Spoiler Alert: I Like Young Adult Fiction

So I’m not really sure how it happened, but we seem to have decided as a society that young adult books aren’t real books.

That’s the conclusion I have to draw from two separate conversations I’ve overheard this week, one at the bookstore and one at one of my other jobs, which included variations on “I mean, it’s YA, but it’s not really YA, because it’s good.” One was at meeting of a book club, in reference to The Giver; I don’t know what the other comment was about.

I wasn’t technically part of either conversation–hazards of the service industry–so I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, which was to ask (politely) for the speakers to clarify what they meant by a book not really being YA if it was good. Can kids’ books be good under that definition? What qualifies as YA? And why on earth are we so squeamish, as adults, about admitting that we sometimes read books for which teenagers are the target audience?

Quite aside from our rather bizarre hypocrisy of collectively expecting adults in the entertainment industry (and elsewhere) to look like teenagers when we apparently otherwise hold said teenagers in some contempt, I’m curious about what it is we object to about YA. I mean, I’m assuming that a lot of you who have read this far don’t object to it at all, but we’re a self-selecting sample. A larger (though similarly self-selecting) sample of librarians, booksellers, and authors I’ve worked or spoken with have related frequent anecdotes about being taken less seriously when they discuss YA than when they talk about either children’s or adult books. I can certainly say that I’ve had very few adult customers show any compunctions about purchasing children’s books to read themselves, but even some of my regular customers remain embarrassed when they buy Shadowshaper or Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong; when Twilight gets as much attention as it has, and when it then spawns not only a movie franchise but the surreal cultural phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Gray, I can understand that you might not have gotten the best first impression of young adult fiction. Maybe you’re also skeptical of the hoopla surrounding The Hunger Games and Harry Potter–I’d consider the last three books in that series to be YA–or have heard way too many people talking about love triangles and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in relation to stories for teenagers and are feeling a little burned out.

It’s curious to me, though, that the people I’ve overheard aren’t rejecting vampire books (the book club that appreciated The Giver is quite enthusiastic about non-Twilight vampires) or dystopias (witness the current popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and 1984), or even genre fiction in general. They’re rejecting all literature written for young adults. Genre fiction, realistic fiction, humor, if it’s written with teenagers in mind, it’s out.

Notably, the three dystopian classics I just listed are all frequently read or taught in high school. We consider them eminently suitable for young adult audiences. But where I have no problems selling 1984 to a forty-five-year-old father of two, I find that the suggestion that they check out Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is met with blank stares, even though I would consider the two books to be comparably subtle (so, not especially, but there’s definitely a time and a place where that works well), and even though Little Brother is in fact free to read online if anyone’s interested.

Is it about the age of the main characters? But I’m not alone in loving To Kill a Mockingbird and City of Thieves, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is popular in multiple adaptations. And The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds is a solid example of a young adult novel in which the protagonist essentially functions as an adult, with jobs, grief, relationships, and looking after family the primary concerns.

Is it the lack of graphic sex and violence? I’d like to direct you here to the massive cultural obsession with Jane Austen, who relates very little sex or violence indeed, and the fact that I Am the Messenger and The Female of the Species are considered YA even with scenes of violence and sexual content that are as explicit as most literary fiction and sometimes more so.

I don’t have an answer here. I don’t know why some of us who work extensively with young adult fiction have run into skepticism, or why I keep hearing these kinds of comments, some of which customers say to my face as if I’ll undoubtedly agree. I don’t know why I’ve seen people who are clearly engrossed in March put it down when they find out it’s won YA honors. (We shelve it with adult books now and it does well.)

But I want to add on something that may or may not be a counterpoint to everything I’ve said so far: The Book Thief, which was originally published as an adult novel with a young narrator, is now frequently shelved in YA. I almost never have to hand-sell it; both adults and teenagers pick it up off the shelf without a word from me. Adults will sometimes ask where they can find it. The same is true of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: it’s shelved in both YA and adult, because that’s where people look for it, and adults are quite happy to pick it up from the YA shelves.

There’s nothing that makes The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street more or less literary than, say, The Hate U Give. All are beautifully-written stories of vital, deeply human characters with much to say about wider society. The difference is in how we talk about them. We talk about The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street as books worth reading on their own merits. We celebrate the act of reading them rather than shaming each other or ourselves for it.

We can do that with more books, if we choose to. I’m starting to see it already with The Hate U Give, for which probably half my customers have been adults buying for themselves.

The Hunger Games still doesn’t have to be your cup of tea. It really isn’t mine. But we get to decide whether we dislike something for what it is, or whether we dislike it because we hold people who like it in contempt. You might notice that I’m heavily biased towards the former.

We decide what we take seriously. We decide what we let ourselves explore and what we let ourselves delight in.

Lucky us.

