In recent years, novels written for “young adults,” ages 12 to 18 and up (and up), have become a popular and widely discussed genre in contemporary literature. Whatever the reasons for such a trend, not every observer is happy about it. An essay in Slate a few months ago, “Against YA,” by Ruth Graham, began with this challenging and insulting assertion: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” This one touched a nerve, of course, and the offended reaction to Graham’s disdain was loud and long.
Alyssa Rosenberg, writing just a few days later in the Washington Post, took up the challenge with “No, you do not have to be ashamed of reading young adult fiction,” saying, “It is not as if we are naifs one moment and jaded adults the next. The passage to maturity can be a shattering thing. Preparing yourself for that transition or looking back on that metamorphosis is hardly an un-serious act.”
But what if “maturity” is actually not where we end up? Or want to end up? In passing, Rosenberg mentions N.Y. Times film critic A.O. Scott’s claim that “the problem is really the cultural devaluation of maturity,” a claim Scott enlarges upon in a compelling essay in last Sunday’s Times, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Has maturity become so freighted a condition that we resist its painful complexities by refusing to let go of bright and careless youth? Is the rise in sympathetic regard for the true hero in YA literature today a reaction against the heroes of other modern books and films who are corrupted by greed, soured by cynicism, or dulled by complacency–who are, in fact, anti-heroes?
Maybe. “These novels,” Kelly Gallucci writes recently in Bookish (“What YA Gives Me That Other Genres Don’t”), “are also a reminder of the finite nature of life. Adults find themselves bound to the concerns of death, of how to deal with aging parents, of the diseases and hardships that await them. Teenagers are focused on today and not losing the precious time that is already at their fingertips.” Gallucci adds, “These books remind me that it is OK to look out for myself, to be selfish, to recognize that while ‘YOLO’ sounds ridiculous, it is in fact true. There is no way that I will ever feel bad about enjoying novels that have reminded me what a beautiful, terrifying, and intoxicating thing life is.” So these novels remind us to seize the day, but more than that, in the face of conflict (all stories are about conflict), I think YA heroes often exemplify a level of innocent dignity, pride, and pure courage seldom found in other places, and that’s a large part of their appeal.