YA Books: To Read Or Not To Read?

Several of my recent reads have been categorized as Young Adult (YA). YA is not a genre, but a general categorization of books that encompasses all genres from horror and thriller to fantasy and romance. What makes a book a YA book is normally that the protagonist is between teen, as young as 14 or 15, to early 20s. Those young adult years.

The genesis of YA books started in the 1940s and 50s with the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. But YA as a classification really started to gain traction in the late 1960s with the publication of The Outsiders, which not only features teenager protagonists but was written by a teen. S.E. Hinton started writing the book at age 15 and the book was published in 1967 when the author was 18.

YA books started flourishing in the 1970s and throughout the 80s and 90s. Authors started experimenting with genres and styles. YA series like Sweet Valley High and the Babysitters Club, and later Goosebumps, became staples of the YA category.

And yet despite the fact that I was avid reader of the Babysitters Club back in the day, I have since grown to loathe the classification of YA.

It’s limiting.

Why do we need a book to be categorized as “YA”? We don’t. We don’t have a “Senior Adult” category for books where the protagonist is over 60. We don’t have a “Middle Adult” category for books where the protagonist is between 30 and 60. So why do we need books to be categorized as YA?

Honestly, I find the term “YA” to be a marketing tool more than anything. Slap the “YA” label on a book and bam! Instant marketing campaign aimed at a specific age demographic.

YA is the boy band label of books. I think the mentality is that if it’s called YA, then teens will clamour to buy it.

But I find the term YA limiting and short-sighted.

It’s limiting because makes adults outside of the YA age range, which is anyone over the age of 25, feel like they either can’t read the book or feel like they have to justify their reading a YA book.

I’ve seen and heard plenty of negative comments when a reader over the age of 25 proclaims to love a book like Harry Potter. Some people (presumably non-readers because readers are awesome people) scorn and deride when an adult enjoys a book classified as YA. Just because the protagonist is a teen doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth reading. Michaelangelo, arguably one of the greatest artists and foremost sculptors, was only 22 when he completed Bacchus. So tell me again why a book about young adults isn’t worth reading.

It’s also short-sighted because it tends to pigeonhole writers as “YA authors.” I see more scrutiny around these “YA authors” when they write a novel that isn’t YA. Ironic since most of the YA authors aren’t actually young adults themselves. To me, a book is a book. Why does it matter the age of the protagonist?

In fact, I think it makes more sense to classify a book as YA when the book is written by a young adult, like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I think the author’s age is a much better use of the YA categorization than the age of the protagonist.

So what does classifying a book as YA really do? In my opinion, nothing. It limits readers and authors and only really serve as a fancy marketing campaign for the big publishing houses.

It’s meaningless.

There’s a good reason to categorized some books by reader age. Chapter books and middle grade books are perfect examples.

Chapter books suit readers ages 5 to 10. Chapter books are a transition from the picture-focused books. The average chapter book has less than 20,000 words, sometimes as few as 2,000 words, and are meant to help young readers develop and grow their vocabulary, learn grammar, and understand the parts of a story. Chapter books are a gateway to longer, more complex stories.

Similarly, middle grade means the writing suits readers under 12. The books are often (but not always) a bit shorter than the average 50,000-word novel, typically falling somewhere between 20,000 and 50,00 words. The writing and themes are aimed at those under 12, dealing with eperiences that a middle grade child deals with but may not yet know how to express. The writing aims to push these readers to expand their vocabularies but at the same time not be so complex to disuade or discourage these burgeoning readers. Middle grade books should help introduce young readers to more advance stories, themes, and plots.

In both chapter books and middle grade books, the font may be a slight bit larger and there may be more space between lines, both of which are tools to help these readers learn and grow. To become stronger, better readers. To learn to enjoy books and appreciate stories.

YA books, on the other hand, are full-length novels, some with well-over 300 pages. These books have no reading or learning development reasons. The only reason YA books are categorized as such is the protagonist’s age. That’s it.

So in that sense, books such as Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, To Kill A Mockingbird, and even The Diary of Anne Frank are YA simply because the protagonist is under 25. Not because the book is aiding a young reader in developing any reading skills.

When I was in high school, I read books like Stephen King’s The Stand, Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire, Kerouac’s On The Road, and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. I did not read the so-called YA books. Except for maybe King’s The Body (the book the movie Stand By Me is based one) since it is considered a “coming of age” story about young teens. But it’s only YA in the sense that the book features teens as the main characters because frankly, it deals with some heavy themes.

For me, the popular YA books at the time I was in high school, like the Babysitter’s Club series, felt more along the lines of middle grade reading. Like gateway books. Those were the stories I read in middle school. But by high school, I was on to epic fantasy, philosophical works, and all the classic banned books.

I think classifying a book as YA simply based on the protagonist’s age is meaningless. It would be like classifying all books about a queen or king as “Royalty Books”. Or all books with protagonists over age 65 to be “AARP books”. Seriously meaningless.

It’s watered down writing.

I have found more and more that the writing in YA books to be simplistic. As if teens aren’t able to read complex sentences. As if the thought process is, “Oh, I’m writing a book about a teenager and so I can write easy, dumb-downed prose.”

I recently picked up a book by a popular YA author. The book was 416 pages. I read it in 3 hours.

Let’s think about that. A 400-page book has approximately 100,000 words. I read it in around 180 minutes, give or take. That means I read about 556 words per minute.

In other words, I read really fast. And I admit, I skimmed entire paragraphs, probably pages, and still understood the plot and action of the book. Why? Because the writing was simplistic. And this isn’t the only YA book I’ve picked up in the last year or so that I felt had dumbed down writing.

I’m not saying that every book needs to a great literary work like Ulysses or War and Peace or Hamlet. I’m not even saying that every YA book has simplistic prose. In fact, I recently read The Ones We’re Meant To Find, a YA categorized book with 16 and 18-year old protagonists. But I had previously hesitated to pick it up because of my recent string of disappointments with YA books. I finally picked it up because of my TBR Challenge. And I’m glad I did. As I read, I became completely immersed in this story. I couldn’t rush through it because it has some complex themes and some underlying philosophical questions that required me to fully read the story.

In other words, I couldn’t skim it because if I had I skimmed any of it, I would’ve missed something important.

Is The Ones We’re Meant to Find a work of great literature? I doubt it. But it is a book I greatly enjoyed and it was well written. It wasn’t watered down. It wasn’t simplistic in writing or themes.

I was spurred to recosinder the YA categorization because I read this book right after the aforementioned disappointing YA book (which also led me to write this post). Because I had read too many YA books that had simplistic writing, that I just found boring, I had been shying from reading others, like The Ones We’re Meant To Find, simply because of the YA categorization.

I do believe we shouldn’t cheapen literature by watering down the prose simply because the protangonist is a teen. That’s not doing anyone, especially young adult readers, a favor.

To Read or Not?

my YA TBR shelf

Despite my patchy record with YA, I will still read YA books (even though I’m well over the age demographic). I will definitely still complain about the inane YA category. I will probably likely still grumble about the ones that are cheap fiction.

Then again, I will also continue to find gems like The Ones We’re Meant to Find that remind me to ignore the YA label. Because YA books with YA protagonists can still tell a good story and illuminate truths about our society and our world.

What are your thoughts on the YA label? Share your opinions in the comments below.

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