Love Young Adult Lit? You’re Not Alone – Here’s the Real Reason We Obsess Over the Genre

by BUST Magazine

YA? Why Not?

This past summer, my plan to read Sarah Dessen novels while dangling my bare feet over a lakeside dock was rudely interrupted by a scowling article in Slate insisting adults should feel embarrassed reading YA novels, because they’re “books for children.” I felt a twinge of shame. After all, I often make a point of doing grown-up things, like drinking bourbon, listening to NPR, and transferring my credit-card balances. But I’ve also discovered that YA novels are infinitely readable and intelligent in ways that other popular fiction isn’t. And they aren’t just about high school either (though a few of my favorites are, like Eleanor and Park and Not That Kind of Girl); some are about girls who live in the future, or survived wars, or started revolutions.

Critics of YA’s adult popularity claim we’re all regressing as a culture, watching Glee, singing “Let it Go” from Frozen, and turning into overgrown 15-year-olds. But I’m old enough to remember when YA barely existed, save for a few paperbacks I devoured in my tweens in the ’80s. Written by Paul Zindel, S.E. Hinton, and Norma Fox Mazer, they invariably featured a serious-faced kid in grubby jeans on the cover. And while there were no vampires or dystopias in them, wilder premises beckoned from beyond the kids’ section of library—Stephen King’s Carrie, my mom’s copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear (some sections got dog-eared very quickly), and a certain series about siblings locked in an attic. By the mid-’90s, young adult readers were dwindling and books were losing out to The Real World and the Scream franchise. But the tide turned with the Harry Potter series—“books for children” that suddenly everyone was reading. And that phenomenon was followed by Twilight and The Hunger Games. Suddenly, YA had become pop culture instead of just competing with it.

Some might find this dismaying, but in a world where famous young women run a gauntlet of slut-shaming and snarking, YA protagonists are a hell of a lot more durable. And, unlike mainstream movies, a book doesn’t need blockbuster sales numbers. YA takes advantage of this fact by taking risks and playing with genres. Magical realism with sexy angels? Sure! Sci-fi feminist romance with social critique? Why not? A creepy parable about abstinence masquerading as a vampire trilogy? You bet. Not every story is brilliant, but many ask the kinds of crazy questions that hit us all as soon as we start thinking for ourselves: what if we had to choose what kind of person we would be for the rest of our lives? What if the world runs out of water? What if everyone gets plastic surgery and we forget what normal people look like? There’s a book for all of those.

My own teen years are distant memories of acid wash and cassette singles. But every time I read a premise I’ve never encountered before—which happens a lot with YA—it’s like coming of age all over again. And I’m old enough now to appreciate how awesome that is.

Written by: Wendy McClure

Illustration by: Boya Sun

This story originally appeared in BUST Magazine. Subscribe today! 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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