Reclaiming YA Novels

When I picked up a young adult novel from the library a few weeks ago, I thought I knew what to expect. It seemed like what my sister and I call “YA fluff”; a typical teen romance story. But as I started reading the book, Once and For All by Sarah Dessen, I realized that there were some more complex themes underlying the story. First of all there’s nothing wrong with just a classic teen romance story. But I think it’s worth noting that so many YA stories are more than that.

This book, for example, dealt not only with love, but loss (spoiler alert coming up). As the story goes on, we learn that the main character Louna’s previous boyfriend was killed in a school shooting. This alone made the book so much more than a fluffy romance story.

Two other YA books I’ve read recently, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, are also about more than romance. The former is the story of a teen boy who wins an enormous lottery; it asks thought-provoking questions about luck, money and philanthropy. The latter is a layered story of family, the bond of sisters and high school. These are no small themes; and they are ones which are, in my opinion, fascinating to readers of any age.

That young adult books are intricate, woven stories about much more than romance is nothing new to most YA readers. I have noticed, though, a tendency in older teenagers to wrinkle their noses at the idea of reading YA books. Why is this some people’s reaction? It may have something to do with the fact that our society seems to deem anything that teenagers, teen girls in particular, enjoy to be frivolous and trivial. YA books centred around romance are just one example of this; but of course, the books are about more than romance because (another spoiler alert) teenagers care about other things as well.

My high school librarian used to say that people enjoy reading books with characters a few years older than they are. I definitely feel strange at times reading YA, when characters are entering high school for the first time and I’m in university; I think this is why, at one point, I stopped reading a lot of YA books. I started reading more adult books, like thrillers, non-fiction and everything by Jodi Picoult. I don’t remember exactly what made me pick up another YA book, but I’m so glad that I did. My overall reading is so much more diverse now, and I have learned a lot from the YA books I’ve read. In this way, I think I have “reclaimed” YA books; I love reading them now.

There’s a quote by P.J. O’Rourke that says, “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” This idea, that we should read what we think makes us look good in the eyes of other people, is one that I think we as a society should retire, fast. We should read what interests us, not what “looks good.” Don’t let other people’s perceptions stop you from reading YA novels; and if you think you’ve outgrown the genre, consider giving it another chance. You might be surprised!

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11 thoughts on “Reclaiming YA Novels

  1. I go between adult and YA books as I’m started to move away from the YA books as I find that a lot of them do have this unneeded cliche romance however sometimes its good to have a bit of romance to just keep young readers interested and help them to learn about the other message woven into the book. There is really really good YA books that I have read recently, espically ones which do have romance in it but have this really important meaningful message behind it like books like I’ll give you the sun by Jandy Nealson and Orbiting Jupiter by Gary. D. Schmdit. Really loved this blog post

    1. That’s a good point–some books definitely just use romance as a hook! But lots of others use the storyline effectively and in tandem with the message. I’ll have to check out those books! 🙂

  2. OK, I’m putting Once and for All on my TBR list. I LOVE Jenny Han’s books. They’re sweet without being cloying and such great characterization. Thanks for your post!

  3. In the past decade or so, I started to move away from YA novels (I’m 29!) but recently found my way back with, yep, you guessed it, Once and For All. I have always been a Sarah Dessen fan, even when I stopped reading YA fiction. Admittedly, I ordered it and haven’t read it yet but I’ve picked up other books from the library, like Ramona Blue, A Week of Mondays. I also have To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on reserve at the library! Once you reach a certain age, it’s frowned upon to read that type of work. You’re right, you move to books geared toward an older crowd, but I’m glad that I’ve been reading the genre again. There are some good reads out there. I also saw an article on Vulture recently about the toxic drama of YA books, which piqued my interest – it’s a good read if you have a chance.

  4. I find that a lot of YA novels touch on so much more than just romance. I’ve just finished reading one about mental health and how complicated the disease is to the individuals and their loved ones. That’s not frivolous thinking. That’s deep and emotional. And it could potentially save someone’s life. Read what makes you happy unabashedly and unashamed. Other wise, there is no point in reading, is there?

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