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The Fault In Our Perceptions of YA fiction

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John Green, the best-selling author of The Fault in Our Stars, scored another success at the end of 2017 with Turtles All the Way Down. Eagerly awaited by legions of fans, it has already spent weeks in The New York Times bestsellers’ list and has already been optioned for a film adaptation.

But what does that matter? It’s just a book for teenage girls, right?

That dismissive attitude has been expressed by literary critics, and you can see why that might be. We’ve all seen the stacks of Young Adult (YA) fiction in bookshops with similar covers: pastel colours, bubble-writing, promises of romance and angst. The storylines can seem predictable, repetitive even, with the age-old boy-meets-girl, often with a twist, sometimes with a happy ending. Frequently, someone dies. As someone who believes passionately in teenagers reading to challenge themselves, I know that most of these books are not going to expose them to the kind of quality literature they’re going to come across in school.

The Fault In Our Stars

Yet what they are going to find are the issues which matter to them: friendships, first loves, mental illness, growing up, finding out who you are. These are the things that they’re not going to come across in Shakespeare or Dickens, least not in their school studies. With movements to ensure greater racial, LGBTQ+ and gender representation in the media, it only seems right that teenage girls should have the opportunity to see characters like them in the books they read.

Despite my misgivings over the quality of some of the YA fiction available, some of the most affecting literature I’ve ever read is aimed at teenage girls. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, about a fanfiction-writing introvert negotiating her first year at college, is one of my all-time favourites, whilst I’ve yet to read a Sarah Dessen novel I didn’t enjoy. Morgan Matson’s characters in books such as Since You’ve Been Gone and The Unexpected Everything are so rounded and well-written that you’d be forgiven for forgetting they’re fictional. That’s the real beauty of these books: they’re about people, doing real things, like missing a friend, falling out with a sister or reconciling with a parent. Rather than the grandiose theoretical fiction that is so often deemed critically ‘good’, these books are where you’ll find the world as it really is.

Perhaps it is that reality which makes these books so easy to deride. Somehow, when teenage boys select the latest sporting autobiography, thriller or fantasy, their choice is less worthy of this kind of criticism. We might question whether a ghost-written retelling of a premier league footballer’s life is any more thought-provoking, engaging or enlightening than a fictionalised account of what it is like to be a teenager. In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote that men’s pursuits such as ‘football and sport’ have always been perceived as more important than women’s, and this view seems to persist almost 90 years on, with teenage girls bearing the brunt of this historical everyday sexism.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that teenagers are reading. The unspoken acceptance that they don’t is in danger of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if this literary-snobbery about the books they love continues. Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf are not for everybody (even, on many occasions, this Literature graduate) and to judge a teenage girl based on her reading choices is as ridiculous as shaking your head at someone for watching Star Wars. If we want readers, if we want publishing to continue to thrive, we have to value reading of all kinds, or perhaps risk losing our own favourites too.

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