Young adult literature is something that never seems to stop being scoffed at. Critics and bookish elitists tend to turn their noses up at it, often claiming that reading these sort of books is juvenile and a waste of time, once you’ve grown beyond the teenage years. Journalist Ruth Graham of the Slate Book Review recently wrote “it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.” And while some of the novels geared towards a younger audience are best left in high school libraries, many of them can be a great read even if you’re more “adult” than “young.”
Warning: minor spoilers for The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, The Giver, and the Harry Potter series.
The first and probably more superficial of reasons I’m going to mention is that reading these novels are a useful tool for keeping up with the times. Sometimes it feels like every other film released in theatres these days are based on a young adult book. The Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, and seemingly every novel written by John Green have been turned into a film or series of films in the last five years. Then there are classics like the Harry Potter series, which while not in theatres any more appears in “Harry Potter Weekend” on the FreeForm channel frequently, not to mention the theme parks at Universal Studios in Hollywood, CA and Orlando, FL. Films of this nature are virtually inescapable, and reading the books they are based on can be useful in a myriad of ways. If you’re a parent, or even a sibling, of an older child or teen, these films are even more likely to cross your path. Reading them with or at the same time as them is a great way to bond, and will make it all the more enjoyable to go experience it on the silver screen. Trying to fall in line with trends may seem like a laughable reason to read a book, but if you’re going to end up seeing the movies anyway, the books are a great way to prepare.
Alternatively, if you go to see the films without reading the books first and enjoy what you’ve watched, I often find that reading a novel after seeing the movie is actually more enjoyable. I know “the book is always better” is a cliche, but it’s often true and I sometimes feel let down when I watch a film adaptation of a book. Conversely, reading the inspiration behind a movie I’ve already enjoyed often enhances the novel, as they are often full of far more detail and backstories to characters I’m already familiar with. The Hunger Games is a great example of this, because while the movies attempt to explain the downtrodden society and how the annual battle royale of impoverished youth came about, the details are glossed over for the most part. While the outlandish fashion of The Capitol citizens and the violent battle scenes between the twenty four tributes are crystal clear, Katniss’s motivation is shown to be nothing other than to save her sister, but as the novel is written entirely from her point of view, her actions and the thoughts behind them become much easier to evaluate. There is also of course a deeper understanding of the supporting characters, acting almost like a deleted scenes reel in the special features of your DVD. And of course, watching the films once more after reading the books will inevitable lead to noticing small easter or details you wouldn’t have ever noticed had you exclusively chose to watch the movie.
Even if the current cinema lineup of YA doesn’t appeal to you, there is a lot of enjoyment to be found. Another reason to read these books lies hidden within the title of the genre itself. The term “young adult” is rather ambiguous, leaving the actual range of ages to be unclear. Most people assume that YA lit is aimed at middle and high school ages, making it somewhat of a misnomer as the term young adult typically refers not to teens or preteens, but to those 18 years of old and into their mid twenties. It’s almost as though whoever decided to call them young adult novels purposely made the category to fall in a grey area, suiting whoever happens to respond to these books. If we were to include those aged to be in or just out of college, maybe people that age wouldn’t feel so many judgmental eyes on them reading these stories in public, and that could be the beginning of a beautiful domino effect.
A large percentage of college students and recent graduates have probably grown tired of reading. Even you don’t major in a novel heavy program like English or the humanities, almost every class requires hours of reading out of a textbook. Combine that with lecture notes, flashcards, and any other study materials, constant academic reading is nearly inescapable. This can leave even the most fanatic of bibliophiles a little weary, and YA books can be a fantastic baby step back into reading in your spare time. After a long day of studying, the last thing students want to read is anything too serious or difficult to absorb. One of the most wonderful traits of literature aimed at the young reader is that fairly simple to digest, making leisurely reading, well, leisurely again. Another advantage of this is reading simpler books of a certain theme will eventually guide you towards more serious or classic novels as the readers grow. Someone who remembers once enjoying The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants would understandably be enthusiastic about reading something like Little Women. Those enjoy teenage sleuth novels undoubtedly have an interest in The Moonstone or Sherlock Holmes. Even fans of Twilight probably grew to have a taste for Frankenstein and Dracula. If something more juvenile creates an appetite for a mature classic, it’s hard to argue against enjoying these sort of texts.
The fact that these books are rather easy to read also helps when controversial or devastating topics are addressed. One of the most popular genres in the world at the moment is dystopian literature, which focus on a future wherein our current world has been diminished, and left in its place is a society supposedly designed to keep the world as peaceful as possible. Books like The Giver and Divergent demonstrate the dangerous consequences of letting the wrong people, or any singular person in general, be in charge of the world for too long. Considering the current presidential campaigns, and the general state of the political world, questions raised by these and books like them are not bad ones to consider. While both of these novels and countless others focus primarily on pushing back against tyrannical authority members, Divergent goes a step further by disrupting its personality-based society of factions. The message that every individual being is far more than the boxes the world tries to sort us into has never been more relevant than in today’s society, with the ever evolving definitions of gender and sexually constantly up for debate.
Thought provoking themes like these are the final important reason why those who have passed the school years shouldn’t turn their back on young adult stories, particularly ones they have already experienced. The Harry Potter novels are an example of a story that changes as the readers does. A child reading these books most likely agrees with everything Harry and Dumbledore believe, unquestioning of the blatant hero characters. A teenager, on the other hand, may fall in love with the idea of devotion similar to Severus Snape’s to Lily Evans/ Potter. Finally, an adult journeying along the Hogwarts Express has probably outgrown blinding trusting the judgment of the protagonists. An adult is also far more likely to notice things like the very real issues of racism, veiled in the novel by the discussion of “pure blooded” wizards. Even minor characters like Dobby create discussion about slavery, and while it may not be as realistic or brutal a take as a novel like 12 Years a Slave, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, adults can make this connection and continue their literary studies elsewhere. A more mature read on the novel provokes questions about the exact definition of good and evil, or lack thereof, and almost certainly realizes that Snape had no excuse for his abusive behavior toward Harry, no matter how long he harbored an unrequited longing for his deceased mother.
This type of evolution can, and in all likelihood will, occur with every novel a person chooses to re read throughout their lives. Experiencing a story that you’ve already travelled through once makes you realize things about yourself both as a reader and as a person you may not have noticed until you turned the page.
Featured Image: Thalita Carvalho on Flickr