10:30 am EDT, October 23, 2014

The kids are all right: Don’t discount YA’s teen readership (opinion)

It seems every few months another critic contributes to the steady stream of elitist and inaccurate criticism of YA fiction.

When we aren’t being told YA fiction is infantilising our culture, we are informed YA books are repetitive or simply can’t compare to the classics . If none of that convinces you that you’re wrong for enjoying the things you enjoy, there is always the fail safe argument that YA is an embarrassing reading choice for anyone who isn’t, well, a young adult.

Such criticisms are directed toward the adults who, in 2012 comprised over 55% of customers who were buying YA books, perhaps under the illusion (or delusion) that YA readers take their cues from the New York Times or the New Yorker. I am completely uninterested in rebuffing these embarrassing arguments in any depth. Needless to say, the assumption by so-called YA “critics” that they can judge the entire body of YA from reading Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and – increasingly – The Fault in Our Stars, is, frankly, laughable.

percy jackson problemThe latest blockbuster to come under attack is the Percy Jackson series, which, according to the New Yorker, represents the kinds of books we should be concerned about children reading. Why? Because it’s no longer acceptable for children to read books that they find funny, engaging, and exciting – they must also be worthy. Who decides whether they are worthy or not? Why, the adult critics, of course.

This obsession with the value of YA in comparison to adult fiction is evidence of a much greater problem. By telling adults they should be embarrassed to read books written for teenagers, critics reinforce the assumption that books written for teens are less worthy than those written for adults. Even without critically examining the body of adult literature (or judging the entire category on the works of Dan Brown in the same way it is apparently appropriate to judge all of YA from reading Potter), this belief is incredibly damaging.

If these books are – by the standard of these critics – of lesser value and therefore appropriate for teens but not adults, the implicit connotation is teens cannot, or cannot be expected to judge for themselves that comprises something of value. In the case of Percy Jackson, this critic dismisses how much her child enjoys the books because she doesn’t think they’re very good.

I am still close enough to my teenage years to find such assertions both ridiculous and offensive, and I am not alone. While attending the Inky Award ceremony in Melbourne, Australia this week, I took the opportunity to speak to the five shortlisted Australian authors about this very topic.

The Inky Awards are an interesting case in point. The awards are unique amongst literary prizes in that they are chosen entirely by teenage readers. A panel of teen judges chooses a shortlist of five Australian books in the Gold category, and five international books in the Silver category. Australian teenagers then vote for the winner; at no point in the process are adults deciding what teenagers should be reading.

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WIll Kostakis, who took home the Gold Inky for his semi-autobiographical novel The First Third, agrees that the value of the awards is in this framework. “At no point is it older gatekeepers saying, ‘These are the books you should read.’ As great as all the other [awards] are, that’s what makes this one special.”

Fairytales for Wilde Girls author Allyse Near, who herself is not far off being a young adult, agrees. “It’s important to know that kids can judge for themselves what is good literature and what sounds authentic,” she says, adding, “Adults absolutely have a place in young adult literature as readers and as writers, it’s not an exclusive group.”

Am I alone in worrying that in discussions of the value of YA, we are too quick to forget about the teenagers who comprise the intended audience of these books? Every Breath author Ellie Marney reminds me that while critics might forget about teenagers, authors certainly haven’t. “There’s a huge crossover market, obviously. I’m not writing for the crossover, I’m writing for teenagers.”

Marney penned a passionate rebuttal to an Australian critic earlier this year. I ask her what these critics are missing about YA. “It’s a complete undermining of the fact that teenagers might experience literature in a completely different way,” Marney agrees. “It’s incredibly patronising,” agrees Claire Zorn, who was shortlisted for her dystopian book The Sky So Heavy. “Acting as if teenagers are somehow less intelligent or sophisticated in their thinking.”

inky awards shortlist

For Amie Kaufman, who co-authered These Broken Stars with Meagan Spooner, YA critics are doing themselves as much of a disservice as they are doing to their readers. “It’s a great pity for them because I think young adult literature is extraordinary. I think it’s a great pity to dismiss an entire section of the bookshop and miss out.”

In the face of a seemingly endless barrage of elitist, condescending articles on a category of books I love dearly, I often find myself thinking of that wonderful C.S. Lewis quote: “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves.” Children and young adults, who have not yet learnt to adopt the protective mantle of so-called maturity that comes with adulthood are much more likely to be honest about the books they do, and do not enjoy.

Lewis continues, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

The Inky Awards demonstrate that there are passionate and engaged teenage readers out there. If we want to know what teenagers think of YA, we simply have to ask them, and give them their own space to have discussions and share their opinions. Maybe then we too will get over our aversion to anything not sufficiently “adult,” and will learn to enjoy things without reservation, just like the kids.

Feature image, from left: Ellie Marney, Amie Kaufman, Claire Zorn, Will Kostakis, Allyse Near

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