For those of you who watch our Facebook page, you’ll have noticed that we are passionate about the state of YA literature around here. Not too long ago I put together a list of YA Must Reads, but I didn’t have a lot of time to sit down and collect my thoughts on what it is about YA literature that makes it so important until now.
There are a lot of opposing viewpoints of YA floating around the web. On one hand, there are those who feel that YA literature is substandard and even that its authors only write YA fiction because it’s the only place where standards are low enough that they can be traditionally published. This is not just insulting, but it shows a gigantic lack in what these critics have read of the genre in question.
An article I read recently made some theories as to why adults sometimes read YA and in fact have become a significant percentage of YA readership. That person said it was due to Millennials tendency to “Failure to Launch” and delay entering into adulthood in any meaningful manner. At first I was enraged by this very pointed assumption on the author’s part that Millennials are perforce less mature than earlier generations simply because our path to adulthood is different than earlier generations, with several milestones falling in different places in our lifetimes than they have for our parents or grandparents. As I stewed over this, I came to a sudden insight.
Perhaps Millennials are reading YA literature in such numbers because it is a genre in which younger Generation X and older Millennial writers appear more often than in any other genre. It is a genre that more closely matches our life experiences than traditional adult genres. Don’t get me wrong, I love High Fantasy, but let’s face it, Frodo taking the ring to Mordor has little to do with coming of age in the modern world. YA Literature is usually about character making choices about how they want to live their life. Are they going to stay on the traditional path, usually presented by the protagonist’s elders? Or will they rebel and go their own way?
If you follow this train of thought even further, you can start to build a case that modern YA Literature follows the Millennial experience of young adulthood fairly well. Speaking from the very front edge of Millennialism, the first half of this generation was raised with certain expectations of what life had in store for them. Do well in school, get a college degree (who cares what!), and then it’s off to the American Dream of a middle class job, a respectable house, a car, and hopefully an equally successful spouse and children, and wonderful rosiness. Just follow the tradition set up by the late Baby Boomers and Generation X and you’d be set. I could make a joke about how we Millennials could laugh about all of that… but in truth, we’re angry. We feel betrayed. Once upon a time, teenage rebellion in YA Literature could be about connecting with an audience and helping teenagers learn something about what their rebellions may really be about. Now, it’s almost a message of “don’t drink the Kool Aid.” And teenage rebellion against society standards is a predominant theme in YA Literature Right Now.
Exhibit A: The Hunger Games. It would not have been terribly difficult for Katniss and Peeta to settle down somewhat after the first book. Uncomfortable to overlook what was going on around them, but they could have done it if President Snow had left well enough alone. Instead, the third book in particular is about how Katniss’ elders don’t have all the answers, and that she needs to rebel against everything to make a new and better society. She ends up sacrificing a lot to do that, but the message is there. Change yourself, change your world, and make challenges for what you believe is right and don’t stand back and ignore the things that you know are wrong.
Exhibit B: Divergent. Talk about a book with some teenage rebellion. Tris is all about going her own way and breaking the system. It’s her job to break the system, because the system is flawed. I’m not sure of a way to read this book without getting that message.
I could keep going, but that will just make my next point more clear: YA Literature also talks about how the world is broken and must be fixed, particularly in Speculative Fiction. How it’s the job of those who are younger to change the world and make it better. This is scary stuff, if you think about it, especially if you are vested in the way things are and stand to lose a lot by radical change. There is a preponderance of dystopian literature out there right now, and moving beyond that another preponderance of literature dealing with teens working to not be traditional, not make traditional choices, and to change the options they have by forcing the issue and being unconventional. All things that many Millennials have to do in everyday life. For us, it sometimes comes down to thinking outside the box or perishing by the side of the road after you’ve run out of ramen. For Millennials, traditional choices either come with hefty price tags or are a luxury they may have to do without.
Perhaps this is the main thrust behind the attempt to discredit YA Literature. Maybe it’s not about the writing, or shallow plot lines. Maybe all this hate is rooted in the fear of what happens when you tell the largest generation in U.S. history to challenge their place in society, what society owes them, and what is morally right or wrong. What happens when they turn what they’ve learned in the books they grew up reading and apply it to adult life?
YA Literature is becoming the voice of a generation in a stunning capacity in the way that music was for the Baby Boomers. Discrediting it is no more or less than an attempt to discredit that generation of readers (and a handful of authors so far) in much the same way as Time Magazine is now infamous for.