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Why YA? Joel Stein says don’t read this. I say think for yourself.

I am an adult.  Well, I at least play one on tv (or in real life).  Mostly.  I also read YA fiction.  Joel Stein recently said in a New York Times article that I should not.  Sure, I could stand at a dinner party after you asked me what I read and make a defense for myself and declare I have to read YA for my job, I am a teen services librarian after all.  But the truth is, I also like it.  No, I love it.  I find that I often close the back cover of my book and rejoice that once again I have read such great fiction.  That didn’t happen when I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  To be honest, I didn’t even finsh that one.  And in my personal universe it is almost a sin not to finish a book.

In the past few years I have read 1,000s (and no, that is not an exaggeration) of teen (or ya) books.  And I have read a couple hundred adult ones.  And I have liked a great deal of both to be honest.  Yet, I find ya fiction to be well written, engaging, soul stirring, sometimes life changing, thoughtful, and yes – entertaining.  I read it all, zombies, angels, mermaids, demons.  I also read the quiet, thoughtful contemporaries.  Edgy stuff.  Fluff.  It all has value.  And to be fair, adult fiction has all the same different types as well. 

There is a Message in What You Value

My concern with Stein’s statement is this:  teens today already feel that they are outcasts in society.  They feel that the world is hostile to them; that adults perceive them as “other” and a “nuisance”.  They need, and deserve, literature that speaks to them – who they are in this moment.  They also need, and deserve, adults who are willing to spend time in their world.  Adults who are willing to spend time in their world trying to understand them, engage them and send the message – we value you, we need you, we love you and because we do, we are going to sit here in this place with you.  We need to have adults who can talk, intelligently and passionately, with teens about the things that they care about.  Parents, teachers, lawmakers, doctors, lawyers – everyone who is in a position to influence the life of a teen should spend some time in the world of teen.  You can not serve and meet the needs of people you do not know and understand.  And when we say we don’t value the world of teens – be it literature, tv or music – we also are saying that we do not value teens.  Spend some time reflecting on the 40 Developmental Assets.  If we want our teens to make good life decisions, we need to create a culture which sends one very important message: we value the teens in our communities.  It’s such a simple thing to do for our teens with big rewards for us as a culture.

Teens Are Not Other

As a teen, I couldn’t wait to be a grown up.  Middle school and high school vexed me so.  I knew that once I threw my cap in the air and tore off my robe that I would enter into a new and glorious future where no one told me what to do, social politics didn’t matter and the world would finally embrace me and allow me to fullfill my destiny.  It turns out, real life isn’t really that different than the teenage years: social politics still reign supreme, people still tell me what to do, and I am still waiting for the world to recognize my glorious contributions.  I have been an adult and a professional long enough to know some imporant life facts: Sometimes the most qualified person doesn’t get the job but the person with the most connection does, the popular kids are still reigning supreme while those on the fringes are still often left on the fringes, and life is still not fair.  It’s not like you wake up on your 18th birthday and the world magically changes:  Behold, you are now an adult put down that YA title as it is no longer relevant to your new adult world.  The adult world is so similar to high school it can send shivers down your spine.

You see, literature is a mirror that reflects the world we live in and there is much universal truth in ya literature.  As Mia lays on her deathbed and considers whether or not she is going to stay in this world or cross over into the next, she wrestles with universal questions that affect us all: the meaning of life, love, what it means to be alive (If I Stay by Gayle Forman).  The character may be a teenager, but the writing is beautiful and the story is universal. When Hazel contemplates what type of space she will leave in Augustus’ life when she dies – well I believe that every person faced with a terminal illness wrestles with these same questions (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green).  Adults struggle with relationships in many of the same ways that the characters in the works of Sarah Dessen struggle with relationships.  Adults still wrestle with bullies and relationships and what it means to be a member of a family, a community.  Teens are not other, they are simply a different version of us.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

