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Why YA Fiction is misaligned as bad writing

It’s time to face the facts: YA fiction can be just as good-and oftentimes better-than adult fiction. For decades, novels aimed at the young teen category (and the authors who pen them) have been cast aside as lesser than those who write more traditional, ‘adult’ novels. 

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a plethora of really bad YA fiction. Twilight, for all it spurred a nearly half-billion dollar franchise, encapsulated a lot of what people dislike about this sort of writing: a boring protagonist, love triangles that bordered on absurdist, and a lack of detail into the world the characters inhabited. The most interesting thing about this series by far were the supernatural creatures, whose cultural stories and histories were often pushed aside in favor of a traditional angsty-teen romance plotline. These sorts of books are fun to read, easy to write, and don’t require much intellectual effort to digest. In short, they’re sort of the Family Guy of novels. Everyone watches Family Guy from time to time, and it’s hard to believe there’s a person alive who hasn’t even secretly enjoyed a good teenage angst from time to time. 

Yet so often YA authors are pushed to the bottom of the barrel in terms of public and professional respect, which is a shame. Their works-which target a population rapidly growing and adapting in ways adults often struggle to-focus on themes ‘older’ books either explore without nuance or avoid altogether. Oftentimes, they are explored through fantastical lenses of adventure, exploration, and fantasy. Some of the best and most powerful lessons are taught alongside dramatic storylines of winged horses, sword fights, and magical creatures. 

Tamora Pierce, for instance, has built a criminally underrated empire of this sort of work. Her books focus on women’s empowerment in ways

that are subtle, far-reaching, and far more complex than many of today’s so-called ‘adult fiction.’ Though her protagonists occupy worlds where magic is present in everyday life, it doesn’t make her messages any less realistic. She is the uncrowned ruler by which most fiction should be measured, yet her contributions are not as well known as others because she writes primarily for an audience that still has curfews. Decades of careful writing have produced some of the highest-quality fiction found in any age range. 

The Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, written by Kathryn Lasky, is a fantastical story of young owls searching for a place to call home after they are stolen from their homes by a group of barn owls who think of themselves as inherently superior. The story might seem, to the uneducated reader, a child’s fantasy of becoming a hero. However, it explores themes far beyond the limitations of a fictional world. Racism, xenophobia, disabilities, and the inherent difficulties of growing up in a war-torn world are confronted with maturity and grit. Never are we spared from facing reality just because it is difficult to watch. The basic premise is of found family, and of how to confront loss when the world around you is falling apart. Lasky never shies away from having her readers remember that children are meant to be protected, not engaged in a war they had no part in creating. There’s a careful balance of heroism and tragedy. 

Moreover, by dismissing the fiction our children read as ‘childish’ or ‘immature,’ we dismiss their feelings as irrelevant and not worthy of focus. It is true that most teenagers don’t have to face the daily grind most adults do. They don’t pay taxes, they aren’t responsible for rent, and they receive a free education. This doesn’t make their feelings or perspectives any less real or valuable.

‘Adult’ fiction tends to develop more on the premise of the characters rather than on the characters themselves. While this allows more time to develop the plotline, it often creates a situation whereby the main character is difficult to empathize with or understand. They revel in the goriness of corpses, the messiness of sex, and spend an inordinate amount of time describing the intelligence of adults. Oftentimes they’re riddled with bizarre perceptions about femininity or disturbingly inaccurate portrayals of the female form. Ben Aaronovitch, for instance, wrote this about women in his book River of London: “The voice belonged to a cheerful, round-faced woman of the sort that develops a good personality because the alternative is suicide.” Johnathan Franzen in Crossroads: “She was little, and female, but her thoughts were original.” 

This isn’t to say that all adult fiction is poorly written, or that it all relies on outdated stereotypes and hilariously inaccurate misunderstandings about women. However, it reveals the greater issue: adults are willing to continue reading a book even if they are unable to relate to the character. Worse still, there is currently a cult culture of finding hidden meanings in books, allowing even bad writers to pass off their prose as some marvelous set of nesting dolls. We spend so much time trying to uncover the deeper meanings that oftentimes, there is no consideration as to whether or not the book itself is enjoyable. Teenagers are far less interested in reading a book if they find they cannot relate to the characters or if the setting is uninteresting. There’s something remarkably and enjoyably straightforward about that. Adult fiction has its place on the bookshelf, but it’s time we stop pretending YA hasn’t earned its spot as well.

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