But That Y.A. Book Is below Your Grade Level

As a child, my mom ordered Scholastic Books “care packages.” “They’re at your grade level,” she told me, “You have to read at least one.” I fanned through each small stack of books, analyzed the title and cover art, but nothing seemed interesting. Nothing had vampires or ghosts, or anything about kids at summer camp disappearing in the middle of the night. At the time, I had an IV line of Goosebumps and Animorphs fused into my veins; I was reading what was interesting to me, but my mom told me I needed to read more challenging books. I threw a fifth-grade temper-tantrum and stopped screaming only when my mom promised to buy me more R. L. Stine and K. A. Applegate, but only if I promised to read one of the other books she purchased. I did what any well-meaning kid would do: Lie. I read the short synopsis on the back and the last few pages, preparing for an inevitable pop quiz that could earn me a book of my choice if I passed.

Whenever I roam through a bookstore now I will take a stroll down the children’s and young adult sections to find a copy of either Phantom of the Auditorium and revel in the nostalgia of my former 3rd-grade self, or check out the current publishing trends. Young adult dystopian literature is so HOT right now, like that damn Hansel! I read young adult fiction from time to time,* — most recently Divergent and Twilight — which in itself is a trend: Adults reading books meant for young adults. Publisher’s Weekly released an article in 2012 stating that 55% of Y.A. literature is bought by adults. Within that statistic, 28% of adults were between 30 and 44 years of age. Say what? Why are adults reading so many Y.A. books?

Ruth Graham published a piece in Slate recently, chastising adults who read fiction that is well beneath them — below their grade level, as my mother used to say. I agree with Graham when she says, “let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature,” but I don’t believe adults should feel ashamed for reading Y.A. books, assuming they are reading other literature. We choose what we read for very different reasons. In the case of Divergent and Twilight, I see them as wonderful examples of how NOT to develop your female protagonist. (Both books rely heavily on the setting to make the characters interesting by default.) Graham fears that Y.A. books will “replace literary fiction from the lives of adult readers,” from Charles Dickens to Haruki Murakami. With a statistic like 55%, I can see why.

Most adults (I hope) do read literary fiction, whether they also enjoy the occasional Y.A. novel or not. To recharge our creative batteries, we need to get stupid from time to time. When I have been on a serious binge of respectable European films, I like to watch “Jackass: The Movie” or something equally ridiculous and as tasteless as a communion wafer to remind myself that life doesn’t need to be filled with heavy philosophy and Buddhist quotes. But if we are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then we are missing something, as Graham says. Yes, I agree. Y.A. literature does some very specific things: It acts as a study guide for aspiring Y.A. writers; it parallels past high school experiences; or allows us to gets stupid and shake off our intellectual caps for a while. It cannot replace the greater themes and relationships of adult life. If you are only reading Harry Potter or the latest Y.A. dystopian fiction to blow up the market, that’s a problem. Go read some Orwell.

For readers and writers who are comfortable with — and prefer — the deep complexities that adult literary fiction offers, almost any Y.A. novel will make them want to burn and punch things by the end of it, because it’s not up to par with their intellectual and emotional levels. Adults are complex beings: We have bills to pay, careers to establish or advance; marriages to attend or baby showers; maybe we’re the one’s having kids and financing a house for our family. Our brains aren’t fully developed until we are about 25 years old, and throughout that time we are “finding” ourselves — discovering what gets us up and going in the morning. To keep challenging ourselves and renewing our interest in the world, we need GOOD GREAT imaginative literature, otherwise we become stagnant individuals, like a murky pond. We need stupid moments, yes, but if we fill our lives with only empty literature and other forms of fluff entertainment, we stop living — really living.

And that’s the point Graham is trying to make; those who only want novelty and instant rewards should be ashamed. (And, my god, who in the hell wants to relive the nostalgia of High School? I don’t. High School was fucking awful.) But are we past the point of shaming those who just want instant gratification? So what if you read a Y.A. novel? If you are curious, read it, but don’t stop challenging yourself. Challenge your vocabulary. Challenge your imagination. Challenge your personal preferences. And remember: The way grade level is calculated is archaic, and it can’t tell you if a book is worth reading.


*The best Y.A. novel I have ever read was Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause. It’s the only book I have read more than once — four times, actually.

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