Thursday, July 24, 2014

Adults who read young adult fiction

I read a couple of great young adult/middle grade books during my holidays. The Glass Republic, the second book in Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne urban fantasy trilogy, and the first two books in Gail Carrigher’s Finishing School steam punk series, Etiquette and Espionage, and Curtsies and Conspiracies. On the surface, they’re very different series. Pollock’s is a dark and gritty story that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, and Carriger’s is light, witty and full of humour.

But they have much in common, a female protagonist and a very imaginative and unique world-building among the most obvious. Pollock’s series is set in modern day London and Carrigher’s in Victorian time, but a young girl's steps towards adulthood and growing pains are universal themes regardless of the time and place.

Both series handle the themes of prejudice and acceptance. In The Glass Republic the protagonist, Pen, is trying to recover from torture she suffered in the first book. Her face marred with ugly scars, she finds it difficult enough to look herself in the mirror, let alone face her peers who are not compassionate. Matters only get worse when she is thrown into a mirror world where she is constantly stared at and admired for her uniqueness, as symmetry and unblemished countenance are found shameful.

In the Finishing School series, Sophronia has it easier. She is looked down on because of her background, but in general she fits in fine. The spurned other is the supernatural creatures, vampires and werewolves. That one of the main characters is black – fairly rare in Victorian London – seems almost superfluous and like an afterthought in this context.

Common themes for many young adult books are finding love and exploring sexuality, but neither of these series put a great emphasis on those. Sophronia, being a fourteen-year-old Victorian girl, is oblivious to latter and only vaguely aware of the first. When she has romantic feelings, her greatest concern is whether the person is socially acceptable or not. While romance isn’t the driving force of the series, Sophronia’s interest in a black working class boy will make things difficult for her in the books to come.

Pen is faced with similar difficulties. There are so many things she has to take into consideration; her Muslim faith and her parents’ wishes for a suitable spouse, and the dictates of the mirror world that is as class conscious as Sophronia’s Victorian society. In the end, she goes against everything and her self-image when she falls for a girl – more acceptable in the mirror society than the fact that she comes from a lower class.

Both series are immensely enjoyable in their different ways. Their rich worlds and imaginative plots, the drama in Pollock’s series and comedy in Carrigher’s kept my interest throughout, and ensure I’ll be reading the upcoming books too.

And I’m not ashamed to admit it.

In June, Ruth Graham wrote in Slate how adults “should feel embarrassed” when what they’re reading is written for children. Not because the books are bad – she discards the obviously bad books and concentrates on those with literary merit. She objects to them because their (adult) readers “are asked to abandon the mature insights … that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.”

Graham shows curious lack of empathy. I think our different perspective is precisely what makes young adult books enjoyable. Like with any books we read, we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and experience life from a different angle, for however briefly.

In that, a teenager’s perspective isn’t any worse or less valuable than an adult’s. We can learn something of ourselves just like we do when read about ‘mature’ characters. It can be even more valuable for someone who has adapted to the dictates of the mature society to see things like a child would.

Graham rejects YA fiction because she sees it merely as “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”. It’s all that, but I don’t see them as bad things. Nostalgia is necessary for humans from time to time. It puts our present and future into perspective. With YA fiction we can relive the bitter pain of the first crush without the emotional upheavals and insecurities of the actual teenage, and feel good knowing that whatever happens, we don’t have to return to that again. Moreover, YA fiction is not alone in pandering to easy emotions. Adult genre fiction does the same, its popularity a proof that readers actually want escapism from their books.

However, the biggest crime of the YA fiction is, in Graham’s opinion, that it lacks the “emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fictionof the real world”. Neither of the series that I read can be said to be realistic. That doesn’t mean they don’t represent reality. The themes are real and they are treated as multi-dimensional. Pollock assumes that even younger readers are capable of seeing the world in other shades than black and white, and Carrigher has created a school where young children are taught the morally ambiguous skills of espionage and assassination.

I have no idea how to defend YA fiction – or any fiction for that matter – against the accusation of not being ‘of the real world’. In real world, and apparently in fiction based on it, there are no happy endings, and so “adult readers ought to reject [YA fiction] as far too simple”.  In Graham’s opinion, adults should be adults in everything they do. But the definition of adulthood has changed.

There is a trend in modern society of postponing the adulthood. People well in their thirties do not see themselves as mature. They don’t want to grow up, if it means giving up things that they’ve enjoyed doing since childhood. Reading young adult fiction with its “uniformly satisfying” endings could merely be a symptom of that trend. Whether this is good or bad can, of course, be argued over. But I doubt that reading realistic fiction will make anyone mature faster.

The oddest of Graham’s notions is, however, that adults who read YA fiction rob teenagers a chance of moving to the ‘grown-up’ fiction. I don’t even know how that could be possible. There is no natural path that guides readers from one type of books to another, and from one age group to another. Books from different times, genres and literary ambitions coexist for anyone to find and read. Adults who read YA fiction do not make teenagers blind to other books. Moreover, just like adults want to return to their youth, teenagers have a need to experience the world of adults. They will discard YA books far faster than the adults who read them – perhaps to return to them later.

I don’t read YA fiction exclusively, nor do I read all of it. But I won’t discard good books merely because of my physical age or my assumed stage of maturity. I won’t limit myself to books suitable for my age either. I don’t need fiction to constantly remind me that life is hard. And I won’t be ashamed of sometimes wanting to forget it, be it with the help of young adult or some other escapist fiction.

That in mind, let me remind you that Our Lady of the Streets, the last book in Pollock’s trilogy will come out in August, and Waistcoats and Weaponry, the third book in the Finishing School series, is published in November. And Grahams article can be read here.