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Why YA Is for Everyone

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In the past several months, I have received the following confession. Many times. Usually from old people. (And by old, I mean middle-aged, like me.)

The confession is this:

I read your book/saw your movie, and it moved me. Even though it wasn't meant for me, obviously. I mean, I'm not a teenage girl. I mean, I don't usually read/watch things like that. I'm a [insert age, usually past 40] year-old [insert man/woman/grandparent]. Etc.

The confession is often mumbled in embarrassed, apologetic tones, as if what's really being copped to is a penchant for wearing a superhero cape. (And by the way, if wearing a superhero cape makes you feel good, I say get on with your awesome self.)

I attempt to take on the expression of a kindly priest, who has heard it all before, and won't even give you any Hail Mary's. But sometimes, I sort of want to roll my eyes. Because, really? This is what you feel embarrassed about? What you read? What you watch? How it makes you feel?

But I'm a nice person. So I resist rolling my eyes. And I resist trotting out the statistic about how more than half of young adult novels are bought by adults. Nor do I argue with articles that shame adults for reading YA, even though these articles are the equivalent of a parental your-skirt-is-too-short admonition and therefore a bit laughable.

What I will sometimes do is explain that a lot of the work that is being published as YA now would've been published as coming-of-age adult literature twenty years ago, when the YA category didn't really exist as it does now. If J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye were published today, it would be solidly YA. That seems to make them feel better. Nobody can knock Salinger.

But mostly I will I tell them why I read YA. Not because it's the genre I write in but because it's where I find a lot of the most inspiring, risk-taking work today. To wit: Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief, a book about ordinary Germans during the Third Reich, with, oh, Death as the narrator. Libba Bray's Beauty Queens, a satirical feminist cultural takedown that is politically trenchant, and funny as fuck. Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys series, which is a buffet of fantasy, class deconstruction, character study, buddy book, romance, all of it almost absurdly well written. Alex London's Proxy, which blew my mind for how plausible this dystopian seemed (much the same way that Margaret Atwood's Mad Adam trilogy did). Franny Billingsley's Chime, a lyrical, witchy coming-of-age tale that is just as haunting and weird as any literary adult fiction I read. David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing, narrated by a generation of gay uncles, men killed by AIDS. Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You The Sun, a dual narrative coming-of-age tale that is both structurally virtuosic and gorgeously written. Not to mention Sarah Dessen, Nina LaCour, Melina Marchetta and Sara Zarr, who write human dramas on par with Anne Tyler or Ann Patchett or any other Ann you might think of.

Is all young adult literature inspiring and amazing? Of course not. Is all adult literature inspiring and amazing? Of course not.

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When people ask me why I write YA books when my stories are about love and death and grieving and identity, I try to explain that there is a difference between stories about young people and young stories. I write about young people, but I write about the issues that weigh on my 44-year-old mind. For some reason, the characters who populate my mind to tell those stories usually fall between the ages of 17 and 25.

I've thought about why that might be. And the conclusion I've come to is that young people are less filtered. They're allowed to feel things more purely and thus they allow themselves to feel things more purely. But the thing is, I think the idea that you grow out of sensitivity is ridiculous. You may mature and learn how to modulate reactions (or hide or repress them) but the well of emotions doesn't dry up.

That kind of emotional subterfuge makes for interesting literature. I like reading it. (Big Jonathan Franzen fan here.) But I don't like writing it. I prefer the uncut stuff. As the kids like to call it, All The Feels.

I think plenty of older folks do as well. I think when all those middle-aged men and women admit to being moved by something "not meant for them," something "young adult," what they are fessing up to is the unfiltered emotions the book or film elicited. Feelings you are not supposed to have past the age of 28, apparently.

So, in the end, what I tell people who confess this to me is how many other people have confessed this to me. And they seem relieved. Which makes sense. Isn't that one of the reasons we read books and watch films in the first place? To see our experience mirrored? To realize that we are not actually alone.

The movie IF I STAY, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, is in cinemas now.
The book IF I STAY, written by Gayle Forman, is on sale in all good book stores.

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