Monday, 1 February 2016

Age-inappropriate reading?

I had a good visit to the library today. I found three books that I actually want to read, not mere fillers I borrow because I don’t want to return home empty handed. They all come from the new arrivals’ shelf – always a delight when I can snatch something up first. My haul is The Rest of Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Angel of Storms by Trudy Canavan, and Dream a Little Dream by Kerstin Gier. What they have in common is that they’re fantasy of one kind or another – and that they’re all meant for young or young adult readers.

Having chosen, once again, exclusively from the youth department, I was inspired to revisit an old post that I wrote as a reaction to an article that appeared in Slate in 2014. The writer, Ruth Graham, was of opinion (probably still is?) that adults “should feel embarrassed” when what they’re reading is written for children. Not because the books are bad – she discards the obviously bad books and concentrates on those with literary merit. She objects to them because their (adult) readers “are asked to abandon the mature insights … that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.”

Graham rejects YA fiction because she sees it merely as “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”. Admittedly, it can be all that. Young adult fantasy is probably doubly escapist. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Nostalgia is necessary for humans from time to time. It puts our present and future into perspective. Moreover, young adult fiction can be so much more too. Some of the most insightful, innovative and unprejudiced fiction is written for young people – Patrick Ness being one of the writers at the top of the list.

Another crime of the YA fiction is, in Graham’s opinion, that it lacks the “emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction – of the real world”. In a real world, and apparently in fiction based on it, there are no happy endings, and so “adult readers ought to reject [YA fiction] as far too simple”.  Anyone who has read John Green knows that’s simply not true (although, Graham’s article is actually written as a reaction to The Fault in Our Stars) and, while I admit that Kerstin Gier and Trudy Canavan tend to write books with satisfying endings, Patrick Ness doesn’t let his readers off easy either.

But the oddest notion of Graham’s is that adults who read YA fiction rob teenagers the chance of moving to the ‘grown-up’ fiction. I don’t even know how that could be possible. There is no natural path that guides readers from one type of books to another and from one age group to another. Books from different times, genres and literary ambitions coexist for anyone to find and read. Adults who read YA fiction do not make teenagers blind to other books. Moreover, just like adults want to return to their youth by reading YA fiction, teenagers have a need to experience the world of adults. They will discard YA books far faster than the adults who read them – perhaps to return to them later.

So I will continue to read anything I want and like. I won’t discard good books merely because of my physical age or my assumed stage of maturity. I won’t limit myself to books suitable for my age either. Young adult fiction has lessons to teach to me as well. And I won’t be ashamed of sometimes wanting to forget the reality, be it with the help of young adult or some other escapist fiction.

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