Cecily Wolfe responds to ‘Why young-adult fiction is a dangerous fantasy’

I was a bit stunned after reading Joe Nutt’s scathing indictment of the entirety of current young adult fiction (TES, 19 August 2016), which is quite belligerent and emotional.  He speaks to his concern that young adult reading material favors “gossip over real culture” (what is “real culture”? is this not subjective?) and does not introduce young readers to the “real, adult world.”  He worries that there is not enough young adult fiction that appeals to boys, and that young adult fiction as a whole is “patronizing.”

As a young adult librarian with a teenage daughter and an affection for young adult fiction for my own reading pleasure, I was taken aback at his sweeping condemnation and wonder what YA shelf he has been perusing. Last I checked (and I went to the shelves I tend in my library, where I am in charge of the teen materials, earlier this morning) there are a variety of books that are incredibly popular with teens and adults alike that I would certainly not deem “patronizing.”  Teens in situations in which they feel alone find comfort and hope (and often a reinforcement of the choice to avoid dangerous behaviors) in titles like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, or E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. YA authors often focus on racism, sexual assault, family issues, and identity struggles that not only speak to readers who are in the midst of situations but those who might not be exposed to them otherwise, fostering awareness, understanding, and patience. Walter Dean Myers, Jason Reynolds, and Kekla Magoon detail stories of racism in a brutally honest manner, and the current rise in human trafficking is addressed in terrifying fiction by E.R. Frank, Peggy Kern, and Patricia McCormick.

My daughter and her classmates often ask why they can’t read a classic assigned at school alongside a more popular, relevant title to which they can relate. When she read Charlotte Bronte, I shared a contemporary retelling in which the main character dealt with the same emotional issues as the original but in a modern, more relatable situation, which helped her understand what the heck Bronte was trying to get across. She became more interested in the original and is now able to understand the value in reading it. Reading classics isn’t just about being able to say it has been read; it’s about finding how and why they are timeless, which usually has to with emotions and relationships. Young adult fiction ‘does’ emotions and relationships in ways that teens understand, obviously, since the characters are within their developmental range. Retellings of Frankenstein are incredibly popular, with Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor as a standout title that teases out the character flaws and emotional drama of the original, making Mary Shelley’s original, which can seem distant because of the writing style, more understandable to the teen reader.

A lack of teen fiction for boys has been a topic of concern for teachers and librarians (and authors) for some time, but there are quite a few authors who produce fantastic stories that I find boys (and men, and women, and girls) checking out of the library all the time. Rick Riordan (my teenage daughter is a huge fan of his mythology tales), Orson Scott Card, Gary Paulsen, James Dashner, Neil Gaiman, Kenneth Oppel, Patrick Ness, Michael Grant, Markus Zusak, Jonathan Stroud – need I go on? For that matter, there are plenty of boys checking out The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and The Heir Chronicles (Cinda Williams Chima). Labeling books as “boys” or “girls” or leading either gender to specific titles because of such labels is limiting. Why tell a child or teen (or adult) which books are “for them”? Does a freedom of choice in reading material not exist because someone feels that the entire genre has no value?

I’m not sure what YA fiction authors would say about the accusation that they are “patronizing” teen readers, or that their “own good intentions” are “foul-tasting medicine.” I have met several extremely popular best-selling young adult authors who have been adamant that their goal is to connect readers to emotions and relationships, to help teens who feel alone or misunderstood, and empower them to stand up for themselves and others in situations of discrimination or danger. The “real, adult world” can be overwhelming and distant, but young adult authors today offer stories with characters who can lead readers to an even greater understanding of themselves and the world in which they live, better preparing them for the challenges ahead.


Cecily Wolfe is a writer specializing in short stories with a doctorate in literature as well as a professional librarian in the United States. Her novella, A Harvest of Stars, was published earlier this year, and Throne of Grace will be released on October 25. She can be found on Goodreads and Twitter.

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