Roughly once a week, there’s a new blog post or news story popping up somewhere that talks about why it is grown-ups are reading young adult books as much as they are. I won’t even repeat the statistics on buying YA books because you can find them on any of these posts. Frankly, those statistics about the YA book buying trends don’t matter. What’s at the heart of these pieces are attempts to find justification for why perfectly grown adults would deign to read books meant for teenagers. Because as we are all perfectly aware, when you are an adult, you are only allowed to ever do things for adults, and any deviation from the standard norms of a socially-constructed idea of normal means you need to justify your actions.
It’d be easy to write an essay explaining why it is adults read YA, but rather than do that, I thought it’d be more fun to roundup the reasons one can find in any comments section on any “why grown ups are reading YA” piece ever. Then, of course, debunk them and tell you the actual real reason why it is adults read YA books.
1. Our culture encourages an unnatural and prolonged adolescence
In other words, because we live in a world which encourages adults to push off becoming adults as long as they can, adults read YA books because it’s what they’re being sold.
The last time I checked, adults had the ability to walk into any bookstore, library, or online retailer and choose for themselves what it is they desire to read. I’d go as far as to say one of the perks of being an adult is just that — you get to choose what you spend your time on. Unless you’re being assigned specific reading for school or work, your free time as an adult is just that: your free time. Your choices are the ones you get to make. Adults have this amazing thing called free will and can exercise it without permission of other adults.
What in our culture encourages an unnatural and prolonged adolescence? Is it the legal right to get a job at 16 to pay your own bills? Is it the legal right to take out substantial educational loans in order to attend an institute of higher education at the age of 18? Just because a commercial or advertisement promotes something (and let’s use, say, Twilight here since that’s a popular franchise to hate on) doesn’t mean that adults have to buy into the product! Plenty of adults — and hell, let’s just call it as we see it, plenty of adult women — loved Twilight. They even were nicknamed “Twi-moms.” The adult women who loved and still love reading Twilight do so because it’s something they, as adults, chose to do. Because it’s something they enjoy.
This doesn’t mean our culture is encouraging anything except the use of one’s privilege as an adult to partake in whatever you damn well want to.
2. YA books are escapist since you don’t have to look beneath the surface of them. They are easier to grasp.
There are two separate, but related, statements in this justification. First, that YA is escapist — and I hate the idea of any reading being “escapism” because it suggests that an activity one engages in because he or she enjoys it means he or she is necessarily “escaping” something else. YA isn’t any more escapist than any other type of fiction or nonfiction one enjoys reading. YA is only “escapist” to those who choose to enjoy reading YA books in their free time.
Second, there’s the assessment that YA books don’t have depth to them. I think for many adults, this rationale pops up not because they truly believe it but instead, because when they were in school, YA books weren’t used in those stereotypical classroom situations where Literature was Analyzed and the Fun was Removed from reading.
Anything you read for fun can be escapist, and anything you read for fun can be read without having to look beneath the surface. It’s all in how you choose to take in your reading as an adult.
3. Adults read YA because they aren’t able to read past a middle school or high school level because adults are getting dumber and dumber.
Are all adult books written at a collegiate level or something? Most newspapers are written at a high school level, and most magazines are written at that level or below.
Part of the problem with leveled reading in our educational system is that we then become obsessed with the notion that reading is about some level of achievement and therefore, we have to follow our prescribed levels our entire lives. I know I’d be bored only reading books written at a post-Master’s degree level just because that was my reading level. More than that, though, since when is one person’s choice in personal reading at all tied to their test scores or IQ scores or whatever standard one is using to define “dumb” and “dumber” in our culture?
I suppose then that the reason more adults are choosing to read erotica then is because our culture is getting sexier and sexier, too (where is the standardized test for this)?
4. YA books are about hopefulness. Their problems aren’t really problems and they can be fixed. Also there’s always a happy ending, so it’s satisfying and fulfilling to adults. The characters are likable.
The reductive approach to literature is wild and alive in this one. First, it suggests that all YA is one type of story. It’s not. YA often does contain hope within it — but not all of YA offers up. There are plenty of great bleak stories in YA and plenty which don’t have a happily ever after (how many times can I reference Robert Cormier as the gold standard here). And there are plenty of unlikable, complicated, frustrating YA characters.
It also suggests that no adult books feature hope as the central force or outcome. Or that there are no likable characters in adult fiction.
In both cases, this statement reduces two entire categories of books into one thing each: hopeful and not hopeful. Likable and unlikable. This devalues story, it devalues nuance, and it devalues readers. It then posits a certain judgment on any book that deviates from these things — the second a YA character does something unlikable she’s dumb/wrong/immature/stupid (it’s always a she, and adult readers can forget the characters are teenagers). These are labels you are choosing to apply to rich categories of books, rather than actual things that exist. Moreover, sometimes adults choose to be satisfied by dark stories in YA as much as they are happy stories in adult fiction.
5. Fill in the blank with your own justification here. Some examples may include: YA is all about first experiences; YA is nostalgia for adults; YA is cheaper than adult books and therefore more appealing to the wallet; and so forth.
The only justification for why adults read YA books is this: they choose to.
That’s it. That’s their reason.
Adults read YA books because they as adults choose to do so.
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