March

There are books for young people that I happily recommend for adults, and there are books for adults that I happily recommend to young people. I’m not entirely sure which category John Lewis’s March falls into. Like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, it’s frequently considered YA, and also like The Book Thief, I’m very happy when I see that a bookstore has it on the adult shelves as well. Unlike The Book Thief, I frequently recommend March to kids as young as twelve.

I frequently recommend it to pretty nearly everyone.

March is a memoir in three graphic novels (March: Book One and so on) about John Lewis’s work as a young man in the civil rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others. The series is co-written by Rep. Lewis and Andrew Aydin and drawn and lettered by Nate Powell. It includes landmark events through the late 1960s, many of which John Lewis witnessed and participated in firsthand, and frames everything with Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

It’s vivid and evocative, beautifully drawn and extremely well-written. I’d recommend it on those grounds alone.

But one of the most fascinating things about March is the way it plucks a piece of the civil rights movement from its place in a sweeping historical timeline and sets it down as a specific story made up of people, groups, and ideas. It firmly puts aside some notion of an inexorable move towards justice to show us the work, which was long and slow and certainly didn’t have a preordained outcome.

Partly the series accomplishes this feat through the direct, personal nature of the narrative—the story that’s told—but there’s also a large part of it that has to do with how that story is told, and that’s maybe the most fascinating thing of all. At least to me.

The quiet, unassuming, deeply effective strategy is this: while March relates each of its plotlines—the historical one with young John Lewis, and the more recent one with Rep. Lewis on inauguration day, which is a different kind of historical—in largely chronological order, it jumps back and forth between the two, and in its chronology it includes events that John didn’t see in person but found out about on television or through friends. There were marches that happened while he was in jail; murders like those of Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X; and other triumphs and other deaths, far too many of the latter. This jumble of scenes could become confusing in less capable hands, but the books’ creators know what they’re doing, and the story never feels disjointed. The strong black ink wash drawings keep a cohesive flow to the work in spite of the jumps in time.

And the payoff for their strategy is significant. The non-linear narrative breaks the spell of implicit cause-and-effect-and-cause-and-effect that is so seductive in relating history. This thing happened, and then this thing happened after, and so the one must be linked to the other—we know it’s not always true, but when we read everything on one long run, it can be hard to shake the feeling that events snowball into each other and gain momentum as they go. March shakes that feeling for us by drawing its connections between past and present, among people and places, instead of between one event and the next.

The cumulative effect is that where our history books tell us what happened, March reminds us with striking clarity that it didn’t have to happen that way.

No one had to pass the discriminatory laws that became the system of institutionalized racism that we’re still untangling to this day. No one had to stand up to those laws. No one had to march from Selma to Montgomery in the spring of 1965, and God knows, no one had to organize the segregationist gang that attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. No one had to do any of those things. They only happened because people chose them.

And even when those people followed through on their decisions, the outcomes weren’t guaranteed.

They never are.

We tell ourselves that history is on our side. We tell ourselves in stories and in songs that one day we’ll be vindicated—that what we do today will have the outcome we want tomorrow, or if not tomorrow then in days to come. We have to believe it, I guess. We have to believe that what we do matters. And it does matter, but not because history is on our side. There’s not some kind of grand, shining arc of fate we can follow if we’re just strong enough or brave enough. There’s only the claustrophobic fact that we exist here, now, in this precise moment, and that have to make the most of it. We choose a direction to walk without knowing what’s coming up the road. We can always look backwards, but we can’t see what happens next.

We never can. We speculate to no end about what’s coming and what we’ll do, but until we live it—and we will live it, because time moves forward and doesn’t stop, regardless of our opinions on the subject—until we live it, there’s no way to know for sure.

And whatever we live, doing the best we can in our given circumstances…that becomes history. All of the messy decisions we make; all of our mistakes; all of the steps we take down roads where we have only the haziest idea of what lies ahead; these will become our history. Some of it will be recorded, and some of it will be lost to time, but it will have happened anyway.

We don’t get to abdicate our role in that. If we try to stand still and close our eyes and pretend that the air around us is still and the path is clear and bright, if we lie to ourselves and say that believing in a goal is the same as pursuing it; well, those are steps like any others, and they can become our history just as easily. More easily, sometimes. Time marches on and doesn’t much care if we wish we could turn it back.

John Lewis took step after step after metaphorical step even when he couldn’t see what was coming. He took physical ones even when what he could see was a line of state troopers out for blood. He hasn’t stopped walking today.

We don’t know what happens next. We never do.

Read these books. I don’t say that very often. Stories are deeply personal things, meaning different things to different people and different things to the same people at different times in their lives. Context matters. Individual people’s contexts matter.

So, keeping in mind that I completely respect your right to ignore or disagree with anything I say for any reason:

Read these books.