“Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”
This quote comes from a controversial article written by Ruth Graham that has stirred up all sorts of debate on the interwebs. Having read a response or two and the initial article aptly titled “Against YA,” I now feel knowledgeable enough to comment.
In the article, Graham is unapologetically bold in her diction. Though not mean-spirited, she doesn’t just imply or hint or beat around the bush; she calls some of pop-culture’s current faves, “transparently trashy.” She accuses adults of abandoning “the mature insights into that perspective [the perspective of youth] that they supposedly have acquired as adults.” In short, she implies that grown-ups read grown-up books and teens read teen books… thus, adults who read teen books are not adults.
Now, okay, as an avid reader, with interests that range from graphic novels all the way to dry texts written by dead theologians, I feel at least a little qualified to voice an opinion here. In addition to my personal reading choices, I also spend 5 days a week with kiddos, guiding them through the world of Young Adult books and the world of classics.
Here’s the deal: there isn’t an easy answer here.
Do I agree with NY Times writer A. O. Scott, who asserts that adulthood is dead in American Culture? Yes. (Especially in regards to patriarchy and manhood).
Do I lament the unashamedly immature behavior of seniors in high school, who are legally adults? Yes.
Do I believe adults should read more complex texts than children should read? Yes.
Along that train of thought, do I believe we have a literacy problem in America? Yes.
The truth is that I don’t particularly disagree with what Graham wrote, but I do take offense at what she didn’t write. There’s far more to this debate than what a person should or shouldn’t read.
So, here are my thoughts:
There is a spectrum of literacy and I think people of all ages must consider their identities as readers and human beings, making choices that move them closer to the more literate side of things. That being said, I believe people should address their work lives, family, fitness levels, etc… in the same way. The goal should always be to go from being what we are now to something more, greater, fuller…
Think of it like this: when I was a teenager, I remember taking great offense at my mother for poo-pooing my carrot-eating. I was very proud of myself for eating carrots drenched in ranch, because that was far better than my norm of hot cheetos. She said that carrots have more sugar than spinach has… which is true. But a person who doesn’t eat any vegetables should certainly be encouraged to eat carrots.
Readers are the same.
No one really needs to encourage me to read more difficult texts because I’m on the far end of the literacy spectrum. I read something like 20 books at a time, usually including one graphic novel, one YA novel (or other easy read), one classic, and one book on theology. Of course, there’re almost always a ton of other books I’ve got going at any given time, but the point is, you are reading the thoughts of a reader. Still, even with confidence in my literacy level, I read such a wide range of books because I believe I ought to continually grow.
Now, we have to address the fact that everyone is not me. Reading is one of my strengths. It is something around which I build my life. I am not the norm, nor should I be. It is good and right for other folks to have other strengths, and I’d hate to think that others look down on me because I’m not particularly musical.
I teach students who have literally never finished a book before. Of course they should read about Percy Jackson and Bella. I don’t give a damn that Bella is an insult to femininity/contains a lot of sugar. A person who is on the extreme low end of the literacy spectrum should read Twilight.
Problem: I don’t believe that Graham is frustrated with folks at the extreme low end. I think she’s frustrated with the folks in the middle. She didn’t address low literacy at all in her article, which bothers me. She lumped everyone into the same category and judged strong and weak readers by the same criteria. That’s not cool. People should read books that are appropriate and engaging for them… not for someone who has more or less reading experience than they have. Books appropriate for them.
That caveat aside, I think Graham’s point does have validity. I think it’s even biblical. Adults who should be eating solid food haven’t gotten past the milk stage of life. I think she’s annoyed that adults in our culture have decided not to move up on the spectrum, which is a shame and worthy of admonishment.
YA novels are simple. They are emotional. Their pacing and diction cater to the kid.
This is unarguable. By definition, Young Adult novels are written with the inexperienced in mind. The folks the author thinks about when writing a YA novel are the type of folks you would NEVER go to for advice, because they are children. They are the fools who plagiarize from SparkNotes, believing that I won’t catch them, because they are either incapable or unwilling to read the complex texts assigned to them. They are pimply, hormonal, and emotionally-stunted.
And yet, I read books written for them. Intentionally.
And I don’t give a damn if Ruth Graham or Mr. Scott want to judge me for it, because I’m confident that I’m as literate as they are.
The thing is, right now, I’m working on both Catch-22 and A Tale of Two Cities. So it’s really different for someone like me to sit down and read The Perks of Being a Wallflower than it is for my not-so-literate peers to read it. If that’s all an adult is reading, I think there probably is something wrong. Probably Graham is right in suggesting that, “we are better than this.” However, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that a person only reads one type of book. If I read Looking for Alaska on a plane ride, it’s not because I can’t or even don’t want to read Jane Austen. It’s because I’m on a plane and want the flight to seem faster, and reading YA allows me to finish a book in a matter of hours.
Adults should read. They should read books that are more complex than the ones they give to their children, in addition to reading the ones they give to their children. They should read fiction and non-fiction. They should read books that they understand and ones they don’t, because the only way to move up on the spectrum is to get used to eating carrots, then move on to peas, then spinach, then even kale.
There should be a difference between what adults read and what children read, and there should be a difference between how adults read and how children read.
Mark Twain once said that, “the man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
I just quoted that from memory, and yet my favorite series of all-time involves an orphan boy, magic, and the surpassing power in being marked from infancy by love. I can reference Mark Twain and J.K. Rowling with equal consistency. I do not believe I have to love one more than the other or even should love one more than the other. They are both equally valuable to my life. However, my knowledge and skill with literature does mean that I am more literate than many of those who forsake the patriarchs of literacy for John Green.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle claimed that our brains are like rooms, and we are to fill them with furniture as seems best.
I think that’s what reading is about. A person should consider the furniture with which she decorates her brain. She should always be improving upon pieces she possesses, because she doesn’t want her room to fall into disrepair. However, a brand-new homeowner cannot be expected to match the stylings of those who’ve been working on their houses for decades, and a person should not be shamed for finally attempting to make something of a space after decades of neglecting it.
Am I against adults reading YA? Absolutely not.
I am for everyone, young and old, moving closer to literacy. I am against blanket statements and judgments. And I am certainly against literary snobbery.
No adult should feel embarrassed for reading literature written for children. They should feel embarrassed for neglecting their brains, which is maybe closer to what Graham meant to critique. However, she should feel embarrassed for shaming whole groups of people at once, as if reading weren’t personal and intimate. As if one person’s experience reading a book can be equated to another person’s reading of the same book. As if she is qualified and justified in prioritizing challenging reading over enjoyable reading in my life. As if books and story can be quantified. As if…