In Defense of Reading Young Adult Literature

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I've always considered myself an equal opportunity reader.  I love a good literary novel, and I'll occasionally read some non-fiction, but I also enjoy lots of genre fiction.  Not that genre fiction can't be literary...see, this is where I start to have problems with the "experts" of the literary world.  I want my reading selections to have some substance-for mindless distraction I go to reality television (though usually of the "talented people doing things I can't do" variety a la Top Chef or Project Runway).  But who's to say that high fantasy or a procedural thriller can't have substance?

Nowhere is this bias more obvious when reading the more "serious" book bloggers I know than when it comes to young adult literature.  I've seen adults who read young adult literature described as everything from immature to unintelligent (a much nicer word than is occasionally used).  As a teacher and literacy coach, it is actually part of my job to keep up with what's new and good in children's and young adult literature, but that is not the only reason that I enjoy-yes, actually enjoy as a reader-books written for middle grade and adolescent readers. These types of stories bring me back to my own childhood, or help me make sense of what the children and youth in my life may be going through, but they can also have something profound to say about the human experience and our relationships to each other that is just as eye-opening and thought-provoking as the best of "adult" literature.

Obviously, not all children's and young adult literature is created equal-just as not all adult literature is equally meritorious.  Good writing is good writing, and bad writing is bad...sometimes very bad.  While I got sucked into the Twilight phenomenon when my daughter read them in middle school, now that I have recovered from my vampire/werewolf fog I can recognize how badly those books are actually written.  But at the same time, the Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games trilogy point out how good writing and powerful storytelling can transcend the labels and often arbitrary decisions we make about what book goes where in the literary pecking order.

If you'll forgive me for a moment, I'm going to take you into the world of leveling books.  If you are not a teacher or a parent, you may not even realize that books are leveled according to readability and subject matter for the purpose of matching readers in schools with appropriate books.  There are various leveling systems that publishers and teachers use to determine what "level" a book is, but the one that is getting the most press at the moment is Lexile levels.  The common core standards that most states in the US have adopted to drive instruction for elementary and high school students use Lexile ranges to place books in a continuum for guiding instruction. The reason I bring this up is that what a Lexile really measures is readability-in other words, at what point in their development as readers should a child be able to actually read and have a basic understanding of the words in a book.  There are some literary types who would have you believe that in order for a book to be substantive and achieve that coveted title "literary fiction", it needs to be difficult to read.  Being an "easy read" is somehow seen as a negative.

But let's look at the Lexile level of some classics, books that are considered examples of the best of English language literature.  A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, is admittedly one of his shorter, more accessible titles.  But even so, it has a Lexile level of 460L.  Roughly, that equates to a 3rd-grade reading level.  Yes, you read that right, third grade.  Does that mean that the issues raised in the book are accessible to a third-grade student?  Of course not.  But it does raise the question of whether "literary" and "difficult" necessarily go together.  Huckleberry Finn, at 850L, is roughly fifth-grade level, The Iliad is fourth-grade level, as is The Handmaid's Tale and The Grapes of Wrath.  Given that the readability of these classics is so low, it is obviously more than the relative ease or difficulty of reading them that makes them remarkable.  So why is it so hard to imagine that literature written specifically for young adults, literature that might be "easy" for a skilled, mature reader to read, might have value?

I don't really care whether other people judge my reading habits because I happen to read a lot of children's and young adult titles.  I choose the books I read mostly for my own selfish reasons, as I assume most avid readers of any kind do.  But I think that this strict admonishment against reading young adult literature as an adult is silly, and cuts us off from some really excellent works of fiction.  Maybe you like all of your books to be a mental workout-if Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow are your favorite books, then maybe young adult books or most genre fiction are not for you.  I myself read almost no romance or chick lit-those stories just aren't my cup of tea.  But I don't judge people who do, and that it is the point.  There are so many wonderful stories out there to discover-why make people feel as though they have to limit themselves based on the sometimes somewhat arbitrary classifications that the hoi polloi of literature and publishing have created?


  1. I don't have a problem with anyone who reads young adult fiction. I have a problem with anyone who considers themselves a reader and then paints themselves into a genre-specific corner and never comes out again. The wonderful thing about readers (over film or television buffs) is their willingness to stray from their comfort zone.

  2. Interesting...I assume you mean any corner? Like someone who only reads romance or thrillers or sci fi or fantasy or women's lit? I suppose I would have to agree in principle, though I don't know if I would go so far as to call it a problem, per se. But like most things in life, I think that having balance is good. I feel the same way about music, though not movies or tv. It seems a shame to limit yourself when there is so much good writing-music and prose-in the world.


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