The value of young adult literature, and why it transcends age boundaries

It’s summer. Which for most of us, means catching up on the things we miss out on during the academic year, like reading for leisure. I was recently scanning the Young Adult (YA) section of my local Waterstones, when a worrying question was asked of me. At what age are you supposed to stop reading fiction written for a teenage audience? I think my jaw might have dropped open.

There’s a common disposition nowadays, to shrug off YA as a respectable section of literature. To toss it to the back of an intellectual’s mind, and to consider it an embarrassment to be caught reading it. It’s like an association to the lives of teenagers is something to be ashamed of. Yes, we’re messy, and we haven’t got everything figured out yet. But isn’t that the whole point?

YA fiction is primarily written about teens, for teens, and often by teens. But the values we learn from this genre are applicable the whole way through our lives. Take, for example, the most recent book I slotted back onto my shelf shortly after turning the final page. “Dare to Fall”, written by Estelle Maskame is a book about loss and grief, and includes some very adult storylines including stillbirth and alcoholism. If you’re telling me that these themes don’t pop up around us no matter what age we might get to, then I think you’re wrong. YA is about real people leading real emotions. There isn’t anything I see in adult genres (which I also read during my teenage years, shock horror) that pushes me to think, you know what? That’s a lot more realistic. Mental health issues, romance, and family struggles span a lifetime, and I don’t see the problem with literature following the same rule.

So how old is a YA reader meant to be? When I think of contemporary adult fiction that I’ve read, I think of for the most part, fluffy stories about marriage and careers. And yes, its a sort of escapism, but I don’t relate. Nor can I see myself magically relating to those tales of divorce and managerial woe when I turn twenty next year and am no longer a teen. I’m not there yet, and as a general rule, the age that young people are settling down (family-wise, career-wise, you name it) is getting later and later too. We’re clinging onto YA because it’s what we know, and what we relate to. To try and shame adults for reading material that they relate to is absurd, and more than a little like snobbery.

And then there’s the parents. For all the social media communication that surrounds us, there is often a true verbal lack of it. So to see a Mother reading a novel that’s aimed at people half her age, in an attempt to understand her teenage daughter? It’s not worthy of an eye roll, its ground breaking.

I’m still to this day, unsure about our tendency to pit genres of reading against each other, like only one can reign supreme. Surely literature is literature, and in my mind that is only cause for one thing. Celebration. So yes, if you’re an adult reading teenage fiction, you’re certainly branching out. But my whole life I’ve been taught that that’s a good thing. We millennials may be younger, and we may have less experience, but occasionally we have the most important stories to tell. It’s 2017, and I don’t care if you’re holding a teenage romance novel or an adult science fiction novella in your hands when I catch you reading on the train. You’re reading. And I respect that.

Emily Merrill

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