Young adult stories, such as Harry Potter and "Hunger Games," have tapped into the imagination of adults worldwide. So what makes the genre so appealing to grown-ups?
WASHINGTON — Some of my favorite books are intended for younger audiences: the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling; “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton; “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman; and pretty much anything written by Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett.
Admittedly, I am a fantasy and science-fiction buff. Both genres — which some readers insist on lumping together, but which I would argue have little in common — cater to the young adult crowd. While the writing is often clear and easy to follow, the plots are rich with detail and imagination.
As Twitter user Jennifer Baird says:
“YA authors grab their readers’ attention with intensity and passion!”
Jennifer and I are not alone. Fifty-five percent of Young Adult books were purchased by adults in 2012, according to a Publisher’s Weekly study.
And in 2011, the Association of American Publishers ranked children’s and young adult books as the fastest-growing publishing category.
Despina Kakoudaki, associate professor of literature at American University, is not surprised.
As an avid YA consumer, Kakoudaki enjoys the challenge of seeing the world through the eyes of someone younger, she says.
In “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” for example, only characters who have seen death are able to communicate with mythical creatures called Thestrals.
“That is a wonderful way to explain something that is actually a very complex feeling,” Kakoudaki says. “When you’ve been touched by loss, your view of the world changes.”
But detractors, such as Slate’s Ruth Graham, argue that at its core, young adult literature is too simple. It aims to “satisfy” and indulges “in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.”
“YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction — of the real world — is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction,” she writes.
But what exactly is the “real world?”
Plenty of young adult stories tackle the very real problems of loss, fear, anxiety and tragedy. Even something as “simple” as the “Hunger Games” series depicts a world torn apart by socioeconomic inequality in which children bear the burden left behind by a failed revolution.
How is this different than what “real” children suffer in war torn regions of our very real world?
Is it the colorful costumes, the imagination and fantasy, that makes something like “Hunger Games” so repellent to cynical adults like Graham?
If we tweak the storyline and remove certain elements, the Suzanne Collins books appear to be Dickensian in nature: impoverished children; cruel adults; and the promise of something better. In fact, the premise — the struggle between the haves and have-nots — is something to which any adult with a shred of empathy can relate.
Kakoudaki says the battle between YA and adult fiction, can be distilled into one simple concept: curiosity.
“Curious people can be found in every age group,” she says.
“If we think about it that way, the idea that a book that is written for young people, might actually have a perspective that even adults might find refreshing.”
And many do.
Whether it’s the over-sexualization of females, alienation by technology or the simple feeling of displacement, the issues confronting teens today very much reflect the issues their parents must tackle in their own lives. The stories cynics reserve for the young offer similar insights into the human condition as their adult counterparts.
Interestingly, movies that could fall under the YA banner if they were books attract older generations without a hint of irony.
Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is a prime example of mature storytelling told through the perspective of young people. Yet, because it is a movie, we do not treat it as somehow inferior. If anything, “Monnrise Kingdom” has been praised as one of Anderson’s best films.
Kakoudaki says this phenomenon occurs because films have the power to transcend mundane descriptors like “young adult literature.”
“We don’t have a particular style of filming that is age specific,” she says. “There isn’t any particular style that would limit who can see it.”
Hollywood has successfully applied this multigenerational model to most of its movies in recent years — from “The Avengers” to “Lincoln,” films are now created with a broad appeal in mind.
But some writers seem to reject the reader, and perhaps this is what Graham enjoys about adult fiction. If YA aims to please, then surely adult literature does not concern itself with pleasing anyone but the writer. Perhaps this is why so many recommended books end up half-read on the bookshelves.
YA, on the other hand, seems to offer a breath of fresh air in an otherwise dark and twisted world.
In the recent “The Kingkiller” series by Patrick Rothfuss, he fuses riveting storytelling with masterful writing. His prose is a delight to read — he effortlessly includes phrases like “the sinuous speed of scuttling insects” without feeling heavy-handed. Put simply, he is one the best new writers to emerge in recent years.
And yet, many readers would eschew his work because it involves magic and a teenage protagonist. Why? Why are adults so scared of young people and how they perceive the world?
Those of us who embrace this alternative perspective find true joy in seeing the world through the eyes of a child.
“I love the intensity of first time experiences, experimentation and growth that we’re told to stop doing as adults,” says Twitter user @SarahOckler.