The Case for YA
This article was originally published for ‘The Gazette’ alongside the Emerging Writer’s Festival.
While ‘young adult’ in my mind includes me, a twenty-three-year-old woman, in the vein of literary fiction this definition is more suited to teendom. Can I still consume it in the same manner as when I go to the movies to enjoy The Incredibles 2? If childhood and the childlike can be a revered and romantic journey into the past, can a return to the teenage not constitute a similar nostalgic foray?
If not, it should. It’s my favourite, marginally self-deprecating joke — I’m in my early twenties but I feel sixteen. Not so much in the sense that I haunt my high school or that absolutely nothing has changed in the last seven years, but more so that I see the infinite value in that age. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not in the camp that would regard my teenage years as the best of my life, nor would I contend they were the worst. I think instead it’s just the simple fact that the ages of thirteen to nineteen are ones of extraordinary growth. To expect to feel that I can finally close that chapter of my life feels unrealistic.
Perhaps this notion is a shared one, and part of the reason why YA fiction continues to dominate beyond the limits of its intended audience of thirteen to eighteen-year-olds. After all, it’s predominantly adults that are writing them. I wonder if YA consumers fancy themselves sort of perpetually nineteen years old — hesitant to identify as a teenager after having surpassed that ever-mounting marker of adulthood at eighteen, and yet undergoing an extraordinary transition which leaves them neither here nor there.
Of course, there are the most obvious arguments here as to why YA should remain on the proverbial shelf in the high school library — its themes lack relevance outside of the social circles of fifteen-year-old girls. This assumption works fine if one supposes that teenage troubles exist solely within the universe of an adolescent’s fairy light-strewn bedroom, but they don’t. Young romance, emerging sexuality, familial strife, mental health, substance use and cultural identity are not standalone issues. If teenage girls were but peripheral players, Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games would have only seen peripheral success.
It is undeniable that adolescent women have driven culture for a century, but this isn’t so much about the numbers as it is about why a so-called adult is driven towards YA and at what point they should stop feeling that draw. Though YA positions itself in age-specific settings (schools, for example), its themes are not necessarily age specific. When I think about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I think about loneliness — both Charlie’s and my own when I was fourteen and read that book, a feeling which hasn’t necessarily dissipated by my second decade in. When I think of Looking for Alibrandi, I think about being a Catholic school-educated, partly-Italian young woman, something that I am and always will be regardless of whether I’ve graduated out of the age bracket or not.
For all of YA’s generational universality, to suppose that the genre itself has universal appeal would be inaccurate — not only because taste is inevitably variable, but because the most well known, commercial YA novels generally lack diverse representation. Shockingly, to come of age is not done exclusively in white western suburbia, and while a dystopian novel may mix up the genre, they’re not necessarily taking great strides when it comes to bringing all sorts of stories to the forefront.
Why YA fiction, though? Don’t all stories have the potential to make someone feel something about anything? Yes — as they should — but to suppose there is a necessary point of graduation when YA becomes defunct to any reader over age eighteen doesn’t make much sense. If anything, YA means just as much to me today (if not more) than it did last decade. Dare I say at the ripe old age of twenty-three that there are periods of time that will rival the intensity of adolescence. There’s the sheer rate at which changes are happening, and the everyday struggles act as catalysts not just for change but for forming who you’ll become. There are rare times when I find myself weirdly nostalgic for teendom, but I definitely don’t envy the average fourteen-year-old for what they’re going through. It’s more admiration than anything.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that YA fiction finds relevance beyond teenagers. It seems that despite not being teenagers anymore, readers feel like their adolescence is still ongoing. Maybe it never ended or it picked back up again — or there’s such thing as a second, third and fourth adolescence. Try not to assume that YA is just for kids. We’re all better for it.