June 09, 2014

Damn Do I Hate Book Snobs!

You know, the sort who insist that they know what you ought to be reading and declare that there is something wrong with your choice to read something that they think is beneath you -- either in terms of age or sophistication.

You know, folks like Slate's Ruth Graham.

As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.

The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult fiction is now conventional wisdom. Today, grown-ups brandish their copies of teen novels with pride. There are endless lists of YA novels that adults should read, an “I read YA” campaign for grown-up YA fans, and confessional posts by adult YA addicts. But reading YA doesn’t make for much of a confession these days: A 2012 survey by a market research firm found that 55 percent of these books are bought by people older than 18. (The definition of YA is increasingly fuzzy, but it generally refers to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds. Meanwhile, the cultural definition of “young adult” now stretches practically to age 30, which may have something to do with this whole phenomenon.)

The largest group of buyers in that survey—accounting for a whopping 28 percent of all YA sales—are between ages 30 and 44. That’s my demographic, which might be why I wasn’t surprised to hear this news. I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.


Given the decline of reading literature of any sort in our society, I applaud any adult who is reading anything. No doubt Graham would have looked down her nose at my mother, who always had a stack of romance novels on the end table next to the couch and who would usually be engrossed in one when my brother and I came home from school. But it was my mother who took me on weekly trips to the library as a kid and encouraged me to read anything -- yes, anything -- that interested me. Maybe that is why I was out of the children's section and into the teen books by the time I was ten -- and, having gone through the bulk of our library's young adult fiction by the time I reached high school, heading directly into the adult stacks sometime around the age of 14 or 15.

But something funny happened on the way to becoming the middle-aged high school teacher I am today -- I rediscovered young adult fiction. You may wonder why that happened -- especially since it occurred during the years I was teaching English , and because of the advice of my sixty-ish department chair, who advised me to not merely indulge my taste for classic authors like Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott but to also start reading what the kids were reading. She then pressed upon me a copy of a British YA book I had heard about being a hit with adults -- to the point that its publisher had to come out with an "adult edition" with a cover that business professionals would not be embarrassed by while reading on the Tube. That was, of course, my introduction to one Harry Potter.

It wasn't too long afterwards that I managed to escape the English Department, and for the last dozen or so years I have taught various social studies courses. But I've still found myself slipping some YA fiction onto my reading list. I do this, in part, to relate to my students, but also because I sometimes want something that is simply escapist or that I can anticipate having a happy ending. So excuse me for inserting a couple of YA science fiction books between volumes of Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples and for joining a couple of my students in reading Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series as they were published, as well as for all the other YA books I've enjoyed, But understand that those books gave me something to enjoy -- and the ability to point students in the direction of more grown up novels that they will enjoy and which will challenge them as readers.

Oh, yeah -- there is one other reason that I firmly believe that adults should read YA books. If you have children, you need to read what they and their friends are reading. That way you can provide intellectual and moral guidance where you think it is necessary -- and you can actually have a conversation with them about things that interest them. And that, says the guy who works with kids all day, is something I've discovered many of them desperately want -- adults who will take them seriously as thinkers and who will take an interest in what they are interested in.

So, my friends, forget Ruth Graham and her fellow book snobs -- read YA from time to time, and maybe more often if there is a child you love reading it.

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