On Twitter yesterday, I promised myself that I wouldn’t write about the latest article that implies that adults shouldn’t be reading YA books. On this occasion it wasn’t an entire article devoted to that cause, but part of an author’s interview with MinnPost. The author was asked what she thought of Ruth Graham’s famous article “Against YA,” which suggested, like so many articles, that adults should be embarrassed to read books written for people younger than they are. Her response was this:
“I don’t understand why adults like to read books written for children. I said that on the air the other day. That’s going to upset people… you’re missing out on some really great stuff written for you as an adult. People come back and say, “But at least you’re reading something.” Well, I don’t think that’s justification enough. I think you ought to be reading at your level.”
This author is entitled to her opinion and entitled to state it in response to a question. She’s also right to note that her opinion may upset people, as opinions so often do.
I’m not upset. I am, however, more than a little puzzled.
How can I identify my “reading level”?
Is there a test I can do to work it out? I’m turning twenty-three this November. Am I still all right to read Young Adult fiction, or am I now considered far too old for it? (If so, you can pry The Hunger Games and Throne of Glass from my cold, too-old hands, thank you very much.) The ALA defines Young Adult as being aimed at readers of twelve to eighteen years of age. This means I am now half a decade too old for these books.
When I turned nineteen, did an entire genre really get boxed off for ever? Did I lose the ability to comprehend all the wonderful stories that had kept me company through the tumultuous years of becoming an adult? Did I forget the emotions, the experiences, the memories of a whole decade of my life?
At twenty-three, will I still be considered too young for books about people in their thirties and forties, or written by people in their thirties and forties?
Where do I, at twenty-three, fit in to this spectrum?
Can I only read books within the New Adult genre, which are aimed at eighteen to twenty-five year-olds?
Perhaps it isn’t about age. Perhaps that isn’t what the quote is saying. Surely it wouldn’t make sense for me to restrict myself to that one genre, which was only created in 2009. (What did we do before that?) Is your reading level based on your education? Your upbringing? How many books your parents had in the house as you grew up?
Perhaps I’ve misunderstood. Perhaps your ability to enjoy a book is based on life experience. I’ve never been married or divorced or had children. I’ve never had cancer or held a sword or solved a crime or lived in a city other than London. Will I fail to understand or connect with books that present me with characters who have led very different lives to mine?
Will I fail to understand a story about a teenager – even though I was one once?
Did I lose the ability to recognise a stage of life I’ve left behind?
Everyone has the right to read the books they enjoy. If adults would prefer not to read books about teenagers, power to them. There are piles of brilliant books out there that are written for adults, waiting to be discovered. But to suggest that adults should no longer connect with stories written by, or about young people – can’t read them, as if doing so would trigger an allergic reaction – is to dismiss the experience of young people. To cut them off. To suggest that adults must justify reading these books, that they must be embarrassed by it, is to suggest that there is something fundamentally embarrassing about being a teenager. (Which sometimes there is, as all teenagers know – but trust me, the possibility that you might do or say embarrassing things doesn’t go away when you turn twenty.)
We are a society obsessed with retaining and reclaiming our youth – the dying of our grey hairs, the editing of our bodies, the petrification of our faces – but when it comes to books, that veneration disappears in a puff of smoke. It is one of many contradictions at the heart of modern life. We praise the idea of youth, but invalidate the internal experience of it. Try to look like a young adult, yes, but for God’s sake don’t listen to one.
Some adults are still listening.
The world can be a dark and daunting place. Now more than ever, it’s tough to get up and turn on the news in the morning, knowing you’ll be hit with a barrage of horror and not much light at the end of the tunnel. And now, after you’ve tried to process all the darkness, you’re more than likely to see an article informing you that, in the midst of all this, you shouldn’t be reading the books you love. These are the books that help you block out all that horror and despair, that help you to make sense of it. These are the books that you read late into the night, the ones you can’t stop reading until the very last page is turned. These are the books that make you love reading.
Is that justification enough?