Should Adults Read Young Adult Books?

March 30, 2012 § 10 Comments

Or: A Reaction to Joel Stein’s “Adults Should Read Adult Books”

Or: The Narrow-Mindedness of the Literary Elite

Yesterday the New York Times published an essay entitled “Adults Should Read Adult Books” by Joel Stein. The gist is obvious from the title, but I posted most of it below (and if you’re like me, your irritation will carry you through it quickly):

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

I’m sure all those books are well written. So is “Horton Hatches the Egg.” But Horton doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing.

I appreciate that adults occasionally watch Pixar movies or play video games. That’s fine. Those media don’t require much of your brains. Books are one of our few chances to learn. There’s a reason my teachers didn’t assign me to go home and play three hours of Donkey Kong. I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

There are so many things that I object to about this article that I don’t even know where to begin.

First of all, it suggests that every adult book ever written is more literary and worthy of note than every young adult book ever written “I’ll read ‘The Hunger Games’ when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.”

Apparently books written for young people can never have “the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing.”  Clearly we should all stop reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit, and Catcher in the Rye because apparently the arrogant gentlemen near us on planes think it’s embarrassing. What’s that you say Mr. Stein? Oh, there wasn’t a “young adult genre” when those books were written? Oh, I see now. So when book sellers decided to start putting books they thought would appeal to young people on a shelf labeled “young adult” that’s the point after which all books written for “young adults” would be considered second-class literature.

I should also note that girls definitely get the short end of the literary stick here because “people who have physically stopped growing” are expected to read more refined and literary works and most girls stop growing around age thirteen while boys can grow until their twenties. Though I must admit physically stature seems like a strange determinate. Why not something like age? Or foot size? Skull shape?

Now it would be one thing if he were making well-reasoned arguments for why adults should be reading whatever “literature” our dear Mr. Stein is reading, but he’s not. “I have no idea what ‘The Hunger Games’ is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character… I don’t know because it’s a book for kids.” Oh I see Mr. Stein, you haven’t read books like The Hunger Games; the books you are passing judgement on.  He sounds like a five year old child, insisting that he doesn’t like broccoli though he’s never had it, and in doing so he’s shaming people away from reading.

To quote C. S. Lewis: “Am I to patronize sleep because children sleep sound? Or honey because children like it?”

Mr. Stein, you may use words like “anomie” and “Pynchonesque,” but I’m not impressed.

Yes, if you’re looking for a book that you can read so that you can look down on everyone else, then young adult probably isn’t for you, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have complicated characters or meaningful plots. On top of that, reading is good period. The more literate a person is, the more likely they will be to get a job and the less likely they are to be incarcerated (in fact, many states decide how many prisons to build for the future based on the reading levels of current elementary schoolers). On top of this reading increases empathy–the ability for the reader to relate to (and care about) other people.

So if someone is either going to read one young adult book this year or no books at all, excuse me for encouraging them to read and practice those skills. Maybe they’ll even go on to read a second book, maybe this time one that you’d actually approve of, Mr. Stein. In a country with falling literacy rates and reading levels you can’t expect people to jump into War and Peace like it’s Dr. Seuss.

This brings me to a broader point in general. Almost all of us do this. We might not be quite as obtuse as Mr. Stein about it, but most of us do this nonetheless. We look down our noses at people who read fantasy or science fiction or women’s fiction or *gasp* comic books. Just the other day I was reading a blog (that I generally like) that was bashing books based on video games. If a person who rarely reads loves Halo so much that they choose to sit down and read the novelizations, more power to them. I know for a fact that for many, these books are a gateway into science fiction and reading in general.

A huge part of the reason that I like science fiction is because I loved Star Wars growing up and stumbled across the novels of the Extended Universe (there are a bajillion of them). I read dozens of those books and they weren’t all literary masterpieces, but they gave me an appetite that I then turned towards Heinlein and Asimov, Orson Scott Card and John Scalzi.

So let’s get over ourselves a little and if someone wants to read, not just let them read, encourage them to. There are important skills to build and amazing worlds to explore.

I’ll leave you with a great flow chart guide to picking the “right” books (borrowed from Book Riot):

On an unrelated note, I think it’s a shame that Mr. Stein doesn’t appreciate Pixar movies.


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§ 10 Responses to Should Adults Read Young Adult Books?

  • Brigid says:

    We all know how I feel about Harry Potter, and the fact that if anyone bashes it they obviously have no intellect or soul… but don’t get me started! I’m behind you 100% 🙂

  • joannedj says:

    I totally agree! I don’t like any sort of elitism or snobbery to begin with, and I certainly don’t approve of such attitudes when it comes to books! If there’s one thing guaranteed to put people off reading altogether it’s to have some twit like Mr Stein dictating to them which books they should or shouldn’t read! However young or old you are, I say read what you fancy reading! Doesn’t matter if it’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar or War And Peace!

  • whatistaste says:

    This kind of snobbery always gets to me, especially being a college student who has seen barely-literate peers get through uni without reading a single book. Any reading at all is commendable and should not be looked down on. If Joel Stein would like further proof of the merit of YA books, he need look no further than PhD programs in Children’s Lit at institutions like Penn State; they clearly think YA has purpose and should even be studied, let alone read!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      That’s a really good point about Children’s Lit programs. I think there’s a very small difference between someone like Stein mocking adults who read young adult and someone who doesn’t read at all mocking those who do. Each position is founded on arrogance.

  • stoehrkr says:

    I could write a very long post about this–but I will give myself 3 key points:

    1. Young adult books impact our youth, read them, connect with a kid, and wonderful things will happen.

    2. As with any story you get out of it what you put into it, if you don’t like it critique it, if you do like it delineate why, the power of the story comes from the thoughts a reader has not necessarily the writing of the author.

    3. The written word is powerful, simply because a story is simple does not mean that it is not powerful.

    Also, I’m stealing the flow chart and pasting it to my classroom library wall–I’ve been trying to teach my students how to choose a book and they don’t understand that I really just want them to like it!

  • This is a good post. I started glaring and skimming through the guy’s comments because there is nothing wrong with young adult books. These books can speak to anyone, whether or not it was written for the reader’s age group. I like escaping to Middle Earth, Mossflower, Discworld, etc. These fantasy lands help spark my creativity and imagination. The world is nothing without creativity and imagination. You can’t let go of that fun. Then, you let go of the magic and wonder. How do you live without those things?
    Oh, and sometimes, comics may seem fluffy at first glance, but they can carry the most astute observations you’ll come across. Calvin and Hobbes all the way

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Not only that, but comics take more energy and effort from the reader than a TV show, encouraging them to engage. It teaches kids to sit down and delay gratification as they take a little more time to get into/through, which is a lesson that will serve as a stepping stone to books. And that’s not to mention that reading written words is still reading written words, whether they’re next to pictures or not.

  • […] Should Adults Read Young Adult Books? ( 33.629319 -85.804754 Rate this: Share this: Pin ItMoreDiggShare on TumblrPrintEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Geek Time and tagged Association of American Publishers, Books, Children's books, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, E-book, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, IPad, Young-adult fiction by barcncpt44. Bookmark the permalink. […]

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