The Adult Fascination with Young Adult Fiction

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I can get behind anything that gets people to read. Even Penthouse Letters. Playboy. (You said you buy it for the articles, right?) Celebrity tabloid rags.

If something compels someone to read who otherwise may not, I’ll support it. (Not that I don’t have my moments of reading-materials snobbery. Sure I do.)

Yet I have ambivalence about the grown-up rage for young-adult fiction.

I don’t remember adults of my youth reading fiction for preteens and teens. My mother didn’t read Judy Blume or V. C. Andrews. She didn’t pick up any books in the Sweet Valley High series. (Even I couldn’t stomach them, though I tried.)

Yet the category—called “YA”—has exploded, and not because preteens and teens today read more than ever before. According to an article by David W. Brown in The Atlantic, the publishing industry put out 3,000 young-adult novels in 1997 and 30,000 YA titles in 2009. We can thank adults for pumping up the category. Readership outside the intended age group has propelled the explosion.

Which begs the question: Why?

Do adults read these books because they help them escape reality? Yet escapist books abound for adults. (After all, anyone would consider romance novels escapist. Just look at the covers. Giggling allowed.) Do adults read YA fiction because adult novels don’t entertain enough or emphasize the serious and the heavy? Do they read about teens because they yearn for an idealized youth or childhood? Do they read books for kids because writers in the category use simpler vocabulary—making the books easier to read?

Yet don’t we need serious and heavy? Don’t we need experiences that challenge us intellectually and make us think deeply about our world? Don’t we need books that require us to grab dictionaries or reference materials? Not all the time, but sometimes. And I fear adults bounce from YA title to YA title—not from the adult category to an occasional “brainless” YA read.

When we avoid the difficult—whether in subject or language—don’t we dumb ourselves down?

What do you think?