Why I Read Young Adult Literature

Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray

As a bonafide grown up (membership card pending successful completion of one week without letting clothes pile up on the chair in my bedroom), I spend a lot of time thinking about why I read such a voluminous amount of young adult (fondly referred to as YA) literature.  In my life as an academic (more appropriately academ-ish, I think), my specialty areas are Canadian and American Literatures.  I read and have read and enjoy the majority of the classic and contemporary literary fiction titles in those areas.  But when I look for a book for fun, more and more frequently I find myself unwinding with YA.

Pondering why took me on a blog search of other people asking the same question, but I was mostly disappointed by the results.  It was a lot of “because YA lit is actually good, unlike adult fiction”-style chest thumping.  This, of course, emerges from the fact that adult readers of YA often feel maligned by those who think it’s a less-serious way to spend one’s time.  As more and more readers cross the divide, and as publishers increasingly target the same books to both markets (not just Harry Potter with it’s adult, teen, and juvenile covers, but a novel like The Book Thief was marketed towards both YA and adult book club audiences, and sometimes genre novels like Ender’s Game find a different life in YA after starting elsewhere), I think it makes better sense to drop the animosity on both sides and try to understand what makes YA compelling to such a broad audience.

So to get a little personal here, I thought about the three main reasons I reach for YA.

  1. Readability.  For obvious reasons, YA novels are usually a quicker read than most literary fiction; the pacing is quicker, the chapters shorter.  While a gorgeously rainy Sunday demands that I get lost for hours in a grand, expansive literary novel like Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, for evening reading during the work week I prefer to devour a YA novel rather than dip in to a longer tome.
  2. Compelling protagonists.  I kind of love teenagers.  I love their emotional volatility, their passion, their fears, their confusion.  I love that they feel so hard.  Because of the target audience, YA lit tends to be emotionally raw and the protagonists incredibly vulnerable.  The openness of these characters is compelling to me.
  3. Plot-driven stories.  I tend to reach for character or cultural studies in my literary fiction, so I appreciate that a lot (though not all!) YA is plot-driven; it allows me to shift from an analytical mindset and instead tap into the part of the brain that just loves good storytelling.  And YA tends towards fantastic storytelling above all else.
If you’ve thought about checking out YA literature but don’t know where to start — the genre is huge, of course! — I have three suggestions for first steps into the world of YA:
  1. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson.  A favourite of the moment for YA readers, Nelson’s exquisite rendering of love and loss exemplifies the idea of compelling, emotionally raw protagonists.
  2. Matched by Ally Condie.  One of my favourite YA sub-genres is dystopian fiction, and Condie’s novel is a great example of the classic perfect-society-with-a-horrible-secret trope.
  3. Going Bovine by Libba Bray.  This surreal black comedy pairs adolescent angst and confusion with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.  It’s bizarre, but it works.
Fellow YA fans, what three books would you recommend to a newcomer to the genre?  Non-YA readers, what distances you from young adult fiction?