To All the Teen Books I’ve Loved Before
On YA & Coming-of-Age
Adapted from my June 3rd lecture at Trampoline Hall.
Katniss Everdeen. Triss Prior. Renesmee Carlie Cullen. Ameema Saeed.
We have more in common than just having weird names. We are also in a fight for something much larger than ourselves.
Overthrowing oppressive regimes.
And advocating against the unfair stigmatization of young adult novels.
As an avid bookworm, and a bookstagrammer (that’s a book Instagrammer for you *literary types*), I read a lot. Like 100+ books a year, a lot. And like any reader, there have been books I’ve loved, books I’ve hated, & books that didn’t have any sort of impact on me. I have favourite — and least favourite — authors, genres, and tropes. I read across many different genres and age groups — and I’ve found that one of my favourite types of books is Young Adult (or Teen) books.
The term YA (or Young Adult) was coined in the 1960s, as the official way to categorize books for ages 12–18.
As of 2012, about 55% of YA books are bought by people over the age of 18.
The literal definition of YA is increasingly fuzzy, but it generally refers to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds. Meanwhile, the cultural definition of “young adult” now stretches almost to the age of 30, which may have something to do with this whole phenomenon.
Despite the popularity of Teen books (and movies made out of Teen books), they do have their fair share of what Notorious B.I.G would call “haters”.
I’ve had many conversations with people who “don’t like YA”. They say this like YA is a garnish on a meal, or a Katy Perry remix, and not an incredibly diverse characterization of books across multiple genres, themes, topics, and reading levels.
Some of the critiques (or reasons for not liking Teen books) that come up the most often are:
The Subject Matter:
How can a grown up not roll their eyes at these sweet Summer children, who are experiencing their first crushes, their first kisses, and getting their driver’s licences?
But, the appeal of losing yourself in a story where the characters have nothing but their whole futures, their whole lives ahead of them is easy to understand.
Although I think simple stories about coming-of-age, or first love, and just generally trying to survive the banalities of life are important — YA fiction is known for exploring incredibly complex, mature, and difficult topics, like sexual assault, police brutality, mental illness, and suicide.
YA books often indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but adult readers often reject as far too simple. This means satisfying endings – whether that satisfaction comes through cheering or sobbing, these endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up nicely and neatly. She gets the girl. Our heroes end up married, or dead. The oppressive monarchy has been overthrown. Our heroes walk into a new day, a new future.
Not to say that YA can’t be as emotionally, morally, or stylistically ambiguous as adult fiction – but largely these books do have some sort of satisfying conclusion.
I don’t quite see the issue with this myself – I like an ending, even if it’s a vague one. It’s closure. Life is too open ended anyways, so it’s nice for me to know that someone, somewhere has a satisfying resolution – Even if it’s in a fictional school of magic.
The Poor Writing:
Teen books are often given a bad rap because they cater to teens and are about teens. They often use slang, or more casual language, but saying they’re written poorly is reductive. With hundreds of thousands of different stories, by thousands of writers, in MANY different genres — YA books, like any type of book have their share of incredibly strong, talented, memorable writers. I mean, statistically, most people in this room have at one time had a line from Twilight, or Harry Potter as their MSN personal message, or Facebook status… Take that Bukowski!
One of the most common complaints about YA novels is that they often use tropes: Instant love, conveniently missing parents, manic pixie dream girls, & protagonists who don’t realize their own beauty.
Most often, the complaint is that these tropes aren’t realistic or relatable… But, the thing is… some of them kind of are?
I’m not saying that tropes aren’t annoying… The majority of YA books follow the same formula:
(white heterosexual male) + (white heterosexual female)
= coming-of-age love story
There are, of course some variables: a minority best friend, family drama, an oppressive government, maybe some dragons — but it often feels like the same thing — over and over again.
This occurs in all literature though — If you walk through the bookshelves of almost any bookstore, you will see that despite the breadth of assortment, the lack of representation feels the same.
I’ve always found it disappointing to not see myself represented in the majority of popular books (and their screen adaptations).
Books are a way to escape from your life into another one; They are a way to make your wildest dreams come true… But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to see yourself reflected in these stories.
The Ethnic Best Friend:
My family moved to Canada, from Pakistan, in early 2001 — months before 9/11, and before Islamophobia began to rise in North America. Coming to Canada was a culture shock in a lot of ways, but it was especially difficult, when my family moved into the suburbs, becoming one of only 3 non-white families on our block. My sister was bullied because of her race, my family stood out almost everywhere we went, and for the first time ever, I found myself in a position where most of my classmates & friends were White.
I slowly began to hate or be embarrassed by parts of my culture. Our weird smelling food, my parents’ accents, my dark skin, and thick, unruly hair — I just wanted to be more like my White friends.
I first leaned into the trope of the Ethnic Best Friend™ as a way of fitting in. I would make fun of, and accentuate the things that made me different from my friends — Russell Peters style — to show them that I was not like the others. I was a cool, harmless minority, who got to take extra days off school for Eid, & got Henna tattoos.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve worked hard at shaking off these years of internalized racism, and self-imposed cultural assimilation. I’ve stopped mispronouncing words in my language just to seem less ethnic, I confidently wear my Kurtas with jeans, I have Bollywood and Pakistani pop music on my workout playlist, and generally, I feel more comfortable in the skin I’m in. Now, I’m one of many Ethnic best friends in a friend group that looks like a college brochure.
