Let’s start with the assumption that it’s wrong to read any kind of a book. Given our woeful educational ranking in the world and the rich competition for consumer attention, any time someone reads, it’s a joyous thing. Graham claims that YA books keep adults from reading adult literary books--and trust me, I'll come back to that later--but books are not a one size fits all type of product. Whatever book gets people reading instead of playing a video game or watching television needs balloons and a parade with floats. Books of all kinds engage a reader’s imagination and creativity, relieve stress, develop analytical thinking skills, build new synapses in the brain that help stave off Alzheimers and help with short-term memory. Not only that, the studies show they let us experience the emotions of the characters and develop empathy. How then do we have the right to judge that one book form is inherently better than another?
Next, let’s question Graham's assertion that YA books are simplistic and that only “adults” have the wisdom and perspective to see how simplistic YA books are because their ends are "uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.” Um. Really? The endings of MOCKINGJAY and ALLEGIANT were uniformly satisfying, right? Everyone uniformly loved the way those ended. And clearly there is no complexity or mix of emotions in any books across the wide and varied spectrum of genres that make up the *age range* that is YA?
Even if a book does have a “satisfying” ending, is that a crime? Personally, if I want to be depressed, all I have to do is turn on the news. Sometimes, I want to think about the content of a book, about the lives of characters, without feeling like the end of the book left me hanging. It’s true that life doesn’t always have clean, simple answers. But a satisfying ending doesn’t diminish the questions and themes that are sandwiched between the covers of a book.
Perhaps Graham hasn’t developed the perspective yet to understand that a “transparently trashy” book like DIVERGENT, can start a conversation on a broader level than many “literary" books while simultaneously being immensely readable. There’s subversive skill and intellect required to develop a “simple” book about big ideas that spark even bigger ideas. Is it believable there would be a society of factions like Veronica Roth devised? Does it matter? Was it likely that the society described in 1984 would ever exist? Big books are often about grains of truth.
Let’s move on to where Graham claims that people who are reading YA “books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of adult readers,” like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, keep adults from reading adult literary novels instead. Few literary novels have reached half as many readers as TFIOS. The fact that so many people are reading something that by Graham's own admission is literary, or at least literaryish, deserves praise. Never mind the parade, break out the freaking fireworks.
I was at Bookcon at the tail end of BEA last weekend, and I happened to go downstairs to check my bag on Saturday morning. There was a line so big queuing up for the auditorium that I asked one of the dazed looking policemen on duty what was going on. “They’re here to see a guy who wrote a book about cancer,” he said. “I don’t get it.”
Which about sums up Graham’s viewpoint. She doesn’t "get it.” She doesn’t get that there are many non-literary adult books that have far more simplistic writing or characters or plots than the YA books she named, or that tastes change and that the books that were decried as frivolous when they were initially published have become the classics we now hold up as the highest examples of the novelist’s art.
The Atlantic, on the other hand, "gets" the absurdity in Graham’s piece. Noah Berlatsky wrote a rebuttal to the Slate article explaining that "of course YA books can be complex" citing Stacey Donovan’s DIVE as an example. You can argue the choice, if you like, because there are certainly hundreds if not thousands of examples we could come up with. But read the article and judge for yourself.
Another excellent post by Salon’s Laura Miller examines the merits of the deeper themes and new ideas introduced by TFIOS and points out that there are likely as many “weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science” in it as there are in SUBMERGENCE by J. J. Ledgard, which Graham praises. Miller points out that what she sees “in Graham’s essay is a critic who just doesn’t know how to read” TFIOS. And I would agree with that wholeheartedly.
If I had a chance to say only one thing to Hilary Graham, it would be to suggest that if adult readers are reading YA books, it’s not because they’re not intelligent enough to want to read the adult version of the book, whatever that might be. YA books in a wide variety of genres often manage to be beautifully written as well as entertaining and accessible. They frequently straddle the line between literary and commercial without being pretentious, and therefore they become gateway drugs to deeper, richer reading experiences for people who would never normally pick up a “literary” novel. Maybe instead of adults and young adults needing to be embarrassed about responding to story lines and themes that reflect their interests and concerns, we should give them credit for choosing what appeals to them. As is their right.
My favorite young adult novels tend to be layered with meaning. You can read them on many levels, and I suspect that if Graham or any of the spate of actors who recently have questioned the validity of "Young Adult Literature" "don’t get it," it might be because they haven’t read widely enough. Conveniently, Bankstreet’s list of The Best Children's Books of the Year Fourteen and Older just came out. I hope Graham picks up a copy. Or perhaps she could try the excellent YALSA List of Best Fiction For Young Adults for 2014. There's also a list of the current YALSA Books for Young Adults Nominations.
The main thing I want to say is that whether you are a reader or a reviewer, it’s completely your right not to like a book. But part of being an adult is to learn that you don’t know what you don’t know until you’ve actually learned quite a lot about a subject. It’s fine to dismiss a particular book, but to dismiss an entire section of the bookstore probably isn’t prudent unless you’ve extensively studied the books themselves.
Adults shouldn’t be embarrassed to read YA. Whatever we read is a valid choice.
A critic who judges a book by its shelving is no more to be respected than the reviewer who prejudges a book by its cover. It’s okay for a reader to do that—we all have our own tastes. But a critical reader needs to be more thoughtful and authoritative before I can respect her opinion, and a reviewer whose opinion I can’t respect is a reviewer whose opinion will never sway me.
YA GIVEAWAY OF THE WEEKBecause, damn it, they're beautiful. And good. And not simplistic.
If I Stay
by Gayle Forman
Speak; Reprint edition
The critically acclaimed, bestselling novel from Gayle Forman, author of Where She Went, Just One Day, and the forthcoming Just One Year.
On a day that started like any other,
Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, admiring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. In an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating the only decision she has left. It is the most important decision she'll ever make.
Simultaneously tragic and hopeful, this is a romantic, riveting, and ultimately uplifting story about memory, music, living, dying, loving.
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* * * *
Where She Went
by Gayle Forman
Speak; Reprint edition
It's been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam's life forever.
Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard's rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia's home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future - and each other.
Told from Adam's point of view in the spare, lyrical prose that defined If I Stay, Where She Went explores the devastation of grief, the promise of new hope, and the flame of rekindled romance.
Purchase Where She Went at Amazon
Purchase Where She Went at IndieBound
View Where She Went on Goodreads
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