I’ve never quite understood the genre snobbery regarding YA novels. When people ask about my reading tastes, I stand and proudly proclaim my preference for children’s fiction (middle grade and young adult) and people don’t seem to remark on it much.
Amongst my friends who are predisposed to be bookish, we devour YA books with relish. I recently introduced Rachel to THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE, and she in turn has been spreading the love. She has also recently finished HIS DARK MATERIALS by Philip Pullman, a YA book series I can’t talk about without flailing. Sometimes, in the evenings, the two of us sit in our living room and go through the seven stages of grief together with regards to the ending of THE AMBER SPYGLASS.
Yet as I browse the internet, the question of “age-appropriate”-ness arises more often than not when it comes to children’s fiction. Nathan Bransford discusses the idea of content-rating children’s books on his blog while Mary Pearson addresses the misconceptions she comes across as a YA author. Although neither mention it, both articles seem to indirectly reference this strange and bizarre notion that reading should be an “educational” experience and/or should somehow be “good for you,” whether you are sixteen or sixty.
To which I say: BULLSHIT.
As I’ve said before, the main reason I read is to be entertained. I’m a firm believer of the idea it’s the main reason anyone should read. Now, I don’t go as far to say that we should ban critical, textual analysis altogether. I think critical analysis is important (related to the second and third reasons of why I read), but there’s nothing wrong with pure enjoyment because I think enjoyment can lead to a greater desire to analyse a work.
Candy of the Smart Bitches talks about the snobs vs. slobs approach to reading and how neither side is right, but neither are they wrong. I read YA and middle grade because I like the stories, but my reading experience doesn’t stop there. I think about why the story resonates with me and why it has value in my life. (I swear, I will stop being pretentious. Maybe.)
The older I get, the more I tend to look backwards on my life. A child looks forward, ever forward, but an adult has the luxury of looking both behind and in front of her. I am 24 years old and a grown-up (perish the thought!). At some point in my past, I have crossed from innocence to experience and I look at my state of ignorance with both fondness and pain. The sweetness of childhood is its transience and the knowledge that innocence, like all things, must pass.
My favourite story of all is the coming-of-age tale, the bildungsroman, the moment when innocence turns into experience. YA fiction deals with this fraught period of life, the twixt-and-tween of adolescence, when you realise that your parents are not omnipotent and the scary future of being held culpable for your own actions looms before you. This story is universal. There is a mythic, fable-like quality to the best YA novels that capture this bittersweet poignancy because growing up is a universal human experience.
Last night I made Rachel watch the 2003 version of Peter Pan with Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Sumpter, and Rachel Hurd-Wood. I love this version, so much so that I gave up trying to articulate to my roommate why I think it’s so brilliant. It’s different from the novel, of course, but in a way that is completely acceptable to me. (And I maintain, it adheres to the spirit of J.M. Barrie’s work.)
That was the last time the girl Wendy ever saw him. For a little longer she tried for his sake not to have growing pains; and she felt she was untrue to him when she got a prize for general knowledge. But the years came and went without bringing the careless boy; and when they met again Wendy was a married woman, and Peter was no more to her than a little dust in the box in which she had kept her toys. Wendy was grown up.
It’s been years since I’ve picked up the Bible for anything but research, but a verse that stays with me from my Sunday school days is from I Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 11: When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things. That is the pain of growing up: putting away the “gay and innocent and heartless” self.
The ending to both HIS DARK MATERIALS and PETER PAN both leave me with the “But that’s so unfair!” reaction that is perfect and right because it mirrors the experience of leaving childhood behind. And to leave childhood behind is right. The idea of “content-rating” or “age-banding” books leaves me cold. While I understand it is a parent’s desire to protect his/her children from the evils of the world, we cannot prevent protect them from life; we can only give them the tools to deal with it. Literature shouldn’t reflect the world as it should be; it should reflect the world as it is. And don’t teenagers deserve the truth as much as anyone?
I wrote a post long ago about why I write YA. While I do still believe in the the genre’s sense of wonder and potential, I think that perhaps I return to the genre over and over for a (dare I say it?) far more lofty ideal: to pay homage and mourn my own coming-of-age. To write with compassion and honesty the messy, complicated, dangerous, sweet, hurtful, painful, and joyful parts of growing up— and of being human.