A writer called Ruth Graham has recently received a lot of flak for voicing an unpopular opinion in her Slate article ‘Against YA’. In it Graham argues that Adults ought to be embarrassed to read books intended for children. The Internet Book Community, a community largely comprised of individuals who believe as long as your reading you are awesome, responded with the expected Outrage.
I would be a lying liar-pants if I said I wasn’t peeved when I read Graham’s piece. Mostly, however, I was shaking my head at Graham’s Susan Pevensie-inability to see the magic anymore; and I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s letter to his goddaughter in which he wrote that “some day” she’d be “old enough to start reading fairy tales again”. I was also struck by Graham’s admission that she wasn’t too keen on stories meant for young people when she was a teen.
After sharing this article with my real-life Avid Reader Friends, I was asked by one of them what YA novels I would recommend Adults read. While I do sometimes read, and enjoy, YA novels, I, like Graham, as a kid sort of jumped over books meant for teens, bypassing them for Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and other books that were above my understanding. I’ve never been anti-books-meant-for-teens, however, and I do admit I primarily read them because they are the books my students are reading.
That being said, if you are a Grown Person who, maybe was too old for these books when they were first published, or unaware of them, here are, in no particular order, five books intended for teens that you ought to read:
- The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Written as a series of letters from protagonist Charlie to an unnamed peer, this story follows approximately one year of the teenager’s life as he makes new friends and discovers girls, drugs, and sexuality. In his letters, Charlie gives an honest report of why being a teenager is terrible. Many Grown People can probably read this and see some of their own adolescence in Charlie and his friends. The book offers grown readers an opportunity to look back and see how much they have changed, and to consider what they learned from that time in their lives.
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Green is a wildly popular author amongst teens and young adults, and, while I liked An Abundance of Katherines better than TFiOS, I include it instead because, while it also shows why being a teen sucks, it’s also a story of an often unseen demographic: kids with cancer. A whole lot of people will go their entire lives not knowing a single kid with cancer, but they are out there and dealing with something most of us won’t have to even consider until adulthood. The story is a little silly at times, but it is also important: Green shows the healthy majority that sick kids are Kids. They have the same hopes and dreams and anger and excitement and wonder and cynicism and idealism as every other kid out there.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I read AWiT as an adult and I did not understand the physics even a little bit. What I did understand, and probably what most children understand, is Meg’s sense of alienation and ostracism. Feeling like an outsider is not limited to middle and high school. It is a feeling that can, and does, crop up well into adulthood. What Meg Murray learns on her adventure is a lesson we all need to be reminded of throughout our lives.
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman. The Victorians are my heroes. They had no problem scaring the pants off their children to get them to behave. Influenced by a Victorian story for “middle readers”, Coraline echoes this tradition. Evoking the adage ‘the grass is always greener’, Gaiman shows a world that seems wonderful, but once Coraline looks past the surface, she discovers something sinister. In my experience children are straightforward; it’s adults that are often not what they seem, and this story reminds us of that.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Like Green’s novel, TATDoaPTI, shows a ‘hidden’ population. Unless you live near a reservation, or you seek them out, few non-Indians are exposed to the lives of the American Indians. Alexie gives us their plight growing up on Reservations and what happens when they try better their circumstances. This concept is not limited to American Indians, but found with any disenfranchised individual who attempts to change. Results of which vary from what happens to Junior in the novel, to what happened to Malala Yousafzai in real life. Nor is what happens to Junior, and what happened to Malala limited to children. Grown People ought to be aware of these issues and Alexie’s novel is a fun and thoughtful way to learn more about them.
I agree with the Online Book Community that no one ought to be embarrassed to read any book that is available in a library or for purchase in a book shop. If you are a Grown Person reading books intended for Teens and you are annoyed, or feel uncomfortable about it, remember: you are not the target audience. But that doesn’t mean a Grown Person cannot enjoy or get something out of a novel meant for younger people.
Teen novels, like Grown People novels, are not always good. Some, in both categories, are downright bad. (For example, I’d say you can skip the Pretty Little Liars books and Something Borrowed without a second thought.) But most popular contemporary literature is not going to stand the test of time anyway. The ones that do will be revered by future generations and the ones that we enjoy because they’re easy beach reads will be replaced by other, equally vacuous-yet-entertaining tales relevant to the times.
I had a literature lecturer in England who declared he wouldn’t read the Harry Potter books because he is, and I quote, “an adult”, and that’s OK. Some people are not interested in teen novels. If you are, I recommend the above listed books, as well as many more. There are plenty of YA novels I have read that I have not alluded to because I read them once and my life is neither better, nor worse, for having read them. I might never read them again, I may have read them repeatedly, but the overwhelming feeling is mostly ambivalence*. The five books I’ve listed, I chose because I have read them and I feel they are Worth Reading.
Also: I deliberately excluded older novels from consideration for this list because any novel older than the 1950s that is still popular could be considered a “classic” at this point. Anything that is considered a “classic” is, by definition, Worth Reading, no matter your age.
*For example: The Hunger Games Trilogy. I’ve read them all at least twice. My favorite was Catching FIre, but your life will continue as it always has whether you do or do not read it.