As much as I love young adult fiction, there comes a point when it’s time to let go. It was hard to admit to myself at 23, when I was still technically a young adult, that the novels I had found so engaging less than ten years ago now seemed less so. This doesn’t apply to everything by any means: “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” all remained in pristine condition to my “fully formed” adult mind. But a great many others had lost their luster. What sets these novels apart, for me, are the thematic elements and the writing style. L’Engle and Rowling were probably my first introduction to battles between good and evil without simple explanations. Both novels show me why a character is evil instead of just telling me. It’s still nice to see a righteous hero defeat an unredeemable villain. For “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” I find Chbosky’s prose to be almost lyrical, poetic in its ability to get at the truth, which resonated with me as a younger teenager and even now as an adult. Not all YA novels have the same resonance.
Like many other readers, my love of books started at a young age. My love of YA followed soon after. I steadily read things, getting more and more advanced, and soon the children’s books in my classroom weren’t enough. My introduction to YA came in the form of two Nancy Drew novels my third grade teacher kept in her classroom. I must’ve gone through both books 10 times before I finally gave in and just stole them. No one ever caught me. I’m sorry for disappointing you Nancy.
I think YA novels often get a bad rap for being popcorn reading, in that they can be completed quickly and, like popcorn, have no “nutritional” value. They’re “easy” books that can be finished in a single sitting because, according to critics or other adult readers, they lack character depth or possess contrived plots. While I’m unsure if either of those reasons are enough to disparage YA, I can say that it does bother me when a novel gives me simplified characters. While I might buy that a character is evil, I want to know why he or she is. What circumstances led to them wanting to rule the world or destroy it or whatever?
As I got older, I started to turn to these books as easy reading. After spending a whole summer reading Victorian novels and challenging myself with American classics, anything by Lynne Ewing (“Daughters of the Moon”) just paled in comparison in terms of difficulty. YA novels featured a lack of thematic depth, simplified characters, a lack of description, and, annoyingly, a dependence on romance to push the plot further. I just got tired of sexually frustrated teenagers falling in love (and replaced them with sexually frustrated English adults). However, I found myself going back to these books over and over again if only to provide respite from the notoriously verbose Victorian novelists. And just because they lacked difficulty doesn’t mean I didn’t still enjoy them.
I like to re-read books. Like other forms of art, books change the more times they’re read. I discovered that when I re-read books I found new things I’d missed before. I imagine, to most readers, books aren’t just art or something to wile away a lazy Sunday afternoon. Books are the physical representation of a passion and drive to live other lives, visit other places, be other people, and see, feel, taste things that we wouldn’t otherwise experience. The YA books of my childhood aren’t just popcorn, they’re my friends: Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, “Den of Shadows” and “The Kiesha’ra Series”; Diane Duane, “Young Wizards Series”; Scott Wallens, “Sevens”; Tamora Pierce, “The Circle of Magic”, Isobel Bird, and her “Circle of Three”; Scott Westerfeld, “Midnighters”; and the list goes on.
Re-reading them was like visiting an old friend, and catching up with them. But like all visits with old friends, they must end. While I love reading these books, I knew they didn’t challenge me anymore, didn’t push me to be a better reader, a better person. Of course, I believe that people who love reading are unequivocally good. Reading makes people better. But in order to be better at reading, one has to read new things, other stories and writings at increasing difficulties. Now, I spend most of my days reading “adult” books, which makes it sound like I read a lot of erotica. What I mean is, I read non-YA fiction and nonfiction, even literary theory or philosophy. Sometimes I feel like the third grader I was, struggling with this new type of reading and marveling at learning new words and new styles of writing. I know I’ll come out better for it when all the work is said and done.
So, I had to take a break from these old YA stories in order to challenge myself, in order to be better, but I’ll go back to them eventually.
I always do.
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