Tess Has Opinions

With great YA literature, comes great responsibility

At the grand old age of 25, I fully realize I am no longer the target audience for Young Adult literature. Though I admit that I find it increasingly difficult to relate to a teenage protagonist, and high school drama really does just bore me to tears, I can’t seem to get enough of good old YA. And I can’t help but wonder; why, eh? (I apologize, that was inexcusable…)

I guess my affinity for YA lit has to do with the fact that it didn’t really exist when I was a young adult myself. Sure, there have undoubtedly been stories aimed at young adults since the beginning of time, all dealing with themes of growth, identity, angst and so forth. But it has only been in recent years that YA became nΒ genre. When I was younger, the Harry Potters were bundled in with the Very Hungry Caterpillars, and it was tough to find literature to guide me through such a rough, hormonal period in my life. I think when I was sixteen I weaved back and forth between reading The Babysitter’s Club and my mum’s semi-trashy crime paperbacks; it was in interesting time for me.
But these days an increasing amount of publishing houses are developing their own YA imprints, libraries and book stores have dedicated YA sections, this genre is now a culturally accepted thing, and it is booming. I am so fond of this genre because I recognise its potential, I know what I would have gained from YA books if they were around when I was younger, but at the same time I see a responsibility to be upheld.

Now I am painfully, painfully, aware of how much of an old lady I sound when saying this but, we have to be careful of what we’re putting out there for young adult readers. With so many YA books being published these days (especially with the current successes of self-publishing), avid readers like myself will know how many shit books you have to excavate in order to get to the good stuff. And I’m not just talking about poorly written books, there’s a fair risk of that in any genre; I’m talking about the YA books that are sending really, really questionable messages.

I hear you, young readers, I know what you’re saying. Does she think we’re idiots? Does she think we actually have difficulty distinguishing fiction from reality? Does she truly believe that we’re going to base our life choices on what we read in bedtime stories?

Well…yes.

Sorry, teens, but I remember what I was like when I was one of you. You are a highly influenceable target audience, and not because you’re not as intelligent as adults or because we grown ones have it all figured out (we really don’t, honest), but because the young adult era is a confusing and difficult time. There isn’t a single young adult out there who doesn’t need a bit of guidance, and that’s exactly what stories are there for.

“Young Adult literature serves to create a reflective space for young readers as they traverse the chaos of adolescence. It mirrors the experience of finding one’s individual identity in the face of cultural subjectivity.”*

Of course you’re not going to go out and falcon punch a dragon just because a relatable YA protagonist did so in the latest trendy YA trilogy and that means that you now have superpowers. This is the subconscious we’re dealing with here, and though you’re not aware of it, it is going to take the messages you consume to heart and it is going to influence your behaviour whether you like it or not.
It’s an awesome feature to take advantage of when done in the right way: I have a running joke with my best friend that when we’re discussing some fairly serious life stuff, we can always quote Dumbledore. And then we marvel at the goddess qualities of JK Rowling, and how she really helped to shape our childhood.

But on the flip side of the coin, there are books out there that can really do some damage. I’ve lost count of the amount of Mary Sues I’ve seen in YA; I can’t relate to a perfect protagonist, what is the damn point? And why, why, why do 90% of YA novels have to contain a love story? Worse still, why do what feels like the overwhelming majority of said novels feature only the love story as the focal plot point? Reading about love stories can be fun, I know, but speaking 100% from personal experience, it really isn’t all that good for you.
I’m a Disney kid, I’m the girl who devoured Twilight even though I knew I shouldn’t, I was so obsessed with finding The One when I was younger that it overtook my life. The books I read and the films I watched did nothing but reinforce that. Though I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, I knew that I felt incomplete without that feeling of romantic love, and I wouldn’t be able to function properly in life until I found it. As cathartic as it was, I look back now and recognise it as damaging. In exactly the same way that fashion magazines promote an unhealthy self-image, unrealistic expectations in YA literature can really upset your psyche.

And it gets worse: there are a disturbing amount of YA novels that I, among others, believe promote incredibly dangerous behaviour. The number one example that I will always jump to is, and forever will be, the Hush, Hush series, which teaches us that it’s totally okay to fall in love with a guy after he has confessed to having tried to murder you. But, you know, it’s okay because he’s totally in love with you too now, he wouldn’t lie to you. *ahem*

Am I paranoid? Reading too much into it, maybe? I’m not so sure. When domestic abuse and sexual assault is so common, it’s hard to take this shit lightly. This hit home for me last year when a spate of YouTube scandals came to light; the community involved itself with a lot of positive communication during this time, but what was most disturbing to me was the amount of young adults who didn’t fully understand the true nature of consent. Education on subjects like this should be a massive priority in schools and homes, and it is sorely, sorely lacking. Though I’m not blaming YA literature for this lack of education, I can hardly stand by and watch novels actively involve themselves in the problem. I may not have a voice in the education system in this country, but I’m an internet book reviewer, I have a slightly higher voice in the world of YA lit and I’m going to scream at the top of my lungs.

I am grateful to the YA genre for giving confused, impressionable minds some guidance and relatability. But as an adult, a very opinionated adult, I can see the pitfalls and I’m worried. It worries me that there are so many novels like Runes, in which the female protagonist has a choice between a nice guy and a misogynistic, possessive, aggressive, vampire-with-a-silly-name, and she choses the latter mainly because he is Mr. McHottieHot. It worries me that teenagers will read books like The Program and end up with unhealthy (and downright wrong) attitudes towards mental illnesses. It worries me that there isn’t enough diversity, that anyone other than white, straight teens aren’t adequately represented.

I want the YA genre to be the best it can be. My generation and those before it didn’t have the genre to look to, but now that it exists I want authors and publishers to remember how important it is to think about what’s being put out there. These books help shape the future, help change cultural attitudes and misconceptions, help to guide and strengthen teenagers as they cross the threshold into adulthood. As an aspiring writer, I want to make sure what I one day put out there will be positive and constructive, and as helpful as I can make it. And I only hope others do to.

This is the part where Tess recommends some brilliant YA novels

Angelfall by Susan Ee
Cracked by Eliza Crewe
Reader Player One by Ernest Cline
Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
The Assassin’s Blade by Sarah J. Maas
The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
In the After by Dimitria Lunetta
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

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5 thoughts on “With great YA literature, comes great responsibility

  1. An excellent commentary! We need diverse YA that doesn’t promote abusive relationships as True Love, and that lets female characters be awesome without tacking on a token romance. I LOVE the Katya books for this reason. I also highly recommend the Lost Voices trilogy by Sarah Porter, even though it does get a romance subplot in the second book (plus a random romance at the end of the third book that made me feel squicky because it’s between a 30-year-old guy and an essentially-sixteen-year-old-even-though-she’s-technically-been-alive-for-over-50-years-but-she-still-LOOKS-like-a-sixteen-year-old…), because it focuses much more on relationships between girls (definitely passes the Bechdel Test).

    P.S. Just a quick note – the Ernest Cline book is Ready Player One, not Reader Player One.

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  2. I’ve had a genuine issue finding decent books nowadays when it comes to YA. I’m turning 18 in a few months and I’ve always generally read higher-levelled books, though I enjoy my brain candy now and again. I recently attempted to pick up Divergent and barely got a couple chapters in. It’s hard to find decent YA novels that aren’t carbon copies or simply boring. It’s disappointing. Think I might just go and reread Good Omens.

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