Why Snobs Like Joel Stein Are Wrong About Adults and YA Literature

I suppose Joel Stein thinks he’s being rather clever and sophisticated in his riff for the New York Times about why grown-ups shouldn’t read literature aimed at young adults (something he conflates with picture books). He sniffs:

I appreciate that adults occasionally watch Pixar movies or play video games. That’s fine. Those media don’t require much of your brains. Books are one of our few chances to learn. There’s a reason my teachers didn’t assign me to go home and play three hours of Donkey Kong. I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

Where to begin? First, with a bit of history. Adolesence as we understand it is a rather new invention, and more to the point, the idea of literature aimed squarely at children or at young adults is a relatively new phenomenon in narrative fiction. The first picture books begin trickling out in the 1600s as a combination of instructional or pleasurable reading. And the distinction between children’s, young adult, and plain literature doesn’t come until 1802 when British critic Sarah Trimmer proposed two categories of books, one for those younger than 14, another for literature specifically aimed at those between the ages of 14 and 21, a time when children transitioned into formal adulthood. In other words, those 3,000 years of fiction include an awful lot of writing intended for audiences of mixed ages, whether it’s Jane Austen’s novels or lives of saints, which can be decidedly R-rated.

Second, the ideas that children and young adults are only capable of digesting mush, or that the only way to discuss sophisticated themes is to include explicit sex and violence are pure hogwash. Young people are capable of fairly sophisticated reasoning, of empathy, and even of significant evil, and many of them can rise to meet fairly high bars as readers. A series like the Hunger Games franchise can keep Katniss a virgin throughout the majority of the three books and still communicate the horror of surrendering your sexual and romantic autonomy. Harry Potter may be the first encounter a generation of readers has with the evils of torture and nasty class bias. Tamora Pierce’s Provost’s Dog series is an unflinching exploration of crime and poverty. Simply because these novels are also appropriate for younger readers doesn’t mean the ideas in them are stupid or the prose is unworthy. Not all things written for younger readers are masterpieces, of course. But there’s plenty of bad trash, insipid prose, and deeply stupid ideas in books written for adults. Joel Stein is welcome to it.