Ruth Graham: “‘Young adult’ fiction is for weepy teenagers. Let’s stop pretending that it’s respectable literature for grown-ups.”
I’m tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren’t smart.” (John Green, author of ‘The Fault in our Stars’)
The release of TFIOS in theatres last week has opened a floodgate of hate against “sick-lit” and “YA romances” from adults who seem to think that their mature, sophisticated thinking abilities put them above the crowds of mindless hormone-driven teenagers. It’s as if these highly educated individuals don’t think that teenagers are smart enough to understand reality, or mature enough to experience real pain or real love. But what are real feelings supposed to be? Any experience of “love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest of — you know, life —” is an equally valid learning experience. Is the pain of growing up, of loss, not all the same to every human of every age? Are we really going to make a gross generalization that adult lit is automatically more nuanced and intellectual than “children’s books”? There are many complex YA books and many ridiculous adult novels, and vice versa. Last I checked, Fifty Shades of Gray was classified as adult literature — a completely plotless flick. The dozens of Nicholas Sparks novels that still sell are likewise cliché and purely pointless romances, which I still occasionally enjoy simply because they’re cute. Pride and Prejudice, though among my favourite novels, was all tell and no show, and contained less intellectual substance than half the books on the YA shelf nowadays. Brave New World, while critical and intelligent in setting, had an abysmal plot and pathetic characters. Romeo and Juliet featured two 13 year olds who killed themselves because their parents didn’t get along. Talk about weepy teenagers.
In comparison, The Hunger Games series is both an intelligent reflection of the nature of modern entertainment and society, as well as touching, empowering, and meaningful in characterization and plot. The Delirium series presents a heart-wrenching story in a world of people who value intelligence and efficiency over all emotions — a world so afraid of being hurt by feelings that they’re willing to sacrifice the good to avoid the bad. Anyone who has ever been hurt by love, loss, or depression, will know exactly how real that temptation feels. Harry Potter, similarly, drew in millions of readers united by the belief that love is the greatest magic of all.
I find the attack against children’s literature sad and snobbish. “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” claims Ruth Graham in her recently published article, “I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. (…) Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? (…) Fellow adults, we are better than this.”
Better than shedding tears and experiencing the most fundamental emotions such as happiness, love, or sadness? Do you always require something ambiguous as adults, something deeper to justify your existence? What shame is there in believing, in loving, in crying? It is these simple things that make us human. For those who claim that such stories are unrealistic or vapid, know that TFIOS was born out of the death of a 16 year old girl to cancer. Know that the novel was written specifically to show cancer patients experiencing these basic human emotions of love, pain, and happiness, enjoying life just as regular people would, undefined by their illness. The Fault in our Stars is a story about love, about humanity, and aims to be overly cheesy and romantic because when you only have a limited time to live, those moments are what make life worth it.
Children’s literature is merely literature with a different purpose. Yes, “the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.” What is the matter with that? That’s what it’s meant for, and that purpose is no less important or noble than factual knowledge. Perhaps many adult novels or classics write with the intention of criticizing or analyzing the complexity of human existence, and that’s fascinating. But YA and children’s lit aim not to distinguish the high thinkers from the masses the way Eliot’s poems do; they aim to unite. They aim to embrace everyone, welcome everyone, remind us all of what’s most important, to give light in the darkest of times. There is hope that overcomes fear. There is love that overcomes war. There are “heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future” because that is what life is about when everything is stripped to its core.
I’ve said this before. Life isn’t simple; it’s disappointing and mysterious and complex. It’s painful and it’s a headache. It’s fall, after fall, after fall. But don’t you ever assume that teenagers don’t know that. For those of us who still devour YA or children’s lit, we still choose to believe that getting up is possible against all odds. We find comfort in the victory of good over evil, in the power of a true love’s kiss. We see the darkness in life but we fight for the light. In the pits of anger and fear, what else do have to hold on to in this world than a love like Lily Potter’s for her son? A love like Hazel and Augustus’s? They understood that in their limited time. In life, so many forget the simplest pleasures in their quest to leave a mark on this earth, but “the marks that humans leave are too often scars” (TFIOS). Children and teenagers tread lightly, fearlessly. It is in this lightness that we find peace.
When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.’ (John Green, Looking for Alaska)
I find great pleasure and enlightenment in adult literature, which I admittedly prefer to YA. I love the thought-provoking reflections and beauty of the language, but I find something worthy in everything that I read. I will defend the value of a child’s book until the day I die, because I know I will always come back to it, even if I roll my eyes. I know that given only a few months to live, I would choose to live a “pretentious YA romance” over an analysis of society’s issues. In everyday adult life, we may find confusion and darkness. But in hope and love, we find light.
Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. (C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia)
I hope everyone will reach that day.