On Reading YA

November 17, 2009 at 9:13 am | Posted in Book Blather, Young Adult Fiction | 27 Comments

I read young adult books.  Granted, I live with a young adult, and we read together, but I don’t need that excuse.  Young adult books at their best can be better than their adult counterparts:  they cover bigger issues, have more interesting plot lines and better drawn characters, and display more engaging writing styles.  You’re also more likely to find someone to discuss them with.

That being said, young adult books are for young adults.  Assume you want to read something momentous.  The Book Thief is a truly great book about the Holocaust.  Arguably, Sophie’s Choice is a better book about the Holocaust.  The Book Thief has a higher page count, but it’s a much faster read.  The Kindly Ones will take you as long as reading both the other two put together, and when I say that I include the time you’ll spend thinking about it afterward.  Just because you’re reading a YA book with “merit” does not mean it has equal merit to the greatest, most enduring classics of literary fiction.

On the other hand, let’s say you like “fluff.”  I’ll define fluff as something fast, fun, and entertaining – like chick lit.  There’s nothing wrong with this; indeed, “fluff” is probably what keeps the publishing industry in operation, and it certainly subsidizes more serious works.  Don’t feel apologetic about it – I don’t.  But don’t gloat about how much you read, either.  Reading fluff is just like doing Sudoku:  it provides a certain amount of mental exercise, but not the maximum, and in the end, what do you have to show for it?

While we’re at it, let’s discuss page count, too.  Make two stacks.  In one you’re going to put The Recognitions, The Kindly Ones, and Gravity’s Rainbow.  In the other you’re going to put, I dunno, anything by Meg Cabot or your favorite YA author.  Now, start flipping them open.  Notice how dense the text is in the first stack?  I’m not going to make you get out a ruler or start doing word count or anything.  Let’s just say that The Princess Diaries is 206 kb, or .8 kb per page, and The Kindly Ones is 951k, or .95 kb per page (a rate that would shrink TPD from 256 to only 196 pages, or, conversely, swell TKO from 992 to 1170).  It adds up.  YA books aren’t equivalent in content, and they aren’t equivalent in word count, either.  We’ll leave complexity and vocabulary out of the discussion for the time being.  Again, if you’re reading a lot of YA, don’t gloat, because you’re not reading as much as you think you are.

The classics are classics for a reason.  If you feel boredom or distaste when reading a difficult book, like many people do, don’t give up.  Chances are you’ll get more out of it with a little more time and perspective.  Frankly, I read a lot of comments about authors “failing” to accomplish something when it’s clear to me the reader “failed” to get the point.  Don’t give up.  Work harder to build your chops and the rewards will come.  Reading isn’t just about personal taste; it’s also about effort, and YA simply doesn’t take as much effort.  Give credit where it’s due.

I’m no snob (contrary to popular belief); I read children’s books and graphic novels, popular nonfiction, and – gasp! – self-help books.  I’ll read absolutely anything, and I think you should too.  This does not, however, distract from my main focus, which is to seek out the finest, highest caliber literature the world has to offer.  Make sure you’re not displacing the epic, the grand, the heavy, the challenging, the poetic while you’re reading the entertaining.  Books are more than a pleasant, idle pastime – at their best they should shake the ground under your feet, blast open your third eye with one epiphany after another, and force you to reevaluate the world and your place in it.  Accept no substitutes.

Postscript:  Evidently this post has pushed a lot of people’s buttons, as it’s gotten more hits in one day than almost anything I’ve ever written.  If you read it and your temper is flaring, take a breath and realize I haven’t met you and it isn’t personal.  It’s rhetoric, people.  If the shoe fits, it might be because it’s a common shoe size.

PPS:  Aaaaand here is the opinion of my teen stepdaughter.

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