During numerous rides down the noisy, crowded subway in my days as a student in New York, I found myself reacquainted with an old trick from my childhood. The trick was reading a book without anyone knowing you were reading the book, and it was simple enough: you took the cover of a more reputable book and slipped it over your own guilty indulgence (in my case, illicit paperback romances stashed in a dark corner of the local library).
What I found most droll about this trick on the subway was spotting the type of book most frequently hidden from the casual eye (though not my prying one): young adult fiction.
Harry Potter and its epic, dueling wand battles in a Les Misérables dust jacket. Twilight wiling away vampiric, romantic hours encased in War and Peace. And so on and so forth. Maybe the reads were irresistible, but the scrupulous readers sure as hell weren’t willing to let others know they had succumbed to the call of adolescent fiction—as if it would make them some sort of pariah if caught.
I sympathize most with the authors. Even those best-selling few whose stories engage readers of all ages are rarely considered to have written real literature; most regard their work merely as fanciful tales for angst-ridden, acne-plagued, guitar-playing, too-much-makeup-wearing youths and childish adults.
Here’s a secret for those of you who, despite the notoriety and oft-maligned reputation of young adult fiction, wish to join its ranks: realize that you are not only writing for the juvenile and pockmarked. Assume that your writing must encompass the emotional, mental, and intellectual depth, the intricate and multilayered psyches, of a broad range of ages. Know this, and you are far ahead of those who see such books in simplistic, shallow, and purely one-dimensional terms. Said people include critics of the New Yorker, as demonstrated in this recent roundtable discussion of Kathe Koja’s Headlong (much thanks to Nathan Bransford’s blog for providing the link).
After reading it, though, I think that [teenagers should reconsider reading the book]. It was far more subtle and experimental than I expected, and Lily is a complete character, with all of the obsessions that come with being a teen-ager, but also—and here’s where the book diverges from 2-D portraits of teens—an often touching sensitivity, and, amazingly for a main character, a very realistic insensitivity and self-obsession. A potentially boring heads-tails vision of morality is mercifully absent, and the book isn’t sanctimonious, much. And the plot was unpredictable. I don’t know that I’ll be reading a lot of Y.A. in the future, but I don’t feel that I wasted my time.
Well, it’s good to know your time wasn’t wasted. I’ll admit I always found the New Yorker entertaining but somewhat pretentious, and this only serves to reinforce my bias. As if a book cannot be approached with an open mind because it is (ostensibly) written for someone who is not yet old enough to have earned a college degree, or had a forty-hour workweek, or gotten married. These critics seem to forget the vast range of experience behind such books—the authors themselves—who have carefully woven their own taste of the “real world” into a novel that, despite the fact it may feature a fifteen-year-old girl as protagonist, can be as powerful and moving as any of Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy.