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Elizabeth Vail Headshot

YA and the Shame Game

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Ruth Graham recently sparked a "I'll read what I want!" furor when she wrote a takedown of YA on Slate and titled it "Against YA." Many articles chicken-littleing the inexplicable popularity of vulgar populist genre fiction have come before it and many more will come after it. The world is full of these strange, brittle people who think things are only valuable if they're uncomfortable.

However, what concerned me the most about her article wasn't her dislike of YA -- everyone is entitled to their own reading preferences, after all -- but rather her insistence that adult readers of it should be ashamed and embarrassed.

Ruth Graham's finger-wagging and false self-deprecation are actually pretty tame compared to the judgment and derision aimed at fans of the romance genre. If you like romance, have fun being dismissed as an unsatisfied housewife, a hopeless naïf hoping to score "relationship advice," or a mentally-unstable individual unable to differentiate fiction from reality.

The romance genre is primarily written and read by women. Not so coincidentally, so are Young Adult novels. Society seems to take great delight in shaming the interests of young women. Screaming girls are constantly blamed for the supposedly undeserved success of Justin Bieber or New Direction -- never mind that the shrieking female hordes also helped promote Elvis, the Beatles, and Justin Timberlake.

Ruth Graham's article is all about shame -- she castigates YA for presenting "the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way" without enforcing the "mature insights" that teenagers should learn. Yes, how dare Young Adult novels give us narratives where young people grow and develop and change their worldviews without being shamed for the natural awkward idiocies of youth!

As a teenage girl, I was frequently bombarded with media messages telling me that what I liked was stupid. "You like the Backstreet Boys? Ew!" Movies or music that were granted financial success thanks to teenagers often experienced a negative backlash as a result. Titanic rocketed a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio to superstardom -- but the shame of being a "teen heartthrob" yanked him right back down. Only through working on "grown up" films with Martin Scorsese was he able to regain cred as a "respectable actor."

So as someone who was once a shrieking teenage girl, and as someone who continues to read Young Adult and romance novels, I'm no stranger to being shamed for what I take pleasure from. I now have the experience and insight to recognize just how unproductive shaming can be. Has anyone, anywhere, taken up Charles Dickens or Toni Morrison because someone shamed them for reading Rainbow Rowell or Judy Blume?

What I do know is that I picked up Lord of the Rings because I enjoyed Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. I started reading Tanya Huff's feminist fantasy novels after getting a recommendation from a fellow fan of Tamora Pierce's Lioness Rampant YA series. People are reading The Giver again thanks to the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent, which is also leading readers to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Pleasure begets pleasure. The unfettered enjoyment of YA fiction now experienced by both adults and teenagers -- age groups that used to be at odds -- has led to increased exchanges of ideas and recommendations, the revitalization of the Internet reading community, and the very literary exploration that Ruth Graham values so highly. The bridge YA has built between teenage and adult readers should be celebrated, not shamed. Regardless of what you read now, think twice about closing that wardrobe door to Narnia. You might find yourself in surprisingly pleasant company if you ever go back for a visit.