YA Elitism: Why you should read whatever you want to read

Teenager reading, YA fiction

A couple of weeks ago, Joe Nutt, an educational consultant and author, wrote an article that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Interestingly, the article, published in TES, was originally titled ‘Today’s young adult fiction is robbing our teenagers of a chance to become literate adults’ but this (likely due to the furore it caused) was later changed to ‘Why young-adult fiction is a dangerous fantasy’ .

I can see why they changed it, ‘robbing teenagers of a chance to become literate adults‘ is a bold claim. Surely just reading books, whichever books, is aiding literacy?

I have always loved to read and have read widely through genres from an early age. I could lose myself in Roald Dahl, Mills and Boon, Stephen King, Daphne du Maurier; literally any book I could find.

My first memory of learning that people judged the books you read involved my drama teacher in secondary school. She caught me reading by myself at lunch-time. You’d think she’d have smile to herself, pleased that a youth was taking pleasure in the wonders of literature but no. She interrupted me to ask why I, an intelligent girl, were choosing to read a Point Horror book. Do you remember Point Horror? I could not get enough of those! I asked her what was wrong with Point Horror books to which she laughed derisively and stated that they were the ‘Eastenders of literature’. I remember being completely ashamed – I loved Eastenders too!

I didn’t tell her that I also loved Shakespeare and Maya Angelou because at the time, I wasn’t aware of the inherent hierarchy of books. Reading was reading. Books were books. As I have gotten older, I have learnt that there are people with the view that some books are more superior than others. Not simply that some books are better than others from a preferences point of view, no, some books are just of a higher status than others.

This elitism towards books or even entire genre is not new – just ask anyone who reads Chick Lit. Furthermore, Nutt’s article was not the first to be critical of YA fiction; a Google search can help you find a number of examples of writers jumping on their high horses to be judgemental about what young people are choosing to absorb as literature.

I feel being judgemental about what a person reads says a whole lot more about you than it does about that person. Here are some reasons why I feel why we shouldn’t judge each other’s reading choices:

At least they are reading

In their research, Children’s and Young People’s Reading in 2014, the National Literacy Trust found that ‘children and young people who read daily outside class are five times more likely to read above the expected level for their age compared with young people who never read outside class.’ It did not state that this was not the case if they read young-adult fiction.

Children and young people reading is a positive thing.

When I was teacher, there were a number of children who I know had never completed a book that I hadn’t read to them in class. They didn’t have books at home.

One of the greatest experience of my teaching career was working alongside the National Literacy Trust on an initiative called the Young Reader’s Programme. I created three book events throughout the year where the children in two classes were given the opportunity to choose and receive three free books. For a number of children, these were the first books they had owned.

I remember some of the teaching assistants I worked with expressing their displeasure that most of the boys had initially chosen Horrid Henry or Diary of a Wimpy Kid books stating that they were primarily snot and farts and they should be choosing more literary texts such as Roald Dahl or Michael Morpurgo. My answer to this was always, “At least they’re reading.”

Nutt, however, disagrees and thinks there is ‘difference between being able to decode symbols on a page and engaging with the thoughts and ideas of intelligent men and women who have important things to say’. Who decides which things are important to young people? As an only child, many of my companions were characters in books, many of my early experience were validated through those characters experiencing the same things. This was hugely important to me.

What we read should be personal to us

Shame in what we consume can be seen in all forms of media. People will describe X Factor or Keeping Up With The Kardashians as ‘guilty pleasures’. This indicates shame to me – a shame in gaining pleasure in something others don’t. You can be proud of watching Game of Thrones but should feel shame in watching America’s Next Top Model. I feel no shame in telling you that I love both.

The suggestion with YA fiction is that it is too sensational, better placed in the pages of Heat magazine than as a work of literature. Nutt suggests that we seem to have ‘decided these young adults are either too stupid to be addressed respectfully, or too obsessed with their own anxieties and bodies to engage with the far more demanding world of ideas.’  Some of the YA novels I have read have dealt with rape, mental health and drug-taking. These are pretty demanding concepts in my opinion. Young people often want to read about issues they are experiencing and I think YA can comply.

I’ll admit that I have read a lot of YA novels that I didn’t think were great. They had two dimensional characters, predictable stories and uninspired language. However, I can say the same for the adult fiction I read. Where there are good books, they are also bad ones. And our feelings towards books are personal to us.

I didn’t enjoy Catcher in the Rye and when I tell people this, they become quite annoyed with me. “How can you say that?”, they’ll ask. I’ve tried to like it because of this. I’ve questioned what is wrong with me for not liking but I’ve finally come to accept that I don’t like it and that’s ok.

Apparently, adults shouldn’t be reading YA novels, they’re not for us.

An article titled Against YA, has a tagline which states ‘Read whatever you want. But you should be embarrassed if what you read is meant for children’. I’ll admit, this pissed me off. I read the Northern Lights Trilogy by Philip Pullman at the ripe old age of 22 and loved it.

Ruth Graham, the article’s author, states that if adults are ‘substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something’. I agree if you’re only reading young-adult fiction, you’re missing out but I feel that about all genres. If you’re only reading the so-called classics, you’re missing out too. There is so much choice for readers out there.

When you get you a chance to read, those minutes or hours of snatched time should be spent on the books you enjoy the most and what you enjoy is personal to you.

There are no rules in reading

Adults shouldn’t read young-adult fiction. Young adults should read adult fiction. Who the hell is making these rules and why should we care?

In her article, Graham describes yearning to be able to earn her way into reading adult books as a young adult and because of this she wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where adults were reading the books aimed at her at the time. Really?!

As a young adult, I read adult books as well as young adult and now I’m an adult I do the same. Graham goes on to state that ‘the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable.’ When I read The Book Thief, I wasn’t aware that I was reading a book was aimed at young readers despite it having a protagonist that was on the verge of adolescence – it was just a beautiful book. So yet again, I disagree.

Nutt believes that some have ‘patronised or turned teenagers off reading entirely with books they think are good for them, instead of helping them seek out and enjoy books that matter.’ This paradoxical sentence stood out to me in the article. We shouldn’t be telling young adults which books are good for them, instead we should help them seek out the books we know to be good for them? That makes very little sense to me. I don’t truly know which books a 14 year old is going to connect with but I will encourage them to read anything.

I wonder what these writers, Nutt and Graham, would make of my love for Graphic Novels? Comics? For adults? Whatever next?

There are books I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey for example. Do I judge those who have read it? No, I really don’t care.

Nutt believes young people should be reading ‘books through which someone on the cusp of growing up gradually comes to appreciate what that means in terms of roles and responsibilities’. The thing is, Mr Nutt, no one truly knows what roles and responsibilities will exist when these young people grow up. Schools are preparing children for jobs which don’t exist yet. The technology that this generation of young people will be using daily hasn’t even been created yet.

For this reason, we can’t have rules about what young people should be reading to better themselves. The act of reading itself is what we will make them better. Better learners, better writers, better empathizers.

I can lose myself in books over the course of hours, days and weeks. That is my time. No one else’s. So you can be sure that I am not going to let anyone tell me what I should be reading. And neither should you.

Are you judgemental about the books some people read? Which genres are you ashamed of reading?