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Young Adulteration

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  September 21, 2011

Quite a few works of "serious" fiction meet YA criteria as well. Explicit sex scenes have been out of fashion since the 1970s. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is narrated by a teenager; Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by a child. The most popular literary novels of the last decade — The Corrections, Middlesex, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay — are straightforward stories with plot to spare. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time — sex-free, narrated by a teenager — was published in its native England in two editions: YA and adult. In the US, it was published as adult fiction, but is now a mainstay on high-school syllabi.

Every adult genre is represented in the CPL's teen room. Adult and YA themes are the same, too — anyone who believes that seeking and enjoying books about the very worst parts of life is exclusive to children should consider the current New York Times adult bestseller list. This month, Room, a book about a woman locked in a room and raped repeatedly by her father, shared the list with The Mill River Rescue, a book about an abuse survivor whose husband dies, and Blind Faith, the novel of "a woman [who] finds no closure after a man is executed for the murder of her husband and son."

When I pressed Escobar for the real difference between YA and adult lit, she sighed and paused for a long moment. "When I was growing up, I moved right from the children's room right to the sci-fi/horror collection in this library," she said. "I wish that I could have the reading experience that these kids have.

"[But] tons of adults come in this room. Clearly there are some books that everybody wants to read." Sometimes, adults feel self-conscious when picking up YA titles, she says. A number of patrons have told Escobar that certain books are "too good" to be YA novels. She hates that.

"Whenever anyone says teen writing is crap, I tell them to read the first paragraph of a James Patterson book out loud," she said.

At a party I attended recently, a high-school English teacher told me she felt no such shame. She said outright that she and her students find "literary" fiction boring. "I don't want to read about sunlight hitting a windowsill in 30 different ways," she said.


Even as the lines blur between adult and YA fiction, the ghost of E.D. Hirsch — and the specter of cultural literacy — still loom large.

The outcry against two recent articles about YA lit is evidence of this: even though, or perhaps because, writer after writer constantly reassures adults that YA literature is worthy literature, a decent number of fans still rankle when anyone implies it's nothing less than sacrosanct.

This June, Meghan Cox Gurdon enraged YA enthusiasts with "Darkness Too Visible," an article in the Wall Street Journal in which she suggested that the dark themes popular in today's YA titles are corrupting the minds of our nation's youth. Thousands freaked: journalists and librarian bloggers wrote rebuttals arguing that reading about suffering helps children surmount it; #YAsaves, a Twitter game in which people shared how YA books changed their lives for the better, trended globally.

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15 Comments / Add Comment


I just want to comment that in "Room" the girl wasn't raped by her father, but a stranger who kidnapped her and fathered her child (via all the rape).
Posted: September 22 2011 at 2:23 PM

Megan Frances

Thanks for this fascinating and insightful analysis of the YA genre.

<a href="">On Beyond Words & Pictures</a>
Posted: September 23 2011 at 2:21 PM


So Ya Lit is not a genre. Rather it shares certain characteristics but crosses genres-- science fiction, fantasy, romance, contemporary fiction and more. How many of these books have you read? I can name many literary YA titles, but it doesn't sound like you are interested.
Posted: September 28 2011 at 1:46 PM


Oh, dear. You dared criticize the YA world- prepare for a firestorm. *Runs for cover*
Posted: September 30 2011 at 2:57 PM

Elizabeth Coon

You mention The Tempest as an example of the formerly high standards of literature, but Shakespeare was essentially pop fiction in the 16th-17th centuries - the same with Austen and Dickens - so why can't YA fiction be the Shakespeare of its time? Just because something is easy to read and intriguing does not mean it is of lesser quality. I guarantee that not all of the great books for which our generation is remembered will be literary fiction; YA will be there too, along with every other category.
Posted: September 30 2011 at 2:59 PM

Elle Eschner

Just like any other form of writing, there are good and bad examples of YA literature. But I know many people, young and old, find YA lit engaging, interesting, and just as in-depth as any classical literature. John Green's novels, for example, are laugh-out-loud funny, intensely real, and read on many different levels. His book Paper Towns can be read on the surface as an interesting and engaging story, but it's more than that. It talks about our failure to understand other people complexly, the way we understand ourselves through other people and our connections with them. It holds a mirror in front of you and shows you so much about human nature. And in a completely different way, it is more complex to analyze from a literature standpoint than a TS Eliot poem, while still being made up of characters so real that they feel like your friends and scenes so known to young people that you can imagine sitting with the protagonist, Quentin, in the cafeteria with his friends, teasing one of them about the fact that his parents own the world's second-largest collection of black Santas.
Posted: September 30 2011 at 3:07 PM


Some people like to watch Jersey Shore. Some people don't even own a TV. Such is the nature of CHOICE. This argument is tired and old and you aren't really saying anything new. YAWN.

Also, I think you're revealing a bit of how out of touch you are concerning media today in calling the #YASaves hashtag a "game." Twitter (which is hardly new in the fast-paced, ever changing world of social media) is about conversation and users add "hashtags" to their tweets in order to find other people who are talking about the same topic. World of Warcraft is a game. Words with Friends is a game. #YASaves was/is a rally cry.
Posted: September 30 2011 at 3:12 PM


Your first mistake is assuming YA Lit is a "genre." It's not. It's a category in which there are many genres represented. Just as there are categories in all writing: fiction, literature (what you would assume is meant by an E.D. Hirsch reference), theater, poetry, and biography, YA Lit is a similar category. As such, the category merely denotes some similarities in structure - such as age of protagonist and other characters (notice that "adults" almost never play a significant role in YA novels, a salient point you missed), combining of genres, and intended audience.

You, in criticizing all these new forms of criticism, seem to be participating in some of it yourself - does authorial intent mean nothing? Next time you want to write on YA lit, do a bit more research - such as, oh I don't know, NOT assuming that Twilight is at all representative of the category.
Posted: September 30 2011 at 3:17 PM


I don't think this is a fair analysis of YA lit, and I have to wonder how many recent YA novels you've read. Like Elle Eschner says, John Green is a great example of a YA author that writes complex and real books - no vampires, no magic, just real teenagers. Other authors like Stephen Chbosky, Melina Marchetta and Meg Rosoff (who does use magical realism) write about "real" characters as well, people teenagers can identify with, which is where, I think, #YAsaves comes into play. To describe the hashtag as a "game" completely writes off the impact YA lit has had on countless teenagers and adults.

While The Hunger Games and Twilight are both extremely successful YA lit franchises, they are not the be all and end all of young adult literature, which is kind of what this article suggests.

Also, have you actually read the book Room? The woman in the novel isn't raped by her father, she's raped by her kidnapper - the distinction completely changes the dynamic of the novel...
Posted: September 30 2011 at 3:28 PM

Ashley Schwartau

Yeah I feel like the author didn't really research much and is INSANELY out of touch. A #hashtag is NOT A GAME. It is a way of tagging a conversation on Twitter. And calling it a game, while not necessarily insulting, just shows your age and out-of-touch-ness.

YA is not a genre. It is just another medium like plays, or high literature, or poetry or non-fiction, or commercial fiction. And within YA there are tons of other genres including sci fi, fantasy, romance, adventure, etc.

And can we PLEASE stop using Twilight as the penultimate YA example? There are only 100 *better* books out there. Anything by John Green, Maureen Johnson, Libba Bray, Scott Westerfeld, Meg Cabot, Ally Carter. And that's just a few I can think of off the top of my head.

I really wish people would stop assuming that because a book is written with a teen protagonist and with teens in mind that the book is less "worthy" of being read or taken seriously.
Posted: September 30 2011 at 3:33 PM
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