As a full-grown adult, I’ve gotten my fair share of dubious looks and halfhearted utterances regarding my young-adult reading habits—“Oh, yeah, you like Harry Potter? So does my 8-year-old nephew!” “Sisterhood of the Traveling … ha-ha-ha-ha.” I’ve heard the behind-the-back jibes as well as the to-my-face criticisms that adult fans of YA are stuck in some sad adolescent existence and, quite possibly, bringing down the collective IQ of our nation by reading below our grade level. Or that we’re just weird.
Much of the YA I read in my youth consisted of the foundational Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books, stories that everyone I knew read. There were also the later books in Maud Hart Lovelace’s “Betsy-Tacy” series, and, most especially, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though they weren’t technically YA, having been released before that classification really came into being, in the late sixties. But twenty-some years ago, when I was reading those books, the category was a lot different. Much to the chagrin of teens, YA novels were allocated to the children’s sections of bookstores, mortifyingly close to Curious George.
But then Harry Potter came along. People were talking about this boy wizard and an entire, vivid fantasy ecosystem that had been created. It wasn’t just kid stuff, they said. There was death, dark magic, complicated family relationships, love, faith. And as soon as I finished book one, I rushed out to buy the next: I was officially hooked on reading books intended for people much younger than me. These new stories diverged from the serials about teen life I’d read in my childhood. They had settings that ranged from Germany during World War II (Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief) to a dystopian, futuristic society (The Hunger Games, of course) to a Native American reservation (Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) to a realistic nineties high school that felt very far from sun-kissed Sweet Valley (Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower). I read YA book after YA book, usually in one sitting, and often late into the night. (Most of these books are shorter and sell at a lower price point than comparable adult offerings, and there are YA authors who seem able to churn them out almost yearly, so the momentum of buy-read-buy-read-buy can continue unabated. I can’t be blamed for my actions.)
And I’m not alone in my adolescent hankering. Earlier this year, Scholastic launched its “I Read YA” campaign, an effort conceived to promote YA pride for all ages with tote bags, buttons, and bonding over social media. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, has begun not one but three “kidlit” reading groups for adults, because so many people wanted to participate. A growing number of “adult” authors—Michael Chabon, Harlan Coben, Neil Gaiman, Carl Hiaasen, Gillian Flynn—are writing YA, and so are celebrities like Jason Segel and Lauren Graham. There’s now even a “New Adult” category that offers slightly older characters in more involved sexual situations, for people who want something in between Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
Meanwhile, YA creeps steadily into other forms of media: TV shows like Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl (all originally YA books) have fervent grown-up followings; movies based on Divergent and Catching Fire were the talk of the San Diego Comic-Con. The 2014 adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a heartbreaking book about two cancer-stricken teens, will star Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort (both of whom will also star in Divergent). TFiOS, as it’s known by fans, will compete with the film version of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, featuring Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Katie Holmes, and Taylor Swift, due out the same year.
But the question remains: Why do I, and other adults, read books for teens? In late August, YA author Malinda Lo asked adults to offer up their thoughts on the subject via Twitter, along with the hashtag #whyadultsreadYA. “I enjoy the immediacy of the stories and the sense of being at the beginning of the path of who you’ll become,” tweeted @sesinkhorn. “I love the intensity of 1st time experiences, experimentation, & growth that we’re told to stop doing as adults,” added @sarahockler. When I asked Sandie Angulo Chen, co-founder of the blog Teen Lit Rocks, for her theory, she said, “I think it’s about having that desire to connect with the you that’s still young, having that appreciation for that time in your life and wanting to reconnect with it.” And I have to agree; there’s an undeniable nostalgic lure. Reading YA, unlike consuming other forms of entertainment that are rooted in the past—movies that are remakes or origin stories of long-established comic-book heroes, for example—reminds me of the person I used to be rather than the things I used to be into.
There’s a kind of forward momentum, too, enabled by reading about characters for whom lives are still blank slates ready to be filled, compared to our own. We can measure ourselves against their choices and see how we succeeded; we can feel wiser than they are, knowing that what we did then turned out okay; we can also see for ourselves where there might still be room to improve. As dire as the situations may be—the worlds of these characters contain creatures bent on destroying them, untrustworthy adults, grave injustices, unrequited or deeply problematic love, abuse, bullying, suicide, murder, paralyzing self-doubt—there is the sense that things have the potential to get better.
It should be noted that I read plenty of things written by and meant for adults. I can stand tall as I show them off on the subway. But adult as they are, they don’t always captivate me the way YA does. Those are the books I read in a one-night rush, staying up until three in the morning to find out what happened, and when I do, sighing in pleasure because the heroine really does get the guy, the world has been saved, the parents finally understand, or there is at least the promise of things working out in the end. Adult books may be great literature, but they don’t make me feel the same way.
Maybe that’s because at its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable. It’s intended for people who are coming of age reading about characters who are doing the same. As such, these books have a way of cocooning their protagonists, navigating them—and by extension, the reader—to safety, and sometimes real happiness. There’s a moment in Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, a book about two misfits falling in love, that captures it best. Eleanor reflects on the mix tape Park gave her: “There was something about the music on that tape,” Rowell writes. “It felt different. Like, it set her lungs and her stomach on edge. There was something exciting about it, and something nervous. It made Eleanor feel like everything, like the world, wasn’t what she’d thought it was. And that was a good thing. That was the greatest thing.”
*This article originally appeared in the October 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.