Hate to love:
Another common trope in Teen novels is Hate to Love. It’s exactly what it sounds like — a character meets a devastatingly attractive other character (usually of the opposite sex), and at first they hate each other. But eventually… That hate blossoms into something… more.
As a fat woman, this trope is mostly resonant when it comes to my relationship with my body.
For so long I’ve had a difficult relationship with my body. I’ve struggled with my weight for years, and I’ve struggled with my self-esteem, and with hating my body for just as long. I would take turns being angry at, disgusted with, frustrated about, and sad because of my body.
I’ve worked hard to move away from that. Little by little, pound by pound, inch by inch, imperfection by imperfection, this body began to grow on me.
Like the arrogant but handsome male lead in a YA novel, I began to see my body in a new light. I began to care for it, and I began to fall in love with it.
Slowly. And then all at once.
Now, I am proud of my body. Its strength, its curves, the things it can do. I’ve become unashamed and unapologetic.
My relationship with my body is still complicated, but now it’s full of joy and strength and appreciation; laughter, and light. It’s full of love.
The Test/The Trials:
A popular trope in Teen novels is when the protagonist has to go through a test, or a series of trials — typically leading to them discovering that they are… The Chosen One.
In my fourth year of university, I started going through my own set of tests and trials. Like a brave YA heroine who’s trying to fight for her people’s survival, I stood up to my doctor, and I said “something is wrong”.
Vials and vials of blood, dozens and dozens of x-rays, multiple ultrasounds, an MRI.
After years of pain, and doctors saying it was all in my head, or just because I’m fat… the results were in.
The disease with a thousand faces. Lupus is an autoimmune illness, & it’s symptoms include chronic pain and fatigue.
Although I’m still dealing with what it means for me, and what my life will look like moving forward, having a reason for the pain, an answer to what was wrong with me has been a huge relief.
“A breath that they didn’t know they were holding”
They say that when you’re depressed, you lose interest in the things you love. So it’s telling that over the last few months, when I was in one of the worst periods of depression in my life, I also had a hard time finding the energy or motivation to read.
I was hoping the book that would get me out of the worst reading slump in my life would be something meaningful and powerful, like a book by Angela Davis, or Andrea Gibson…. instead, it was a Young Adult book described as “Mulan meets Project Runway” — which I literally could not put down.
There’s a very niche Young Adult trope, which is a line in a book, when a character “lets out a breath that they didn’t know they were holding”.
Like other language tropes, such as “her heart stuttered at the sound of his voice”, or his gaze “smoldered” — I never really understood how that worked. I mean literally — physically and biologically, it never made sense to me.
I’m not saying reading YA is the cure for depression, but I didn’t realize how closely I had tied my identity, my life, and even my happiness around reading, until I lost interest in it.
I’ve struggled with depression for a really long time, and the fact that a YA fantasy could distract me from my miserable mood; That I would stay up late reading it, and go to bed thinking about reading it again in the morning?
That’s pretty damn awesome.
So, not unlike the hero in a sweeping fantasy, waiting for the dust to settle, to see if the evil really was defeated, I started reading a book, I didn’t know much about, and let go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding, because I knew I was home.
The Power of YA
#WeNeedDiverseBooks & #OwnVoices are hashtags started by Young Adult readers and authors, and have inspired a huge change in the very White, often straight industry, that is publishing. Since these hashtags were created, We Need Diverse Books has become a nonprofit, and more and more books are coming out by marginalized authors, & featuring marginalized protagonists every year.
In 2014, mainstream publishers published 47 LGBT+ YA books, which was a 59% increase from 2013, when only 29 LGBT+ YA books were published by mainstream publishers.
Obviously, there is still so much work to be done, but the strides that have been made in a few short years have been amazing. 5 years ago, if you’d told me that a book about a young Black teenage girl who sees her friend, an unarmed Black teenage boy shot and killed by a White police officer would sit on the New York Times bestseller list for 116 weeks, I would never have believed you.
Agree with it, or disagree with it, YA has turned literary culture into mainstream pop culture. It’s given a home to bookworms and outcasts, who have a hard time fitting in, and relating to their peers. YA gives youth and teens a voice, and someone to relate to.
YA has galvanized youth and young adults, with examples like Starr Carter, who stood up against police brutality and anti-blackness; Like Katniss Everdeen, a sulky teenager, who mobilized a revolution against an oppressive government. Like Harry Potter and his friends, who defeated evil time and time again. These days, you keep hearing more and more stories about teenagers who were inspired to create social change by the examples in their lives, in pop culture, and in the media around them.
So this is a letter, To All the Teen Books I’ve Loved Before:
The thing about using reading as a distraction or an escape is that sometimes it can work a little too well. Sometimes you look up from your book, and you realize how much of life has passed you by, while you were reading about it. And while, obviously, I need to get out more, I am so grateful for all that I’ve gotten from you.
Thank you to Padma and Parvati Patil. J.K. Rowling did you dirty, but you were still the first Brown characters I ever read about in a book.
Thank you to Angie Thomas, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Stephen Chbosky for not thinking teenagers were too young to read books about issues going on in the world around them.
Thank you to Adam Silvera, M-E Girard, and all of the other authors who wanted queer, trans, and nonbinary kids to know they’re not alone.
Thank you to Sabaa Tahir, Dhonielle Clayton, and Jenny Han, who wanted young readers of colour to know that their stories matter too.
Thank you to the authors who are not afraid to take chances, to challenge themselves and their readers, and to tell the stories they want to see in the world.
Thank you, to Young Adult books for teaching me more about myself than I ever thought possible.