Some books (and movies and essays and so on) aimed at adults are difficult for children to understand and appreciate. Others may delight children but don’t have much to offer for older audiences. Some can be enjoyed at different levels by both adults and children, with the adults picking up on things that the children don’t (or that the adults think the children don’t) and vice versa. Yet others can be appreciated more or less equally across a great range of ages.
I don’t pretend that the foregoing observation is in any way profound, let alone original. In fact, it strikes me as commonplace, the sort of thing that should be obvious to anyone who has a wide-enough experience with books and movies.
True, I’ve known otherwise sensible people who were dismissive of children’s literature for the simple reason they hadn’t read very much of it, not since childhood anyway, and hence made incorrect assumptions about it. And of course there are those who overgeneralize from a poorly selected set of bad examples. (It’s wise to recall Sturgeon’s Revelation that “90 percent of everything is crud.”) But a naive global dismissal of writing for children and young adults is not something you’d expect to find in, say, Slate, especially nowadays when more and more adults are enjoying fiction and films aimed at younger audiences.
And yet we have this piece by someone named Ruth Graham. It’s headed (probably by an editor rather than Graham herself, though it accurately reflects the content), “Against YA: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” According to the accompanying brief author’s biography, “Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.” Well, maybe she does, but that’s no excuse.
She begins as follows:
As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad — it isn’t — but because it was written for teenagers.
The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult fiction is now conventional wisdom. Today, grown-ups brandish their copies of teen novels with pride. There are endless lists of YA novels that adults should read, an “I read YA” campaign for grown-up YA fans, and confessional posts by adult YA addicts. But reading YA doesn’t make for much of a confession these days: A 2012 survey by a market research firm found that 55 percent of these books are bought by people older than 18. (The definition of YA is increasingly fuzzy, but it generally refers to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds. Meanwhile, the cultural definition of “young adult” now stretches practically to age 30, which may have something to do with this whole phenomenon.)
So it appears that Graham’s attitude toward young adult fiction can’t be dismissed as mere incidental ignorance (though her essay does indeed have some uninformed things to say). It’s more a matter of her defiantly bloody-minded death-grip on prejudice in the face of all contrary evidence. Perhaps she’s more suited to a career in politics than book reviewing. It would pay better, too.
On the other hand, Graham hints that she’s writing this mainly for readers in her own demographic, which she indicates is the 30-to-44 age range. Maybe as her elder I shouldn’t expect much sophistication from a kid Graham’s age. She might simply have not yet outgrown the adolescent obsession with appearing “mature.” If so, there may be hope for her yet. I should make a note to check in on her again in a few decades to see if she’s grown up.
(Updated mainly to add additional snark in keeping with Internet norms)