I dislike the term “young adult.” There, I said it.
I may not enjoy the terminology, but I certainly love the books. These stories are often unfairly judged and dismissed as fluffy. Childish. Silly. I’m here to say that young adult books have serious adult appeal. I think readers of all ages should read more young adult (YA), and here are five reasons why.
1. The writing!
YA aims straight to the heart. The emotional gut punch is often enough to knock the wind from your chest. We’re talking intense relationships with the highest emotional stakes. The kind of emotion we’ve all experienced in its rawest form. These books often bring me straight back to memories of first love and tumultuous friendships. They show me versions of myself I have forgotten about, when I was young and hopeful and saw the world in possibilities. They also make me very proud of the growth I've made since the earlier, cringier me existed.
2. Universal themes told through an emotional lens
Sure, teenage life can be dramatic and oversimplified, but that’s the beauty of emotional stories. Some of the most intense tear-inducing books I’ve read don’t hook me with twisty plot lines and complicated narratives. They bring me in with wants and desires, and the deep need to see dreams come to life. Age complicates everything. Life interrupts relationships and we alter goals based on real-life experiences. There's something refreshing about looking at these experiences from the viewpoint of the younger you, before your life creaked and settled.
3. Do it for your younger self.
Us older readers didn't have the opportunity growing up to see ourselves in the books being printed. It wasn't until Harry Potter that publishers realized teenagers were an untapped market. And we all know how that turned out. I was in high school in the 90s when My So Called Life blew our teenage minds before it was cancelled after one season. In that show, our dramas weren’t mocked. Our lives weren’t dumbed down to sappy versions of the very real pain many of us lived in. We watched a girl struggle through high school and romance and evolving friendships. The kids looked like us. They felt like us. I get the same joy reading young adult books as an adult. My early life struggles are taken seriously, something I didn't feel growing up. To me, this feels like a vindication for the heavy things I carried before I understood what any of it meant.
4. They’re engaging and fun as hell.
I know when I open a YA book, I will see some version of humor, wit, honesty, and openness. There's no pretense of being overly sophisticated and worldly, yet still tackle very complex topics. In Salt to the Sea, we navigate through the intensely tragic Nazi invasion. Four teenagers find themselves on a sinking ship of ten thousand refugees. Through the horror, readers focus on a love story, pure and simple. The evil character is delusional, and at times engaging and funny. Through skillful storytelling, Ruta Sepetys takes tragedy to a place we can manage, where love and friendship and hope carry us to the next chapter.
5. They approach heavy content through youthful optimism
Can’t we all use a little more hope?
Let’s be honest. The transition from teen to adult is rife with difficult decisions and lessons. The questions aren’t much different than throughout the rest of our lives. They involve the major questions, how safe am I and how much am I loved? Examining those big questions through the eyes of a teenager can be eye-opening for our adult selves. Think back to high school. Some of you may have enjoyed the parties and sports, but I don't know anyone who escaped those years without something dark lurking in the corner. For me, it was managing anxiety and panic attacks (poorly, I might add), while also facing one parent dying and the other spiraling into mental illness. My friends dealt with divorce, sexual assault, abuse, and a host of others things we never talked about. But we put so much of that aside and we laughed together. We hugged. We showed up for each other in solidarity. We gave each other hope.
Learning is lifelong, but the groundwork for my greatest life lessons started decades ago. Young adult books help me dissect my own life, and give me the tools to help my daughters through theirs.
Some of my favorite YA books for your consideration: