May 21 2011 11:00am

No Prom, Please, I’m A Grown-Up: Why I Don’t Read YA

Edward and Bella in TwilightIt 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.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’EngleSo 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.

Fade to Midnight by Shannon McKennaLet 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.

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1. J.A.
Well put. I tried so hard to steer clear from YA and the whole Twilight insanity, I thought it ridiculous. By that time, I was already hooked to Charlaine Harris and thought it a knock off. It wasn't till a flight home to visit I randomly grabbed the book off the shelf at the airport and it hooked me on the plane ride. I was somewhat disgusted with myself for loving it and ended up having to get the rest of the books in the series. I'm a stay at home mom of three, I love my romance books and I love my smut in them and the one problem I had was that through the series I so wanted Bella and Edward to give into their lust and as soon as the word marriage came up, I groaned. Of course they would have to get married first, duh, this is a YA book and the author is morman. Ok, I can wait till the marriage day. Everything led up to that honeymoon and I was so anxious for these two to come together completely and when it was skipped over and went to the next morning, I was so pissed I threw the book. I felt cheated, like I invested so much in these characters and this was such a huge part of the story. Duh, this is YA, I had to remind myself again. I steered clear from it again, until I won a book from Jennifer Echols called Going Too Far. I was really nervous to pick it up, but I'm glad I did because I LOVED it and the YA world really opened up to me. The storylines were unique and beautifully crafted and tugged at all my emotional strings. I was getting so much out of these characters by them falling in love and I realized I didn't always need that hot bedroom scene, I was getting so much chemistry from a look, a touch it amazed me. It brought me back to that innocent time I can never go back to when I led with my emotions and where nothing else mattered but falling in love. I gave it that second shot and I'm hooked. I haven't loved every book I've read, but the ones I've loved I hold close. I can definitely say it's not for everyone, book tastes vary greatly from person to person. So, that is my YA story :)
2. Anette
Wow. That was just... Wow. Like you just took a needle and put it right on the perfect place. Like accupuncture or something. This is EXACTLY how I feel about YA's:
Because I know the world won’t end.
And that's the truth. The world will NOT end. I had a pretty rough time in school and after leaving that period to itself, cutting through college and doing fine - I know the world will not end. And reading about teenagers who act like it make me unable to respect their minds and actions. I'm sorry, but YA is just... YA. And not for me.

I want romance novels where the heroine are at least capable of developing a character - and growing up through the story. If that process is sped up by feeling something for a member of the other sex - then even better. And if HE learns something important from falling in love - now, that's actually the best part. That's like... getting a whole strawberry and custard pie - all to yourself :D
Carrie Strickler
3. DyslexicSquirrel
I agree whole heartedly. I don't want to be reminded about high school. It was four awful, no-good, very bad years. Even in high school, I was more grown up than most of my peers (I know everyone says that, but it's true). I had to grow up fast, I had to take care of myself. And I don't mean to say I was never irresponsible, ever. I was a kid.

I loved Fade to Midnight, as well as everything else Shannon McKenna has ever written. The whole psychic power thing didn't bother me when it first showed up in Sean's book, even though it was unexpected not being a paranormla series in the least (unless you take into account the McCloud's freaky... ahem, sexual skills).
Laura K. Curtis
4. LauraKCurtis
@ J.A. - Yeah, see, that's the funny thing for me--I *should* like YA because I tend to skim the very long, explicit sex scenes. Not having them doesn't bother me at all, and I know a number of women who read YA now because most of the adult romance is super-saturated with sex and they don't like that. (It doesn't bother me; I want the adult books and I just skim over any sex that gets too graphic!)

@Anette -
Thanks. It took me a while to figure out what my problem with the genre was. There's a lot of good writing there, so I *want* to like it, but... :)

@DyslexicSquirrel -

Right there with you on McKenna. There was one book of hers I couldn't take, but I can't remember the title. I remember thinking "oh, no, I hope she isn't going to write like this from now on," but then she went back to being an auto-buy for me.
Clare 2e
5. clare2e
I definitely feel this way when there isn't enough at stake in YA. When they're forced by BIG circumstances to grow up too fast, I'm interested. I don't mean the faked-up, wisecracking teens on TV who have 50 year-olds writing their jokes. I mean like the kids in Dickens and in Orson Scott Card's Ender series (and I LOVED the L'Engle series). As for the romance, sometimes I buy the stated depth of the feeling, and sometimes I don't. But maybe it's because I enjoy being an adult, and remember being hag-ridden by personal anxiety and frustration, which I don't want to revisit for fun. Some of the YA heroes, however, are way more together than I was, and I think that's when I appreciate them.
Carmen Pinzon
6. bungluna
I think the only YA series I've read was by Meg Cabot, starting with "When Lighning Strikes". It was recommended to me because I'd complained about books/shows not showing characters with super-powers when they are weighed down by everybody's expectations. I really liked this series. Other than that, I haven't even been tempted to buy any of the other popular ones out there. I too feel like I've been there, survived that and just don't care to go back and re-live it over and over again.
Carrie Strickler
7. DyslexicSquirrel
@LauraKCurtis: Hmm, I can't think of which one that would be. I think I've read all her books, but I'm not sure.

There was a novella I didn't love, love, but I don't remember what it was called.
8. CindyS
I have wondered for years if maybe I was being unfair to YA books but I have been open about the fact that I love romance and want that romance to leave the bedroom door open. So, if I'm reading about teens, I don't feel right.

I have also wondered (and maybe everyone can give their thoughts) if the adults who love YA books now read them when they are teens.

I came to romance late - around 18 while I have heard others came to the genre way earlier. When I was a teen, I very much bought teen stories about life at school and problems with boyfriends. It all fit then (which goes with what you were talking about). Once I became an adult I no longer read YA books because they no longer appealed and hey, been there read that.

I do however watch the odd teen movie and saw Twilight (not the rest) but I'm not on a team or obsessed. I just thought it was nice not to be bored by a teen movie.

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