I haven't blogged in a long while, but I'm working on changing that! In the meantime, here is an essay I wrote for an application into an MFA program. I decided to post on here since it was a big debate recently.
Why Young Adult Literature Matters
(and not just to kids)
In June of this year, Slate published an article that sparked substantial debate. The premise of the article, written by freelance writer Ruth Graham, is that adults should not be reading young adult (YA) literature. The main point of the argument, which was buried deep in the article, was that if adults “are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something” (Graham). In addition to making the grave error of lumping all YA into the category of “maudlin teen dramas,” this argument demonstrates a sincere lack of knowledge about the YA genre. The best YA is complex, and anything but maudlin. Like any great literature, great YA literature is breath-taking, deeply conflicted and full of wonder and darkness. However, unlike adult literary fiction, which Graham champions as the highest form of writing, YA literature also contains hope. Therein lies its greatest appeal.
Somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century, literature began to change to depict a dark world devoid of hope. Writers like Shirley Jackson, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor wrote stories that depicted depravity with no glimmer of light at the end. Literary works from this period often “were increasingly self-aware, introspective, and explored the darker aspects of human nature” (Merriam Webster, 1236). While not all writers followed this model, they were often not taken as seriously as their darker counterparts until later. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, for example, were looked somewhat disdainfully as books for children, and therefore not serious works. Ironically, this is a viewpoint that Graham and others continue to advocate today.
To illustrate her point, Graham singles out a literary novel titled Submergence, which she describes the virtue of by stating it “ends with a death so shattering it’s been rattling around in my head ever since.” The author of Submergence is J.M. Ledgard, a writer the New York Times describes as being “concerned with confinement, savagery and despair” (Skloot). While not concerned with confinement and savagery, I’d argue that Bridge to Terebithia has moments of great despair, as well as a shattering death. However, in Bridge to Terebithia, the author does not leave the reader to wallow in grief. She provides a glimmer of hope, as Jesse opens his heart to let his little sister May Belle into Terebithia, which begins to heal his pain over his loss.
While Graham finds endings of “emotional and moral ambiquity” satisfying because she equates them with the “real world,” she is mistaken. The world may be full of emotional and moral ambiquity, but people are not. People may have moments of ambiguity, but these moments are usually resolved. Life does not like ambiguity. Life often demands we make a choice, or forces a choice upon us. While some people may choose to wither away after suffering a loss, most find a way to rise up and move on. Damaged, perhaps, and more weary, but they generally do not give up. If Graham feels that teens need literature that holds back painful truths, she underestimates them. If she feels that adults must be crushed under what life deals, she underestimates them as well. One of the most enduring stories of all time, Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, is timeless because it demonstrates that as long as we are alive it is never too late to rise above the grief and pain we’ve experienced. The ending of Dicken’s tale is not ambiguous or messy as Graham would prefer, yet it endures as one of the greatest works of literature.
In YA literature, the greatest works are driven by the characters in the story. They make their own way, and rise above their challenges. They do fail, and often, but they eventually pick themselves up again. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen demonstrates remarkable resilience in the face of unthinkable horror. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry’s self loathing and anger at her father’s absence holds her back and prevents her from rescuing her father and brother until she overcomes those flaws. As readers, this is more than just comforting to us, it is inspiring. Excellent literature, YA included, takes us on an emotional journey leading us to discover new truths or reinforces old ones. It not only can’t sugarcoat the truth. It must be honest to a fault.
Another flaw in Graham’s argument seems to be that she feels literature must have some other purpose than the enjoyment of reading. As Non Pratt writes in an article for The Guardian, Graham feels that “literature should confound and discomfit and present characters with whom it is difficult to empathize” (Pratt). The enjoyment of reading YA comes mainly from its characters. It seems to be a hallmark of adult literary fiction to create protagonists with whom we dislike or at best are ambivalent towards. In YA, it is essential that the protagonist is, if not likable, at least redeemable or possessing redeeming qualities.
Finally, Graham indicates that as grown-ups, we should roll our eyes at descriptions of breathless first love and other flights of youth. This is where we see the problem Graham truly has with YA literature. Connection to the story is an essential part of the reading experience. If our youth is full of regrets, or if youth themselves are viewed disdainfully, or if for some reason we are unable to emotionally relate to those younger than ourselves, then we might have difficulty reading YA literature as adults. However, that does not indicate a problem with YA literature, or with adults who read it. It simply means that this person has emotionally separated from youth, and this is arguably not an entirely healthy thing. Graham herself says that she experienced “some of the most intense reading experiences” of her life reading YA literature as a young adult, even though she has no desire to go back and re-read them. The question Graham needs to be asking herself is not whether adults should or shouldn’t read YA. The question should be why does she not want to. After all, the majority of responses to her article have disagreed with it, suggesting she is not on the same page as many of her peers.
Young Adult literature is an essential literary form. It has the freedom to go places adult literature doesn’t willingly go, places adult literature has outgrown. It reminds us of a period of our lives when the very shape of who we are was forming. As writers of YA literature, we can learn from Graham’s article. We do need to make sure our writing is full of astonishing sentences, big ideas about time and space and love, and characters who become as real and memorable to us as people we know and love. We can look to YA literature that does exactly that for inspiration; books like A Wrinkle in Time or A Dark is Rising. Most importantly, we need to stick to our script of writing truth about the harshness of the world, but tempered with the knowledge that there is always hope.
We owe this to our readers, whatever their age may be.
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