As a Christian, I know that the Bible says that we should be like a child, to humble ourselves like one (Matthew 18:4).  Sadly, too many of us lose our wonder at the world.  We close our inner childhood eyes and we forget what it means to marvel at the sunset, to delight in the rain, to rejoice in a hug.  And we forget those glorious feeling of first love: that moment when a young man grabs your hands for the first time and your fingers interlace and your heart – oh your heart soars and sings and fireworks burst!  We forget what it was like to be a teen and all those glorious firsts that come with being a teen.  Your first love, your first kiss, your first time behind the wheel of a car.  We forget what it is like to discover and rediscover self.  We put up blinders and close ourselves off and “grow up”.  We also close our minds to new information, holding steady in our beliefs because they are somehow now TRUTH and there can be no new truth that might make us have to change our mind.  But if we could all keep even one tiny little toe in that world and just kind of peek out a sliver of an opening of one eye, maybe we could all open ourselves up a little bit more to continue to change and grow as adults.  Teen literature reminds us that the world is vast, that there are ample opportunities before us, that we – and the world we live in – is ever changing and we must be open to change ourselves.  Teen fiction reminds us that the world we live in is not set in stone and to live in it fully we ourselves must not be either.

Quality Control

Joel Stein also seems to suggest that YA fiction is simply not well written and to be honest, as a fan of many teen writers I sputter in protest.  There are many a ya title that made my heart soar, made tears flow from my eyes, and left me contemplating for days, weeks and months what it means to be a member of the human race.  YA literature speaks to the heart of us all.  It speaks universal truths.  It questions, challenges, incites . . . The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins makes us really think about the role that the media, and violence, plays in our world.  Delirium and Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver challenges us to think about what it means to love and be free.  Many teen titles ask us to think about what it means to be in a community, to live with honor, or to die with integrity.  It has been over 10 years since I have read the book If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson and I still think of it often.  Quotes from that book stay on my fridge and help me remember to love, to truly love, the people in my life because our moments may be few.  I tell every person I meet to read Pandemonium, that book touched the core of me.  It is relevant to our times, it captures the spirit of who we are and questions who we may become.  The ya authors I read write beautiful sentences, speak deep truths, and know how to entertain.  And yes, there is value in simply being entertained.

So adults, please – plase go out and read some ya fiction.  Do it to send a an important message: we value the teens in our community.  Do it to remember.  Do it to open yourself up once again to the possibilities of this world.  Do it because it really is well written.  Do it because Joel Stein told you not to and you can still be the type of individual who questions what others say and thinks for yourself.  Here are just a few of my favorites that I recommend . . .

If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (and anything else he wrote)
Delirium and Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Shiver by Maggie Steifvater
The Downside of Being Charlie by Jenny Torres Sanchez
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Anything by Chris Crutcher (especially Whale Talk, Deadline or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes) or Sarah Dessen (especially Dreamland and Just Listen)
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Rot & Ruin and Dust & Decay by Jonathan Maberry

Honestly, there are so many.  I could go on.  Stop by your public library and talk to the teen librarian there, ask them what they recommend.  Spend some time browsing online, there are lots of great blogs out there with reviews and recommendations.  Read the TLT reviews here.  Whatever you do, don’t listen to Joel Stein because you will be closing yourself off to a great amount of amazing story.  You may be missing out on the one story that changes your life.

What other teen titles do you recommend?  Tell us in the comments.  And please leave your blog url so others know where else they can go looking for reviews and recs.


  1. Great post, although I think people (including myself) are in danger of giving too much publicity to Joel Stein's comments just because he somehow manages to be published by a respected newspaper. Yes, they're clearly idiotic (although after reading his article a few years ago complaining about the number of Indians in his hometown, they're not even close to being the stupidest thing he's ever written!) The vast majority of people will realise they're idiotic, though.

    And to be fair, when another NY paper's website features a prominent article slagging off YA and using Captain Underpants as an example, it's becoming increasingly difficult to take some of these critics seriously…

  2. WOW! I saw this on YALSA listserv and didn't know it was going to almost have me in tears. This is such an eloquent statement of how I feel about reading YA as well. (Except that crazy part where you say you feel obligated to finish books – life is too short! Of course I only stopped finishing everything when I turned 40, so who am I to judge?) Anyway, I loved this post!

  3. I've recently read several YA books searching for a summer reading book to assign to high school students. You are correct: there's some great literature out there aimed at 12-18 year olds. There's also some junk, but it's pretty easy to find out what's good by using online reviews. When I was in middle and high school, I was reading V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steel (not age appropriate at all) since that's what was out there. I'm glad to see so much more quality, well-developed, literature aimed at teens on a variety of topics. I recently finished Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It's hard to imagine “adult” literature better written than those.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

    OK, I know you said anything by John Green, but I need to specifically call out Will Grayson Will Grayson as one of my favorites.

