After you hit a certain number of conventions, it’s hard not to notice that there are some panel topics that come up again and again. Panels with titles like Not Just for Kids Any More, and The YA Explosion, and YA: To Read or Not to Read? For a long time I had no idea why it bugged me. It seemed to me like one of those things that didn’t need justification. You like a book’s topic, you read it. But it just kept coming up.
After a while I started looking more at the panel descriptions. Again, panel after panel, the debate was more or less the same. Why do so many adults read YA? Why do adults love YA? Is it just fluff or does the YA category have actual substance, actual value? What makes a YA novel good enough for adults?
That particular phrase was what finally did it: good enough for adults.
YA isn’t good enough for adults. It was never good enough for adults. It will never be good enough for adults. Because YA doesn’t belong to adults.
It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen across all kinds of media. TV, movies, books. As YA proliferated and its readership started growing up, we started feeling the need to justify our presence in spheres that no longer belonged to us. We still enjoyed cartoons. We flocked to Disney movies of every stripe. And we kept reading shelves on shelves of YA. As I look at the to-read stack on my side table, fully half the books there are YA stories of some stripe, be it horror, fantasy, or science fiction. I could go into my own theories on why that is. The quality of editing, the streamlined storytelling, the sense of hope and the fight for change embodied in so many of these stories. But that’s for another time. What I really want to talk about is the adult intrusion into young adult spaces, and our determination to act like we belong there. That we somehow have more right to be there than the intended audience.
Don’t get me wrong: I think adults have every reason to consume YA media. It’s good stuff. (See above commentary on editing, streamlined storytelling, etc etc.) The problem arises when adult voices dominate the conversation. We, as adults, are guests in these spaces, and we should act as such. We might buy the books, but that doesn’t give us the power or permission to regulate the conversation. Buying the books doesn’t make YA stories ours.
A story being labeled “good enough for adults” is a prime example of this kind of thinking. The impression that there’s some kind of threshold of quality beyond which stories are acceptably coopted into the realm of adult literature. It’s an easy justification, a prime excuse–until you consider the vast swaths of dreck available on adult fiction shelves, and how much of that dreck makes it to the bestseller list. In any given genre or age category there’s going to be The Good Stuff and The Other Stuff. To talk like there’s some kind of elevation in a book being read by adults is to disrespect not only teen readers but also the writers of teen books.
Recently, there was an announcement about a new iteration of the 80’s cartoon, Thundercats. My social media circles–Facebook, Tumblr, Plurk, everything–exploded with adults screaming about the ruin of their favorite childhood media. In spite of the fact that I had never heard one of these people talk about Thundercats before, ever. A variation on the theme was the number of rabid housewives salivating over Twilight and Robert Pattinson, driving teen readers to form their own small circles for private conversations about the books. See also: the nerdrage over Star Wars and the Ruin of Childhood as the new movies are released.
Granted, these are extreme examples, the far end of the bell curve, but myriad milder forms exist. Those same social media sites have teens-only discussion spaces, groups, and chatrooms, because–like a woman in a male-dominated space–it’s the only way they can share their opinions without being smothered by the well, actuallys of adults. We seem to have a pathological need to correct teenagers regarding their own conclusions about their own media.
And that’s the primary point: it’s their media. It was written for them, animated for them, filmed for them. Put another way, I want us, as adults, to acknowledge that while we are free to enjoy and discuss teen and kids’ media amongst ourselves, it doesn’t belong to us. We don’t have some right to it, we don’t get to control conversations about it, and we need to stop shouting over the voices of the people for whom it is actually intended. It’s something for us to talk about with them, it’s a reason for us to hear and think about teenage opinions, to learn their values and concerns. And I personally find that more valuable than any hot take I can give on my most recent YA reads.