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Young Adulteration

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  September 21, 2011


Maya Escobar has been in teen services at the Cambridge Public Library for 10 years, and is now the head librarian of that department. For the last two years, following the library's multi-million-dollar renovation, Escobar has presided over the Teen Lounge, an airy space in the new addition filled with diner booths. Since the Teen Lounge moved far away from the children's department, Escobar has had more freedom in what she purchases.

"I'm so excited — we have horror movies now!" Escobar says, gesturing to a Lucite case filled with DVDs.

The Teen Lounge is dedicated to the idea of reading for fun — to find a reference book for a school project, a teen must venture out past the reading room into the old wing. The fiction section is a hodgepodge of Twilight-style paranormal romance, sci-fi, and standard YA titles — think Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. While surveying its shelves, I was startled to discover Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

Escobar makes a special effort to integrate adult titles that teens might enjoy, combing reviews and polling colleagues to find crossover books — Stephen King's in there, too, and V.C. Andrews, as well as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

All three authors feature narratives of horror, imprisonment, and sexual assault, which is no surprise: YA novels about sexual abuse and teen pregnancy are so popular that Escobar has created reading lists catering to fans of these topics.

Not to worry — pregnancy and sexual abuse aren't Cambridge epidemics. Rather, kids want to read about someone who triumphs over unbelievable hardship. They want worst-case scenarios. They want to scare themselves silly.

The Hunger Games, the preeminent YA series of the last several years, fulfills that desire: it concerns a teenage girl forced to kill in order survive. This series was also a huge hit with adult audiences — showing that while Pamela Paul and her cohort might bristle at reading about middle-age anomie and disappointment, they have an awfully high threshold for outright horror.

Escobar enumerated the most salient qualities of YA lit: a teenage protagonist, an emphasis on plot, lots first-person narration, demure sex scenes, and no gratuitous swears. What's more, "A lot of teen fiction is aspirational," Escobar said: younger kids enjoy reading about slightly older kids. This desire to look ahead doesn't seem to extend to adulthood — books in which an older protagonist looks back on her teen years fall squarely into the category of adult fiction.

To me, these qualities seemed like arbitrary criteria for a marketing niche, not deep, qualitative genre differences. In the last 10 years, I've read and enjoyed plenty of books geared toward adults that I would have adored — and understood perfectly — at 14. Last year, I spent a solid month plowing through Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire series, which — for all its freaky vampire sex scenes — features a first-person narrator, easily digestible platitudes, and language a sixth-grader could understand.

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14 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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