For decades, adults have enjoyed books intended for teenagers and adolescents. But during this year’s leisurely summer reading season, the adult inclination toward young adult (YA) lit became a hotly debated topic.
Ruth Graham sparked a fury with her article in Slate claiming adults should be embarrassed to read juvenile fiction. A New York Times article by A.O. Scott touched on Graham’s arguments as it explored the death of adulthood in American culture. If Scott is to be believed, there is a connection between the death of cultural adulthood and the rising love of YA by adults. He argues our literature choices indicate our culture's increasingly infantilization. Or to quote my mother, “Most people just operate on the level of a teenager.”
But is this a fair generalization? Can something else besides our immaturity explain why some of us (Christian adults, in particular) love this genre?
YA books are generally geared toward children ages 12 and older. Teen books, often lumped in with YA, are usually aimed at readers 14 and older. Many in this age range like to “read up;” preteens in particular are fascinated by the lives of young adults a few years older than they are.
People assume that those of us on the other end of the spectrum—who love reading about protagonists who are younger than we are—like to “read down.” But rather than an indication of intellectual or emotional immaturity, perhaps it is something else that attracts some of us who are Christian adults to this genre.
Through the 1980s, the YA genre was much smaller. Growing up, I was fed on classical literature that would likely be considered YA today: Little Women, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Secret Garden. It wasn’t until the Harry Potter series broke the YA genre wide open in the late ‘90s that YA became known for attracting a wider swath of readers, including young adults and adults alike.
Around that time, I began to write YA stories consistently. My love of reading YA is tied closely with my love of writing YA. The arguments lamenting the death of our intellectual and cultural adulthood fail to mention this aspect: Almost all YA books are written by adults. When we read YA, we’re not so much reading a child’s perspective as we are reading an adult’s recollection of what it is or was like to be a child.
Could that mean that these titles aren’t as immature as the critics think? As we delve into YA books, we aren’t living in the minds of children. Instead, we are in dialogue with another adult, grasping for something in our memory. I believe what draws many Christians to YA is a longing to steep ourselves in something that we have forgotten or left behind.
I asked award-winning YA author and Christian Sara Zarr why she is drawn to the genre. She said:
Young characters’ experiences are less mediated by ego, self-protection, and cynicism than the experiences of characters in literature about adults. In a sense, YA fiction is always capturing that moment just before “eating the apple’”(from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and after.
Adult characters have usually long since lost their innocence when we encounter them. It’s about that first moment of vulnerability and realization that the world and us in it are not what or who we thought they were, and now how do we go forward?
Zarr’s realistic fiction books like Story of a Girl and Once was Lost don’t shy away from tough topics like teenage sex and pregnancy, bullying, kidnapping, and the death of a parent. Her novels offer a glimpse into some of those moments when a young person realizes that she lives in a broken world but still must soldier on.
Zarr’s words echo another popular YA author and Christian: Madeleine L’Engle. In her book Walking on Water, L’Engle says that being an artist and a Christian both require an acknowledgment of our own vulnerability. She says, “In becoming man for us, Christ made himself totally vulnerable…it is not possible to be a Christian while refusing to be vulnerable…We are, ourselves, as little children, and therefore we are vulnerable.”
In books like Zarr’s or L’Engle’s, we read about protagonists going through these difficult moments and get to remember our own experiences. Other novels like Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver follow characters in the midst of circumstances that are often painful, confusing, and pivotal. Reading about these protagonists takes us back to when we encountered our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world for the first time and we’re reminded that as adults, we still carry that vulnerability.
As adult readers, perhaps we are cohorts with adult writers of YA as they lead us into that realization. After all, a creator’s work often means more than she intends. L’Engle says that “in art, either as creators or as participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.” Zarr and L’Engle both refer to one of those terrible things: those moments in the Garden of Eden. L’Engle says that what happened in that place, when Adam and Eve had to have their own experience of the harsh, cruel world outside of Eden, “was the loss of memory, memory of all that God’s children are meant to be.”
Admittedly, many YA books aren’t intent on leading the reader anywhere beyond the vapid pleasure of what Ruth Graham would call “maudlin teen drama.” Adult books, like romances for both Christians and non-Christians, are often guilty of following the same clichéd path. After all, cheesy books are cheesy books whether they are intended for adults or teenagers. And perhaps adults and children alike should avoid those books altogether. In addition, writers and readers in general would do well to be educated in a wide variety of genres. But still, some of us remain drawn to YA because it reminds us of some things we have lost, both as grown-ups and as a culture.
Zarr says that Christians need to approach our brokenness with intentionality: “As Christians at any age, part of the sanctification process is having a continual awareness of the loss of innocence—our exposure to ourselves, others, and God—and figuring out how to move forward knowing what we know about ourselves, but also knowing hope is never lost.”
We all need to be reminded that being grown-up doesn’t free us from vulnerability. On the contrary, L’Engle says that “to grow up is to accept vulnerability.” Maybe it’s possible, then, that instead of pointing to our immaturity, the reading of good YA can actually help us as adults to be more grown-up as we are lead into a remembrance of our need for the author and Creator of our overarching Story.
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry in Catapult Magazine and Curator Magazine as well as articles on fairy tales and farm life at Art House America and Flourish. You can find links to her new YA fiction blog series and her other writing at thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @renewsustain.