It started, I think, with Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Or at least, that’s when the pervasiveness of YA fiction in the adult marketplace began to infringe on my consciousness.
Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and its sequels held no appeal for me, but everyone else in the world seemed to find them absolutely fascinating. Yeah, I could see why teenage girls would find them attractive—there’s a pretty big wish-fulfillment component to those stories for a miserable high school girl—but their mothers were reading the books and going to the movies, too, and I just didn’t get it.
At first I thought the problem was the Twilight trilogy itself. I’m not a fan of vamps and weres in general, and these supernatural heroes seemed particularly vapid. So I tried some other books in the same category. I looked into what was selling. I read books by people I know who write YA. I went for realistic high-school life YA and for paranormal (but without vamps) YA. Nothing moved me. Or at least, it didn’t move me in the right direction. I still couldn’t understand why so many grown, independent female friends of mine chose to read books about teenagers.
So I went back to classic YA, the stuff I’d loved as a kid. Some of it really held up and some . . . didn’t. The books that worked for me fell into a couple of categories: bildungsroman stories that bridged the gap between youth and adulthood, allowing the characters to actually grow up, like Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield; genre-bending fantasies about families like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time; and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (which seems to me to me to be in a category all its own).
A great deal of contemporary fantasy (both epic and urban) starts out with heroes and heroines who are in their teens. I don’t consider these YA because, in general, the protagonists grow up fairly quickly. The narratives aren’t concerned with math class, SAT scores, cliques, proms, or the stuff of “normal” teenaged life (even normal teenaged life with vampires). They are about Saving The World (whatever world that may be) and Preventing The Apocalypse. There are, of course, books that slide across these divisions—Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games comes to mind—but even there, my interest begins to wane if the characters remain young for too long.
After much consideration, I’ve decided there are two problems for me when I am trying to read YA literature. The first is responsibility, the second is that particular brand of angst peculiar to the teenaged, developing self.
Let me say up front that I hated high school. Starting in about sixth grade, my life was sheer misery up until I went to college. Some people had highs and lows, I had lows and lowers. When I see the “it gets better” campaigns on TV and the ’Net aimed at homosexual teens, I wish there were something similar for hetero kids who are just, for want of a better expression, wounded souls. Not kids who have to go through some horrific experience (though, of course, they need help, too), but normal kids who are simply desperate for a way out.
So heading back to high school, even in order to redeem the experience with a positive outcome in a book? Not for me. I don’t want to feel the pain of a protagonist who isn’t popular, or who watches others have success, even knowing she will be happy in the end. I don’t want to look on as a girl struggles with academics, doesn’t get the scholarship she needs, feels the crushing weight of family expectation. And I certainly don’t want to hear snarky teenaged witches talk about a protagonist behind her back.
That’s the easy part. The harder part to explain to people is that I am a grown-up. In high school, I had to keep my grades up, go to the job that paid for my fun and maintain a certain level of calm around me, which wasn’t always easy. Today, I have to be sure the bills are paid, take care of my dogs, my house, my car . . . the list goes on. There is no opting out. Hell, I can’t even lock myself into a closet and cry for two hours the way I did in school without worrying about something falling apart around me that I will have to fix when I come out.
I have sympathy—even empathy—for the girls in those YA novels who feel as if the world will end if they don’t get the scholarship or the date or the dress, but it’s a memory of a feeling, an echo, not something immediate. Because I know the world won’t end. If they don’t get into the college of their choice, they will go to community college. If that hot guy doesn’t choose them (or, honestly, even if he does) they’ll probably find someone better suited to them later on in life.
When I try to express this to people, they often look at me incredulously and say, “but you read romance, you know that’s not real, either.” No, it’s not. And the very fact that the romantic relationships in these books are not the same as any romance I’ve ever had make them more enjoyable for me. At that level, at the romance level, they are pure fantasy and carry with them the emotion you only get to feel in the earliest stages of a relationship in real life. (After all, I love my husband, but having him around doesn’t perfect my life by any means, so if I am well aware that a true HEA has both the H moments and the not-so-H ones.)
Outside of the romance, however, the more responsibilities and the more family troubles the heroine has, the more deeply the story is apt to draw me in. That’s not about her relationship with the hero, it’s about her relationship with the world at large (though they’re often related). Those responsibilities—realistic ones, mind you, not outrageous, contrived situations that just make me roll my eyes—give me a handle on the heroine’s life. It’s how I relate to her, and what gives me a grounding in the story regardless of how far-fetched other things may get.
Let me take, as an example, Shannon McKenna’s latest book, Fade to Midnight. It is about as far from reality as you can imagine without having shapeshifters or demons. It has amnesia, conspiracy, psychics, paramilitary organizations running around blowing stuff up, and a couple who can’t stop having sex regardless of how bad things get. And I loved it. Yep. None of that stuff bugged me at all. Why? Because as outrageous as those trappings were, the basics of the story worked: The amnesiac hero had to find his way home to the family who needed him (while avoiding the guns and conspirators) and the heroine had to grow into a self that had been denied to her by an overprotective, stuffy, upper-crust family (and the psychotic psychic conspirators). True, neither hero nor heroine faced the kind of financial responsibilities that most of us deal with every day, but they did deal with the kind of familial complexities that only come with adulthood. And there was no escape from any of those obstacles at the end. Things are better, but there’s no giant break with the world of the novel, no perfection to come, no “prom.”
So there you have it. My inability to read YA has nothing to do with the quality of the writing in the genre, as there’s some very fine work there. Instead, it has to do with two seemingly contradictory forces: my inability to take seriously enough the characters’ situations because of their ages, and my ability to relate too well to the pain they feel.
Laura K Curtis lives in Westchester, NY, with her husband and 3 dogs, who've taught her how easily love can co-exist with the desire to kill. She blogs at Women of Mystery and maintains an online store at TorchSongs GlassWorks. She can also be found on Twitter and poking her nose into all sorts of trouble in various spots around the web.