Let Me Read What I Want

**Note: This post was originally an assignment for my non-fiction writing class, and is being posted as part of a publication requirement. I thought it would be best to share it here 🙂

I’m no stranger to the look fathers give their children as they walk through the section, trying to make a selection. Their words have me internally rolling my eyes as I catch them while I straighten up nearby shelves. “That one looks a little girly, how about another one?” “But is this going to challenge you?” “Don’t you want to try Chaucer?”

Give me a break.

It’s usually the same song and dance every single time, with few exceptions — a customer, usually around my age or a bit older but always under 30, comes up to me and says they haven’t read in years or never liked reading but would like to try to get into it, but have no idea where to start. I try to bring them some great YA novels, only to be met with reluctance at the “Young Adult” label despite their obvious interest in the plot.

Sometimes we don’t even make it to the section in the first place. The wrinkle of their nose is all I need to know.

They’ve fallen into the mindset society has instilled in them and many others: Young Adult literature is not “real” literature.

Those of us who read Young Adult know its merits. We’re familiar with the ways the stories stick with you, the ways character arcs and lessons learned weave their way into your everyday life. We can all think of a book that has opened us up to new genres, new ideas, new possibilities. We see ourselves reflected in the words on the page, sometimes even for the first time. The internet was flooded with gratitude towards Simon Spier, the titular character of Simon Vs. The Homosapiens Agenda and its movie adaptation, Love Simon, elated to see the story of a gay teen coming to terms with himself that was not centered around tragedy and filled with sweet, lovable moments. The first time I read The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel in verse about a young Dominican girl struggling to find her voice through slam poetry despite her mother’s suffocating control, I sobbed long after I closed the book. Though I’m not Dominican, my Puerto Rican heritage carries many similarities, and it was the first time I’d read about a girl like me growing up in New York City. I immediately passed the book to my mother, knowing that Xiomara’s story would resonate with her even more than it did with me. She blinked away tears as she handed it back to me, hands shaking as she breathed, “Wow. That was amazing. It felt like someone had written my own story.”

So it can be incredibly frustrating to have this work devalued, usually in comparison to literary fiction or the classics. There’s something to be said about the works that we deem “appropriate” or “valuable”, particularly what we’re given to read in middle and high school.

To read YA books as an adult is just an embarrassment; at least, that’s what we’re told.

The Booktube community, made up largely of young women reading YA, hears this constantly. There are snide comments on book reviews and monthly wrap-up videos asking why they read so much of it. There are comments on gossip sites with threads about booktubers (yes, this is somehow a thing) saying they should read “more challenging” books. A man just joining the community uploaded a video talking about how sick he was of seeing young women “caked in makeup” talking about and getting excited about these books. A new complaint comes up every single day. Even last week, some guy tried to convince me that young adult has no value because it “does not teach anything” (debatable) and there’s “no point in reading something if you aren’t going to learn anything” (questionable).

Somehow, children’s novels are acceptable, and literary fiction is the obvious next step after “outgrowing” the former type. Why is that okay?

There’s a lot to be said about the misogynistic aspect of it all. The genre is written by and consumed by largely women. I’ve watched so many fathers and grandfathers steer their sons away from the section in favor of a book without a female main character because “boys just aren’t interested in reading about that.” How will you teach your sons to respect women if you show them that women’s stories are not of value? Then there’s the push towards “great works of literature” written by, primarily, men. An interested teenager will probably read both, but do you really think your uncle will choose The Hunger Games over Lord of the Flies?

Rocky, the booktuber behind the channel “Blonde With A Book”, has a fantastic video where she dissects her embarrassment towards reading YA. She analyzes the internalized misogyny that leads to her hiding book covers, the reasons she didn’t read in high school, and the ways society views books marketed towards teenagers, particularly teenage girls. It’s a video I found myself nodding at the entire way through. As an English major, I’m expected to be devouring the classics, analyzing passages and shoving away the latest sparkly vampire book (which I would absolutely never do, because vampire books need to make a comeback — I’m talking to you, publishing industry!) The looks I receive from even family members over my top choice in genre never fails to make me groan. Suddenly, a degree means reading is not about entertainment anymore. Now, my books should be large and the text small, should be annotated and bookmarked, should be the kind I cite in a scholarly essay.

Because, well, I’m an adult, and that’s just what adults do.

Are YA novels easier to read than say, The Odyssey? Yes, very much so. Is the writing simpler, more straightforward? In most cases, this is also true. They’re marked as being “surface level” reads, books that you certainly won’t spend hours poring over passes in search of a deeper, hidden meaning. They’re declared to be dramatic books, the problems in coming-of-age stories seen as eyeroll-worthy. They’re criticized as mindless entertainment, things meant to be tucked away beneath the mattress in shame past the ripe old age of 12.

But why should we? What’s wrong with wanting a break from Albert Camus and picking up a well-loved copy of a fantastical adventure? Within those pages you’ll find stories of new worlds, like the country on the now-colonized moon in the Lunar Chronicles series, or stories rooted in reality that still manage to reach into our world and touch our own hearts, such as Girl Made of Stars about a girl dealing with the aftermath of her brother’s terrible act of violence. We learn things from the characters that inhabit our books regardless of genre or age, the way Adam Parrish in The Raven Cycle quartet taught me to keep pushing even through the seemingly impossible. We live through these characters, joining them on their journeys, in their sorrow, in their happiness.

I hate that we have to try to credit YA by naming “acceptable” books (i.e., Catcher in the Rye) when there’s value already in books like The Hate U Give and Children of Blood and Bone. Even books that are solely about “teenage drama” have value, as Rocky states in her video, because humans have value. I hate that we have to hide covers of books that we feel others will judge us for, hate that we try to reword plot descriptions to make it seem less dramatic, hate that we feel the need to give a reason for reading it outside of pure entertainment, as though it’s somehow lesser to read for pleasure.

We spend so much time trying to force children to read above their reading levels that they lose interest in reading. That disconnect can take a long time to repair. So many of us, myself included, find our renewed love of reading in the entertaining plots of Young Adult novels. How many people would still be wishing they could delve back into their hobby if they hadn’t tried out a book without fear of judgement, without the stigma attached to the genre, especially when an adult reads it?

I’m tired of hiding. I’m tired of missed opportunities and glares and questioning looks. I refuse to bend to the opinions of others that don’t make me happy. If we all just let go for the course of 300 pages, I’m sure we could all find an adventure to change our lives.

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