It seems like every couple of months, someone comes around to shame adult readers of YA for their choices in entertainment. When I heard about the most recent iteration of this—an article written by A. O. Scott in The New York Times last week—I sought out the article with a certainty that it would strike up enough rage for me to rant about in a post. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good rant? But then I read the article and the rage-monster inside of me never surfaced—instead my intellectual monster did—and she’s been rather dormant since I graduated nearly two years ago—so instead of amusing angry ranting, you’re about to get amusing intellectual ranting. Still with me? (Probably not, but I swear it won’t be boring, folks!)
The central premise of “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” is that American culture is killing adulthood—and it has been for a long time. Even our canonized literature mocks the establishment of adulthood and society by heroizing boys and men who traipse around outside of society to have adventures (see Huck Finn, Moby Dick, the awful Leatherstocking Tales, among others). And looking at these books, most of which I studied in pursuit of my undergraduate degree, he makes a good point. The American literature canon is filled with countless works about exploring the unknown or going on great quests and adventures and generally shirking societal duty.
But at the same time, he kind of misses the point—and that’s what I want to talk about here. He describes current American adulthood and the YA genre—along with a handful of TV shows and dudebro comedy movies—as a sort of modern day Fountain of Youth. People aren’t growing up anymore. We’re growing older, certainly, but we’re not becoming adults.
Of course, anyone who’s even tangentially familiar with the great “Are Millennial the worst generation ever? EVER?” debate is familiar with this and I could probably paper your walls with a lengthy treatise on why this alleged eternal childhood of the Millennial is complete and utter bull crap, but now is not the time nor the place.
Instead, I want to talk about why Mr. Scott has got it wrong when it comes to YA.
So let’s lay out some facts for full disclosure. One: I’m an adult. I’m twenty-four, I’m married, I’ve graduated from college, and I pay taxes and my own rent. I think that unequivocally makes me an adult. Two: I adore young adult fiction. Three: I was an English major back when I was in school, so it’s pretty much second nature for me to break apart literature and examine it from all angles—even the literature I like. Even when I want to, I can rarely read things purely for pleasure. A part of my brain is always processing and deconstructing what I read.
I like to think that I’m the antithesis of what Mr. Scott thinks a YA-reading adult is.
Mr. Scott essentially describes YA literature as “literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality.” Included with this comparison is the assumption that those things are bad, but I’m just going to come out and say that they’re not. What’s bad about having stories wherein boys go on adventures and learn things (because in the YA I’ve read, at least, the learning things is always a crucial part of the story)? What’s wrong about stories about “female sentimentality” wherein girls talk honestly and openly about things that important to them? (And let’s not get me started on the raging misogyny in the assumption that anything that talks about “girl issues” is inherently ‘lesser.’)
I can see why these stories might not be for everyone, and I can see why some adults might eschew YA lit in lieu of something they feel more able to relate to, but let me be clear: YA is not mere escapism, nor is it a glorification of eternal childhood.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at one of the central facets of YA literature. In pretty much every YA book you’ll read, there’s an absence of adults. Adults pepper the background, of course, but they’re usually the antagonist, set dressing, or they’re there to impart vital information before dying. This lack of adults is essential to the genre because it forces our teenage protagonists to assume adult roles. (For an example of what happens when the adults don’t take the backseat, see Avatar: The Legend of Korra.) YA literature is full of teenagers who have to step up and save the world—or piece their lives back together in the case of contemporary YA—because the adults, to whom that role “rightly” belongs, are gone or incapable of filling that role. Harry has to defeat Voldemort alone because his adult mentors have died (and because the megalomaniac adult of Voldemort is hunting him down). Katniss must overthrow the government because the adults involved want to replace one corrupt government with another. Keladry of Mindelan (of my favorite Tamora Pierce books) must take a stand and stop the bullies and protect the small because the adults around her certainly aren’t doing it. Hazel Grace Lancaster must cope with the all-too-adult realities of love and death.
YA, at its heart, is not about teenagers enjoying their responsibility-free lives. It’s about teenagers having to step up and assume adult responsibilities because the adults around them are absent or incompetent.
At the end of his article, Mr Scott alludes to the idea that we’re having a “crisis of authority,” and that phrase struck me. YA fiction is about a crisis of authority. Everything from “teen girl problem novels” to the swamps of dystopian fiction are about navigating the waters when the authority figures you thought you could trust are no longer there for you. And you know what? That’s an important lesson for everyone to learn—for the children who have been let down or abused by the adults who they should have been able to trust, for the recent college graduates who are trying to find work and stability in one of the worst job markets this country has ever seen (especially when we’ve been told all our lives that we can do whatever we put our minds to), to the middle-aged adults who also face economic instability and a government that’s so self-destructive that it can’t really offer anyone anything.
We are having a crisis of authority—but that’s why we need YA literature more than ever.