Originally posted on the Island Books blog
In July of 2018, I read about fifteen Young Adult (YA) books. I consumed them. Whether on audio, from the library, or the advanced copies from the store, I could not get enough. This was a new development. In high school I read some, mostly Cassandra Clare or Libba Bray, but I was too overwhelmed by my school reading, summer reading, and even winter break reading to read for fun. After my English degree, there was a scheduled reading void. No longer was I told what I “should” be reading. Instead, YA opened its arms to me like a big hug. It was an escape into my emotions and away from my brain through accessible characters with vibrant voices.
It’s my opinion (hence the post written by me) that more adults should read YA novels. The book that really kick started this blog post is Internment. This new novel by Samira Ahmed is intense, impactful, and alive. I opened up the book and was smacked in the face by my sympathy for Layla Amin, the main character, checking my privilege at every page. Layla is your normal, well-educated American teenager living in California: she binges Dr. Who with her boyfriend, she watches Pretty in Pink with her mom, and reads Austen and Yeats with her father. But because she openly identifies as a Muslim, she is taken away in the middle of the night to a camp just a mile away from Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp from WWII. Ahmed comments in the author’s note that this story takes place only “‘fifteen minutes’ into America’s future,” but the fear that haunts this book’s pages is present today for many religious, sexual, and racial minorities. This book’s comparison to the critically praised The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a joke; Ahmed deals with the realities of a lawless, isolated internment camp for a young woman head on.
Part of my enthusiasm for YA has to do with the way that the books are written. Geared towards teens, young adult books aim to capture their reader and not let go. (Internment did this so well!) The immediacy of the narrator’s voice demands a tremendous amount of empathy from the readers for the characters and their experiences. Don’t be fooled; their focus on emotional content does not mean that YA books aren’t well written. Many YA books are experimental, written in verse or literarily innovative.
Look! I even Instagram YA novels… and the classic Island Books bookmark.
When cross-over readers reach for a YA novel, it is usually because the reader is looking for something “lighter.” I use this word carefully. The “lighter” aspect doesn’t necessarily have to do with the topic but the difficulty of the reading level. For perspective, I usually take a week or so to read most adult literary fiction novels because I feel I need to be in a space to pay attention. Comparatively, I can read two to three YA novels in a week if I’m in the mood. (Usually I’m reading two or three books at one time, so the timelines are always a little fuzzy.) YA books have an emphasis on plot that keep the pages turning and a dialogue heavy structure that adds bulk. These generalizations mean the books move faster, not that they are less important or complex.
On the publishing side, young adult fiction is one of the most prolific and dynamic genres. Every week, titles come out that bring something new to the table. Because YA has a faster manuscript to printed book timeline compared to adult publishing, there are more new ideas and an immediate supply to cultural demand. The amount of YA books that address social justice issues, gender topics, and queer interests is constantly growing to match YA readers’ desires. New voices from diverse backgrounds seem to be popping up every week, and it’s fantastic.
The Hate U Give is especially eloquent about a black girl’s struggle to tell the truth when her world is trying to silence her. After witnessing the murder of her childhood friend at the hands of a police officer, Starr Carter is challenged to remain honest about her experience as she tackles her identity, wondering what it means to be black in America. Fiercely written, this is a book I feel as though I will never get over.
Other books I recommend adults checking out are Blood, Water, Paint and A Very Large Expanse of Sea. Blood, Water, Paint tells the story of a young woman from Rome in the year 1610. Her life is one hard choice after another, all tethered on her pursuit of the truth. Not only is the subject timeless, the story is elegantly written in verse. Joy McCullough was recently given the ALA Morris Award and the PNBA 2019 Book Award for this hypnotic novel. Lori recently wrote at length about the power of A Very Large Expanse of Sea. While Internment is based in a hypothetical future, Tahereh Mafi’s novel follows the experience of a young Muslim girl a year after 9/11.
And there are so many more!
Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday follows the life of a Somali boy whose family is torn apart by the co-mingling of the American government and an extremist group.
Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park is just as important for adults and teens in its ’80s nostalgia and honest rendering of what it means to fall in love when you’re sixteen.
Without fail, young adult readers are passionate about the books they champion. Whether they are die-hard YA readers exclusively or cross-over readers into adult fiction, they love this genre. So much of that love comes from YA’s emphasis on unique story lines and new voices. The aspect I admire most about these books is their relentless pursuit of truth. Give some of these titles a try, and you might be hooked.
— Kelleen, Island Books, Mercer Island, WA