Yesterday morning I would have bet you fifty American dollars that Orange Is the New Black‘s second season would be the most talked-about thing on the TwitterNets and TumblrTubes, but then Slate trolled out a piece of a hot garbage called “Yes, Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Young Adult Books” and caused the World Wide Web’s collective head to catch on fire. My head, too, was very hot on account of the smoke coming out of my ears and the white-hot rage in my eyeballs. The essay is broadly offensive to, just, everyone (there’s nothing like having strangers police your happiness with an arbitrary shame-system), but I found it particularly infuriating as a grown-up gay nerd.
Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Malinda Lo‘s Ash and Huntress and Adaptation and Inheritance: For days, I could list YA fantasy and sci-fi novels that have impacted my life enormously — as an adult.
Let me summarize Ruth Graham’s article for you: Books written for/marketed to a young adult audience usually feature likable protagonists who are wide-eyed and naive about love and identity and purpose and The Way the World Works. They have a lot of Feelings they’ve never felt before, so the way they process their emotions is overwrought and unsophisticated. And then, after wading through hundreds of pages of innocence and emotion, readers of YA novels are rewarded with book endings that are — no joke — “uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.” And adults should be embarrassed to be drawn to those types of stories because real, grown-up literature is marked by cynicism; messy, unresolved conflicts; and abominable protagonists. Choosing the former over the latter is an exercise in deplorable emotional and intellectual immaturity.
Before I smash the heck out of Graham’s philosophy (and oh, I’m gonna), let’s talk about her blanket disingenuousness. Her definition of YA literature (sentimental, escapist drivel) and adult literature (intricate, enlightened tomes of hard-won wisdom) reveals a complete ignorance about the fullness of both genres. And her specifics are laugh-out-loudable.
In one of the most apples-to-bananas comparisons I’ve ever seen, she pits The Fault In our Stars and Divergent against Dickens and Wharton. Which, for one thing: If you’re going to put classics on one side of the equation, you’ve got to put classics on the other side of the equation. The juxtaposition she’s looking for is To Kill a Mockingbird (YA) vs. Great Expectations (adult), Little Women (YA) vs. The Age of Innocence (adult). Or you can compare modern New York Times best sellers, in which case you’ve got Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars on one side and Dan Brown’s Inferno and Jim Butcher’s Skin Game on the other.
You heard me. I said Skin Game.
Tell me more, Ruth Graham, about the profound truths and emotional nuances of the 15th book in an urban fantasy series about a magical private investigator who tracks down supernatural criminals in Chicago. It sounds intensely mature.
But even if Graham had her facts right (she doesn’t) and even if her reasonings were logical (they’re not), her ideology would still be wrong, wrong, wrong.
Us humans have always been as made up of stories as we are of blood and guts and bones. From the very beginning, people have told stories. They sang them and danced them and spoke them and painted them on the walls of caves and carved them into living trees and etched them onto bones, so that their children and their children’s children would remember them and use them to find meaning and purpose in their existence. To this very day, almost all religious texts are stories, because we don’t learn how to live or why we live from lists of rules or lengthy sermons. We figure out our truths by stretching ourselves across other people’s fictional worlds. We test our boundaries, we process our own personal moral codes, we try on different vocations, we examine our sexualities, we summon courage, we dig up hope, we ask questions we’re too afraid or unallowed to ask in real life. And yeah, sometimes we escape to other worlds, because our world can be cruel and unyielding and our spirits need a safe place to rest.
I lost myself in Harry Potter, but I found myself there too. Reading The Sorcerer’s Stone was tantamount to religious treason where I grew up; when one member of my family found out I’d started the series, he shouted that I was “conspiring with the devil and consorting with the practitioners of witchcraft” before storming out of the room and refusing to talk to me for weeks.
I was 22 years old.
I read those books, and I read them again. I waited for new ones at midnight in line at Barnes and Noble, and I read them some more.
I read them and wondered what happened if there was a secret hiding inside a person that set them apart from the rest of the world. I read them and wondered what happened if you came out from a closet (or a cupboard under the stairs) and lost your DNA family but gained a magical family. I read them and thought about how the world really isn’t divided between good people and Death Eaters, and about how happiness can be found in the darkest of times, and about how what will come will come and we just have to be ready to meet it when it does. I read them and gave them to my sister and they pulled her through the depression she’d been plagued with since she was diagnosed with cancer (grown-up cancer). I read them and talked about them on the internet and made best, best friends who wanted to talk about them too.
Malinda Lo’s Ash was a time-machine balm to the 12-year-old lesbian cinderella inside me. The Golden Compass gave me closure from leaving behind my back-woods religious upbringing. Graceling validated my gender experience. The Chronicles of Narnia (ironically) fanned into flame my beaten-down feminist longings. A Wrinkle in Time sharpened my understanding of global politics. And The Hobbit made me brave enough to leave the only home I’d ever known.
I read all of those books as an adult.
Oh, I’ve seen my share of heartache and loss. I’ve traveled here and there and everywhere. I’ve played soccer with shoeless kids in the third world with a ball made out of napkins stuffed into a milk carton. I’ve had first loves and second loves and third loves and more. I’ve found true love, forever love. I’ve come out. I’ve lived out. I’ve worn a hazmat suit and held my sister’s hand while she laid in a hospital bed, her veins coursing with radiation to destroy the cancer cells. I’ve gotten drunk on fancy wine on a Venice-bound ferry at sunset. I’ve fallen into the Rhine River in a small German town wearing a backpack full of nearly everything I owned. I’ve held an orphan with one leg in my lap in Jamaica, swinging with him and listening to him laugh, even though he already knew life would never really be OK. I’ve cried because the internet saved my dog’s life. I’ve cried because I couldn’t save the lives of so many people I loved. I’ve lived, is what I am saying. Had real grown-up experiences. And I’ve read War and Peace and Infinite Jest, too.
But my favorite is Harry Potter. (After all this time? Always.)
So how dare anyone tell me what stories I should be ashamed to read? And how dare anyone tell you? If we live full lives, we come of age again and again. And in between, we thread together moments that create the story of ourselves from the scraps of every kind of book we’ve ever held in our hands. Kids books, grown-up books, and, yeah, books about teenage wizards who’ve never had their hearts broken before. Cynicism doesn’t make you smart; earnestness doesn’t make you dumb. All that is gold does not glitter; Not all those who wander are lost. The simple-minded Young Adult fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien said that.