while most adult fiction displays might show only two or three. They just seem less accepted in “popular” displays of adult lit, though they exist outside of the YA label (though, I’m going to have to check out a few of those authors I haven’t read anything by yet! :D)

      I think that’s what a lot of people I know fail to realize, that children’s book and young adult books are two different things. I think The Hunger Games has been a pretty good driving force in distinguishing that and making it known.

  • My coworker and I were discussing this a while ago and we both feel this way too. I just find most adult literature so boring. I browse the New Arrivals shelf in the adult fiction section at B&N, see nothing of interest, and then head over to the New Arrivals in YA fiction and want to buy 20 books.

    My coworker brought up a good point when we were talking about this. He said that, while adult fiction sometimes seems to be there for the sole purpose of forcing you to contemplate its deeper meaning and reading-between-the-lines messages…YA fiction is just there to tell a damn story. And for a lot of people, a damn story is all they want when reading a book. Sure there can be life lessons involved and between-the-lines interpretations and whatnot (Harry Potter is a good example of this), but it’s not the main purpose. The main purpose is to just enjoy the story.

    • Well said! I think that’s one of the things that gets me. I don’t mind a deep and contemplative novel, but sometimes I just want a story and the adult fiction section seems crammed with heavy books about funerals, incurable diseases, and memoirs from horrific times. Not really how I’m feeling most days.

  • Jen

    I loved the Hunger Games too, and I have to say I would usually be put off by the YA tag, but reading that series has made me think again. Jen x

    • That series has done it for a lot of people, even myself I’d say. I know I’ve been hesitant to read things just because they’re “YA” without really just taking the story for what it is. Awesome it’s make you change your mind though!