  5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Not only is it an outstanding novel that gets to the heart of many issues, it also has one of the best last lines ever. Read it yourself to see if you agree.

  6. First, I love this post, you echo my feelings and passion for working with teens and reading “YA”. Authors like you mention; Lauren Oliver, John Green, Suzanne Collins, Neal Shusterman, Gayle Forman and so many more have taught me so much about life through their writing. I have also learned many things about myself while reading as well. Printing this post out to put in my office:) Thank you for writing it.
    You can find me and my reviews at Lost in the Library.

  7. FABULOUS POST!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. What I love about YA fiction – you get just as much literary quality in the great titles without having to wade through as much wasted verbiage. Other commenters have named some wonderful YA authors; add in one of my favorites, Robin McKinley.

  9. Thanks for the heads up and sharing the fab response to “Too many Indians” at http://www.currybear.com/wordpress/2010/06/curry-bears-thoughts-on-joel-steins-article-about-indians-in-edison/. I always appreciate new information.

  10. So I see you follow the Nancy Pearl rule, sort of. I truly did use to be a stickler for finishing a book I started. I'm getting better. Thanks for your kind remarks.

  11. I, too, read a lot of V. C. Andrews as a teen. The field is so much wider and richer now. *contented sigh*

  12. All good choices. Thank you for sharing.

  13. We don't often talk about last lines, usually focusing on firsts. But you are right, this is a good one. So glad you reminded us of this one.

  14. I love everything about this comment, thank you. I went and checked out your blog – very nice. Glad you shared. I will add it to my rounds.

  15. Thank you!!

  16. Oh yes, I love The Hero and the Crown.

  17. Fabulously, wonderfully said. I was 25 when a YA book literally saved my life, and I'm so thankful to the authors who give voice to the millions of voiceless teens. Thank you for your blog, which has fast become one of my favorite professional tools. Keep up the excellent work!

  18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  19. Wonderful post!

  20. Anonymous says:

    I had tears in my eyes as I read this post. Thank you for speaking so eloquently about the beauty and power of YA lit. I agree with all of your suggestions and would add Tamora Pierce, John Flanagan, and Megan Whalen Turner as outstanding authors I have read and re-read.
    I love your point in particular about being able to speak meaningfully to youth about things that are important to them. I don't think you can stress this enough.
    Thank you!

  21. Anonymous says:

    I'm a 36 year old woman, an educator and a student pursuing my L SC certification to work specifically with children/YA groups. Why? Is often the question I get from so many people. Why NOT? I reply back. I suppose you can say that I never put my blinders on to the real world and to the core of who I was as a child and young adult. I still remember very clearly what it felt like to be a young person and how it's continued to shape me into the adult I am today. YA fiction, at first, was something I didn't think I needed to relive or mull over, I admit. At first. Then a friend of mine gave me “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson and urged me to read it. It spoke to me, it broke my heart to see how prevalent it is in today's childhood world, especially, and I am so thankful that she encouraged my YA reading. There are fabulous stories and story tellers out there and I look forward to finding such work in the future.

  22. I am printing this out for my high school library, because you have said it so much better than I could have. I have difficulty with people who are determined to separate books into 'adult' or 'YA'… for me, the themes are universal. The language, situations and/or quality of the writing may be more mature in some books, but we should still allow adults to read them. (see what I did there?)

  23. Thank you for this, this was a great post, and everything you said is the way I feel about YA lit. I have two books that I have read recently that I just loved. Fever by Lauren DeStefano and All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin. I would recommend The Disenchantments by Nina Lacour, but I'm only halfway through. But seriously, so far, it's amazing.

  24. It's interesting Joel Stein has become neo-elitist considering he used to appear in Vh1's I love the '80s and I love the '90s giving serious commentary on pop culture. I'm guessing he wants to be taken more seriously as a writer and took an “easy” pot shot at YA fiction.

  25. I think you are the next “girl on fire!”

    I'll def. be bookmarking this post!!!

  26. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this wonderful response. I, too, love ya lit, and I sometimes feel like I have to defend that love. However, I did get my book club to read Liar, The Book Thief, and Hunger Games in the last couple years. And they loved them, of course. Victory!

