When I was a teenager, it seemed like an exciting and nearly forbidden thing to browse the adult side of my public library. No one was going to stop or question me, as far as I knew, but walking through the stacks and sliding adult novels off the shelves somehow felt like picking magical, alcoholic apples from trees as opposed to the kid- and teen-friendly ones I’d been selecting since I started going to the library, well before I could even read. Maybe it was a case of heightened expectations, but my first visit to the adult wing left much to be desired. Although nothing traumatic happened, this moment carved out a neat little spot in my brain that has stayed in sharp relief ever since. And to this day, I credit this experience as being one of the largest reasons why I prefer to read young adult books as an adult.
It was a Nick Hornby book. As a teen, I was obsessed with House and the dry sarcasm that came along with the show. It followed that I appreciated a lot of British humor (even with House as an American television show, Hugh Laurie’s British influence is pretty evident)—or at least pretended to, because I wasn’t like other girls—and so knowing only a little about what was out there for adult fiction and seeing the edgy cover supported by an edgy and flippant description, I picked it up. I didn’t pay attention to the title, but still recall the circumstances of a robber and a hostage (though now that I search for the book, I can find no such description for a Hornby title, so who knows what happened there) and, though not a traditional romance book per se, it seemed the plot would involve the hostage ultimately falling for her robber-captor and softening the big old tough guy up and, thus, saving him. (Present me says, “Ew.” Even as a long-standing and still-fan of “Beauty and the Beast” and all its fictional children.)
In any case, I opened the book there in the stacks while an older woman stood browsing toward the other end of the aisle. The thrill of it was something else. And as soon as I started reading, that thrill dropped out from under me like a heavy pendulum that wouldn’t come back up. Ugh. People read this stuff? And enjoyed it? The prose was dry, dry, dry, and what was worse, the narrating character seemed to have put on some kind of sterile storytelling voice that felt uncomfortably manufactured and put-on. Gravely disappointed, I placed the book back on the shelf where I’d left a hole from taking it down in the first place, and marched back over to the teen section. If that was how adult books were, I wanted nothing to do with them.
I didn’t give adult books another try by my own choice (Jane Austen aside—and if we’re going by age alone, I suppose you could argue Austen is technically new adult rather than adult) until after I graduated from college. Fortunately, since then, I have found a number that I’ve enjoyed and ultimately realized that of course not all adult books are like the one I happened to first encounter.
Yet, I still find I prefer to read young adult books as an adult. After thinking on this a lot, I think I’ve figured out why.
First, I thought it might be the typically easier-to-read prose of young adult novels, since it required less brain energy on my part. But I’ve come to realize that often, the difficulty of the prose in adult and young adult books is about equal. So that wasn’t it.
Then, I wondered if maybe I just hadn’t yet grown up—mentally, emotionally, whatever—and wasn’t yet ready for the subtextual and non-plot parts of adult books. That I didn’t understand them, and therefore couldn’t enjoy them. But it wasn’t that, either.
It occurred to me recently that maybe it has to do more with traditional plot and character development structure than anything else. If we accept that the mark of a good story is a clearly defined arc demonstrating the growth of a character, then it follows that young adult novels, about young adults who are discovering their own selves and what it means to be in the world and so on, are uniquely posed to really dig into character development. This isn’t to say that characters in adult novels can’t learn and develop. Certainly they can, just as we continue to learn and grow in our own lives. But I think in many cases, the very human and important lessons we learn are those we learn in our teen years.
When we share stories about those lessons, they are so compelling because the importance and stakes of those lessons are so much higher. We put so much value on those lessons as a society. Things like what it means to be yourself, what it means to stand up for others, and other common themes in young adult literature is part of what makes these stories so riveting. These lessons may be learned or reinforced later in life, sure, but if we imagine—and I think we do—that these sorts of lessons are ones we ought to have learned by then, some of the shine of it in the context of an adult story is lost.
This may also be why we see repeated themes of mortality, loyalty (particularly in the form of within a marriage or life-long friendship), and a desire to understand it all (often symbolized by a single mystery, perhaps a murder mystery or some other thing—we are desperate to understand the larger mysteries of the universe before we die, and this is a stand in for that) in adult fiction. These concerns are far less interesting to teens because mortality does not seem so urgent in our younger years, loyalty is a difficult thing when we are still understanding our own selves and have not yet (in most cases) formed those for-a-lifetime relationships, and again, how can we expect to want to know about everything outside ourselves when we haven’t even covered our own interiors?
These themes are interesting, to be sure. But perhaps I still lean toward young adult stories because I’m not yet fully entrenched in issues of mortality as an adult in her younger years. Loyalty is something I take seriously in my relationships, but none of those relationships have lasted so long yet as to be threatened by the simple wear of time. And while I do enjoy mystery now and have always been curious about the world around me, there are still parts of myself I don’t understand. Seeing the struggle of self-understanding reflected in young adult literature is a comfort.
And if character development is reliant on the evolution of the self—which, by definition, it is—then young adult literature is the ideal vehicle for character development. So, in sum, if the height of literature is compelling character development and compelling character development is most successful in young adult literature because of the nature of being a young adult and its inherent quality of being a time of self-discovery and self-growth, it makes sense to me that young adult books hold more interest for many readers than do most adult books.
This is not at all to say that one is better than the other, of course. Both have their merits, and books are so individual that I think it’s fairly useless, in general, to compare entire groups of books by intended audience in terms of “better” and “worse.”
But if you are an adult who scorns other adults for reading young adult literature, perhaps consider this next time you find yourself souring on young adult literature. Meanwhile, if you’re an adult who reads young adult literature but perhaps feel odd about it, you may also remember this.
And until then, go on reading young adult books as an adult.
Want the other side of the perspective? Take a look at I’ve Outgrown Young Adult Fiction and I Think I’m Okay with That.