Technically, at the age of 24, I am a young adult, but the term in bookspeak seems to be used as a rough equivalent of ‘teen’, and as a grown woman I’ve gotten looks from people when they find out I’ve been reading YA, as if it’s some kind of dirty secret. Just to get it out in the open: I’m a young woman, with an MA in English literature from a prestigious university, and I read a significant amount of YA. I’m not mentioning my degree as though that makes me an incontrovertible authority on books, but because I think it shows that I have read a wide variety of books, I have critiqued them, and I don’t gravitate to YA because I’m incapable of reading Dickens or Atwood. Instead, I tend to choose YA novels because they’re more likely to resonate with me. YA books feature teenage protagonists, rather than adults and, at my age, my teen years aren’t far behind me. Likewise, YA books feature coming-of-age themes, things like discovering one’s place in the world, questioning one’s beliefs, and falling in love for the first time. All of these are things that I am doing or have done within the past several years. Adult books are more likely to feature themes like dealing with the mistakes of one’s past and issues of parenting. While I can empathise with these characters, I don’t relate to them with the same immediacy as I do a teenager finding the world’s morality is greyer than she’d imagined. I’m not saying that I’ll refuse to read a book because it’s in general fiction rather than YA, just that the books more likely to catch my eye will be filed under YA; in fact, of the eight books I have checked out of the library at the moment, maybe three qualify as YA.
Reading the amount of YA that I do, I find that there seem to be two main subsets of YA, and these often delinate along genre lines. Dystopias, stories set in the real world, and paranormal stories tend to be, in linguistic and plot complexity, no more difficult than children’s books, and I think it’s this that leads many people to believe that YA is not mentally challenging. However, what sets these books apart from children’s literature is that they feature more mature themes. In the latter two categories, they often centre around things like romance and growing up, and are therefore very teen-ish themes. Dystopias, on the other hand, can be incredibly gritty and grim, and often raise big questions about morality and humanity that make me stop and think. They aren’t technically difficult reads, but reading them as a 14-year-old is a very different experience from reading them as a 24-year-old.
The other category tends to apply to things like high fantasy and some of the more epic urban fantasy stories. These are virtually indistinguishable from adult fantasy of the same genre, except the aforementioned protagonist’s age and, again, the thematic thing. My two favourite urban fantasy series are The Mortal Instruments and The Dresden Files. From a technical perspective, they’re roughly equal; if anything The Mortal Instruments is slightly more difficult, in my opinion. Likewise, both have complex characters and stories. The difference really is that Clary is 16 and Dresden is an adult (his age is never given, but at a guess I’d say he starts the series at around 30, placing him around 45 at the moment), and thus the themes differ. Clary is discovering that her mother’s kept secrets from her, and falling in love. Dresden’s dealing with being seen as a criminal because he killed his mentor in self-defence and, later, the implications of having a child in his magical universe. Unsurprisingly, I identify more with Clary than with Dresden, but I still love The Dresden Files. Likewise, Trudi Canavan has written many high fantasy novels and, honestly, I have no idea if they’re YA or adult. Unless a fantasy book has explicit sex in it, or the characters are clearly past adolescence, I really can’t tell.
So we’ve established that YA books are not inherently less mentally challenging than adult books. Really, though, that’s beside the point. The real issue is that people think it’s okay to judge people’s reading choices as inadequately challenging, as if there’s something morally deficient in reading merely for the sheer pleasure of a particular story. Besides, reading at all is mentally stimulating. The very act of reading for enjoyment is already more of a mental challenge than listening to pop music or watching TV, yet we single out reading as requiring more intellectual stimulation for it to be worthwhile. Perhaps this is because so many of us had to read books at school, so in people’s minds reading and mental edification go hand-in-hand. If so, I think it’s a real shame that people see reading this way, rather than as a simple joy. While I get undeniable intellectual benefit from reading, that’s not why I do it. I read because I love to immerse myself in a story, to experience a different world, a different life. Regardless of whether it’s linguistically or thematically challenging, I come out the better for it and, more importantly, I enjoy it. If a given book is marketed to teens, not adults, well, that’s beside the point.