At work, we were recently discussing this article by Ruth Graham in Slate, about why adults shouldn’t read young adult novels. (If you haven’t read it yet, you should. You could even tell me what you think!) Obviously I think that grown ups can read teen novels (and really, they should if they have any teenagers), but I hope that isn’t the only genre we (grown up readers) read. There is some YA that is absolute garbage, some that is fluffy and entertaining, some that is really good, and some that will totally rock your world no matter how old you are. (A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness springs to mind.) My contribution to the (email) discussion was that I wish more people would read the books that challenge their ideas, that teach them about life and make their worlds more rich. But I also wish people weren't starving in Africa, there weren't any terrorists, and I never got wrinkles. Nice, lovely wishes, but not reality. Reality is that everyone reads for different reasons...my reasons are mine, and Ruth Graham's reasons are hers, and if people are at least reading (and buying!) books, we'll all find something that fits our reasons.
The discussion made me ask myself a question, though: Why am I willing to put up with in teen novels stuff that I would never put up with in adult novels? The answer is that I recognize I’m not the intended audience. No matter how good a YA novel is, I’m not ever going to respond to it like a teenager would because (no matter how intense my teenage memories are) I’ve lost my teenage perspective. I know how I used to think, but I can’t think that way anymore.
Sometimes this leads me to question my responses to YA novels. Do I feel annoyed, disappointed, or frustrated with a book because the writing isn’t very good? Or is it because I am looking at it like an adult (an adult with an English degree who also taught English)?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Take the book To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. It’s a YA novel about a girl named Lara Jean who, when she finds herself unbearably in love with someone, eventually writes him a long and detailed love letter, which she addresses but never mails. Then the letters accidentally get mailed—and she has to deal with what happens.
I so wanted to love this book. Love it in the sense of being swept up in an interesting story. It seemed like an idea brimming with potential. Would the mailed love letters completely mortify her? Would they open up new possibilities for romance? (Or better yet, self-understanding. Or something.) But what happens is Lara Jean decides to make a fake relationship with Peter Kavinsky (one of the boys who received a letter), who just broke up with Gen, who used to be Lara Jean’s best friend, all in an effort to prove to Josh (who used to be her older sister’s boyfriend) that she doesn’t still have a crush on him.
I liked other things about the book. The relationship between Lara Jean and her two sisters, Margo and Kitty, is well-drawn. And the conflict she feels about Peter (does she still like him? how does her old friendship with Gen influence things? could it develop into something more than a pretend romance?) rings true.
I just wanted those letters to be a catalyst for something other than lying.
But I don’t know: do I want that because I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the adolescent girl reader’s heart? (And how does Jenny Han?) Is digging a deeper hole really how a teenage girl would respond? (Well…duh. Probably.) Am I just expecting too much?
I’ll put it down to the last one. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a good read if you’re wanting something very sweet and a little bit fluffy. It’s definitely not life changing or inspiring. But all books don’t have to be, right?
Do you read teen novels? What do you think about adults reading YA?