Saturday, June 7, 2014

Not Embarrassed At All

Last month, I talked about how not everything I read is what most people would consider suitable, appropriate, adult literature. And nothing could prove this more than reading Ruth Graham’s rant against young adult fiction. According to Graham, I ought to feel ashamed that I read and enjoy books written for a younger audience.

And, to be fair, the books I read as a younger me...yeah, some of it is a little painful to read now as an adult. The angst in every Lurlene McDaniel or Elizabeth Chandler novel I’ve ever read felt so poignant at the time, but can grate now.  The corniness of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series had somehow felt so much more frightening when I was young. They were fantastic in their time with worlds that I’d loved then, but—Graham’s right—they aren’t places I want to revisit as an adult. Because I’ve grown out of them.

But there are many stories within the genre that I haven’t. Whose stories really are as enjoyable as an adult as they are for a younger audience. I’ve already talked about some of my favorites, like Francesca Lia Block, J.K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman. And, undoubtedly, I’ll talk about even more as the year goes on. Because there’s nothing wrong with the genre. While, yes, some books within the genre don’t quite hold up with age, that doesn’t mean than none do.

Take, for instance, the film Penelope, which is a modern fairytale about a girl who, because of a curse on her family, was born with a pig’s nose. Cleverly written and well-acted, the film makes a thoroughly entertaining statement on money, romance, and beauty and how too often we let superficial aspects and other people’s expectations dictate our lives and our view of our own worth. What I love most about it is that it takes the beauty-and-the-beast story trope and turns it on its head. We’ve heard story after story about women who learn to love men who fall outside society’s idea of ideal. Of how they can see past appearances and reveal these men’s inner worth. Penelope gives us an absolutely stunning example of how the reverse can be just as true, while also teaching us that love—all kinds of love—start from being able to love and accept one’s self first.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak also deals with a girl who feels outside society. Her writing captures that moment in time so well, it was like jumping into a time machine. Melinda’s voice—the sarcasm and naïve jadedness—felt so much like my own voice at that age. It transports and traps you in a time where so much of your life doesn’t feel like your own, when your actions and decisions feel dictated by everyone but yourself. By parents. By teachers. Even by your own peers. It’s a powerful story that pulls you back in time and through the wringer as it explores how hard it can be to stand up for yourself and make yourself heard.

My last story is a bit of a cheat. I’ve already talked about my love for Neil Gaiman, but his film Mirrormask deserves its own recognition. Completely quotable and magnificently presented, this film features the familiar trope of teenage rebellion through a magical modern fairytale-take. The thing that stands out most for me is that, unlike many YA stories, this film presents both the teenage and the adult perspectives fairly. You get to see both the virtues and the flaws in both sides. And, before the story ends, both sides must bend to find a balance between the two.

To be fair, I think Graham makes some good points in her article. I, too, remembering “graduating” from reading a handful of genres to, yes, still having go-to favorites but also being able to at least give other genres a chance to surprise me. And, yes, if all one reads is YA—or really any genre at all—well...I wouldn’t say you should be embarrassed, but you might want to explore the rest of the bookstore. 

Because, as I’ve said before, I think reading a variety of genres makes a person a better reader. Which also means, by completely discounting an entire genre simply because of an arbitrary age limit, you too are limiting yourself. You are depriving yourself of great stories simply because of some marketer’s definition of a target demographic. And you are removing yourself from the constant conversation literature and storytelling is always having, making yourself less relevant because you’ve snobbishly dismissed something as beneath you before ever giving it a chance.

Because there are YA stories worth telling and consuming out there, from The Catcher in the Rye to The Amber Spyglass. Since the youth is almost always ahead of older generations on progressive ideas, a lot of YA deals with characters not mainstream enough for adult markets. YA tends to have more fully developed LGBTQA characters and characters of color than many other genres. And, if you’ll look at the examples I’ve just given, YA had a remarkable number of strong, fully developed female protagonists who get to go on their own adventures and get to tell their own stories. YAs stories tend to feature voices left untold in too many other genres. Because it doesn’t necessarily have to play by the same rules of publishing that more mainstream adult stories do, YA often has more storytelling flexibility. You shouldn’t discount it just because not all of it’s great—which can be said of ALL genres—because that doesn’t mean all of it’s bad.

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