  27. I recommend using Nancy's 50 page rule to students who aren't sure of a book but I add one thing. If they really think they don't want to finish reading it they should read the last page. If they have no desire to find out how the story got there then definitely stop reading. I have done this may times and never regretted finishing a book by checking out the last page.

  28. Wonderful post. I followed the link from YALSA to you. I hope you don't mind if I add this on my FB page. I love Neil Shusterman's book. My teen introduced me to his work. I'm actually thrilled they are making a movie based on his book Unwind.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I also love reading YA lit. I didn't read much before I was asked to take charge of a teen book club. Somehow, I now feel like I need to see what's out there! I don't like all the topics and can see why eyebrows are raised at times but overall, I love so many of the titles! I've just read all the Hunger Games series and now the Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner. We in Virginia claim Maggie Stiefvater who is a wonderful writer. And, I think when authors write for children and teens, there is a little more responsibility on their parts for writing well. I can't prove that but I feel that.

  30. Thank you for sharing this. I am glad you found the book you needed.

  31. Thank you so much.

  32. The comment posted twice, sorry.

  33. I like how you said that: speak meaningfully to youth about things that are important to them. Man, I could of used that in my post 🙂

  34. Speak is a fabulous title. Thank you for your comment.

  35. I did indeed. Thanks so much for your comment. It tickled me.

  36. These are all titles on my TBR list. Thanks so much for your comment.

  37. Now that I did not know. Irony. Thanks for your comment and the information.

  38. High praise indeed from people I admire, so thank you.

  39. I can not wait to see the movie either. Please feel free to share. Let's keep the love for ya going! Thanks for your comment.

  40. I really love Maggie Stiefvaters Shiver trilogy. And you all must be proud with all the honors for The Scorpio Races. Thank you for your comment. Enjoy the Maze Runner trilogy.

  41. First off, like you say, reading YA Lit is part of your job (if only I had a 'paying' job like that lol). I have actually read (& heard by many) that there are many YA books that actually started out as adult books – I wonder if he knows that.

    You have hit upon something that I actually could never put into words: “teens today already feel that they are outcasts in society. They feel that the world is hostile to them; that adults perceive them as “other” and a “nuisance”.” This is tooo true. While I love reading YA because it is entertaining for me personally I also read YA because I want to better understand teens (while at the same time I find I learn more about myself and my actions growing up that would not have been discovered otherwise).

    I sure don't take to heart what the Joel Stein's of the world say. Especially when they admit that they don't read YA and are criticizing something they don't know about (: “I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like.”).

  42. Amazing post, Karen! Very well said. Your passion is always palpable.

  43. Anonymous says:

    Well, I'm a mid-50 something that is rediscovering my inner child again. I'm not too proud to be reading Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and the Twilight series where people can see me indulging in…shall I say it “a foolish pleasure?” What's the big deal? I may read those books a hundred times! They are a joy and a pleasure in a cataclysmic cacophony of an uncertain world. Who doesn't need an escape, to think, or to feel what the youth feel? What Joel Stein needs a sippy cup while sitting in a high chair… Read on people…read on!

  44. Chris Candow says:

    Love your recommendation list – thanks for taking the time to put it together! And most of my favorites are on it but I found a few new ones to read over spring break! …Turning 43 this year btw 🙂

  45. Thank you for articulating this argument so beautifully. Also, you have wonderful taste. 8-]

  46. Amen.

  47. Thank you for this post. It sums up my feelings of YA literature very nicely. The thing that I truly find embarrassing is a grown man judging others based on what they choose to read. Rather than judging based on people's different preferences we should be celebrating the diversity of the human race and embracing the knowledge that we can give each other based on these different preferences!

  48. I also felt like Stein's article was as genre-elitist as it was uninformed. He was essentially talking about “adult” novels as if they are all literary novels, and alluded to YA books that are, for the most part, speculative fiction (THG, Twi, etc)

    Which ignores the fact that most “adult” books are genre fiction. Mysteries, romance, paranormal… these are the adult books that adults who devour books read. Not the Franzen novels, or even the latest Atwood that get all the literary buzz.

    If Stein wants to talk about how adults are reading books that he doesn't think are high-brow enough, there are plenty of adult books that fit the bill. 😛

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