Is YA literature important? The expert and all-knowing answer from a librarian working with teens for all of one week.

Let’s just first acknowledge that the above question is rhetorical. If I didn’t think so, I probably wouldn’t have a job or it would stupid for me to have the job that I do. Of course it’s important and necessary in a way, but why? The “why” part of the implied follow up question to my original rhetorical one is what really matters to me. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last few months since the imminent end of library school and my class on Young Adult literature. Why is it important for teens (and let’s not forget the tweens) to have a literature that they can call their own, with a space in the library for them, programs, professionals to serve them, and all that good stuff. I want to think about that in this post, admittedly in a sort of roundabout (roundabound?) manner.

When I tell people that I’m a young adult librarian they sometimes ask me a number of questions: Do teens really read? Do teens really read books other than Twilight? Why do they need YA books anyway, can’t they just read regular, grown-up books? There’s more, too. Or sometimes they just look at me with a pitying, sort of befuddled look on their faces. I can understand that – I still sometimes give that look to my roommate, a sixth grade science teacher. It’s the look that says, “Really? Why?”

Anyway, do teens really read? Of course they do. Don’t you remember being a teen? Some teens are voracious readers: they will read anything and everything that they get their hands on. These are the teens who grew up reading their parents’ Atlantic Monthly magazines as a kid because they were there and they needed to read. They probably didn’t understand much of the content but their eyes and brain needed to move over and digest words in order to continually function. (Full disclosure: I was that kid. And yes, I know that makes me weird.) Or other teens have a particular genre or type of book that they like to read. They might only read those but will read them in bulk. By the pound, almost. Or they like to pick up a book now and then. Or they read the books for school but not much else. Or they read magazines on or offline. Or they like comics. Or they only like bestsellers or Oprah’s book club-esque books. Or they read what their friends tell them to. Or they listen to audio books. Or. Or. Or. Or they don’t really read at all.

The point I’m trying to make here is that teens can read a lot like grownups and children. There are a lot of different possibilities for the way and the volume that teens read because there are a lot of different possibilities for the ways that everyone reads. That’s ok, I think, because maybe some librarians would love a world where everyone only reads the classics or Canonized Literature but that isn’t our world. I think we should be able to read what we want and how much we want. Obviously, I think it would be awesome if everyone read more and read more quality texts but sometimes you just have to read Bridget Jones’ Diary because it’s hilarious and you need a break. Or you just like steampunk cowboy romances. Then read those so I don’t have to.

But the interesting part about YA literature and YA services in a library are the roles they play in the lives of teens. Have you read read a book and thought, “Wow. This narrator/character/anthropomorphized forest creature feels exactly like I do! I didn’t know that was possible!” That’s the power of books right there, folks. You need that and teens need it, too. Teens have got it rough in many ways: middle and high school can suck, friendships can be hard, they feel trapped by the rules of school, society and parents, and they are just trying to figure out a way to be themselves all at the same time. Children’s and grownup books provide the sort of emotional support for their reading groups but sometimes teens get left out in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Maybe you can make the transition from Narnia to the Fillory of Lev Grossman’s books without a go between, but you might be the only one. Teens need YA lit to help them navigate their own experience of growing up and gaining independence as much as children and adults do.

I could go on and on some more if wanted and talk about library literature and research to talk about how teens are an under-served population in libraries. About their need for distinct special requirements and guidance, and quote papers and academic whatnot. Or I could just ask people to remember being 14 or 15 – remember how that was simultaneously awesome and awful? Teens need books and people who know that, and are willing to listen and willing to show them that they aren’t alone. They just want what we all do: freedom, understanding, and friendship.

2 thoughts on “Is YA literature important? The expert and all-knowing answer from a librarian working with teens for all of one week.

  1. Madeleine L’Engle is a fountain for reflexive, paradoxical quotes about children’s lit (and I think most of them apply to YA lit too). For example this gem that I just exhumed from Google: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Or teens. I think too often we underestimate quality by pigeonholing genre. I mean, I can read a hundred classics and cross them off my “list of things,” but at the end of the day, if one teenager reads one book and it helps them find their own voice, I think they trump me. Perhaps part of the wonder of teen reading is that teens are old enough to tackle more explosive material, but still young enough to allow themselves to be molded.

    BTW, all of that is only my way of saying you’ve got me thinking. Here’s what I really mean: I like it and you. So thanks.

  2. Steve, I agree that genre (and reading/maturity level, for that matter) should be something that is allowed to form organically and take on a life of its own. L’Engle is right that a book should be what the book itself wants to be, not what an outside grownup or money grabbing publisher decides.

    I love this: “Perhaps part of the wonder of teen reading is that teens are old enough to tackle more explosive material, but still young enough to allow themselves to be molded.” That’s the amazing characteristic of young adults they have a great elasticity and a vulnerability that only exists for a few years. It’s really remarkable and makes for an exciting job.

    Thanks for reading.

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