As a teacher of literature, one of the things I struggle with in my classes is the fact that while many of my students are smart and ambitious, few of them spend much time reading. This is not surprising. There is intense competition today for our attention. How can the rewards of something slow and demanding like reading compete with online games and social media, streaming TV series and video games – the whole technological cornucopia of attention-grabbing content?
I was thus hugely pleased recently to see a group of teenagers on the MTR carrying, of all things, books. There’s hope for reading yet, I thought!
Until, that is, I saw what they were reading: J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, and some sort of vampire romance. All of these young adults were proudly reading, in other words, Young Adult fiction. And while part of me wants to celebrate the mere fact of reading, another part can’t help but think that something very wrong is going on.
It is true that there is a long tradition of “young adult” fiction. Johann David Wyss’ hugely successful 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson, the adventurous tale of a family shipwrecked on a deserted island, was written to teach the virtues of hard work, thrift, and diligence to young readers. Other tales may not have been written for young readers, but are nonetheless popular with children of all ages. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, was unquestionably written for an adult audience, but it has always been popular with teens and even children.
This distinction between books that are written for everyone, but appeal to younger readers, and books that are written explicitly for the youth market is part of what is wrong with YA fiction. It no longer relies on the sharing of taste that can build bridges between generations. My grandfather and I both loved Nevil Shute’s novels of the post-second world war Commonwealth, something which helped us understand each other better.
But today, children and teens are expected to read fiction that is directed with all the cunning that corporate marketing departments can muster at their presumed needs and interests. This is reading not as exploration and discovery, but as confirmation of who we are and what we know.
Worse, once in YA territory, it is difficult to escape into the wider world of fiction. The miraculous serendipity of the right book at the right moment that turns a child into an adult is lost if we read only what we are meant to read.
So if you are reading, that is good – no, that is great – but stop and think about what you are reading, and why. And don’t be afraid to leave YA behind for a walk on the wild side.