When I was a teenager, what I most wanted to read were fantasy novels. Not Tolkien and Malory, but sword-and-sorcery pulp. I craved glowy blue magic, chainmail bikinis, dragons with unpronounceable names. Today I might head into the young adult section to find these stories, but this was the nineteen-eighties, and my dark elves and magical longbows were found only in the adult area of the library. Was I reading young adult? No idea. I didn't need to answer that question back then. All I had to do was enjoy the book.
Over a typical day, the teen me read The Odyssey for school, skimmed Her Pirate Lover for the sex scenes, and read the Elfstones of Shannara until I fell asleep. None of those books was published as young adult, and yet I can see why I was pulled to all three -- feeling the satisfaction of finishing something of weight, acquiring knowledge about the mysterious adult world, discovering stories about previously nondescript kids who turned out to be special. Yes, please.
Debates have been sputtering up lately about whether the growth of young adult literature means we should be mourning our national intellect. These arguments are at their most futile when they're at the level of content. Readers have always read high and low, and to fight that urge is to fight the freedom inherent in the act of reading itself. The only arguments that have any traction, as best as I can see it, are about whether the genre classification of young adult should exist at all. It's a line I hear often when people find out I write for teens: "I was reading adult books as a teenager; why can't kids today do the same?"
There's an implied pat on the back in the question. Perhaps the books adults would love to see in teen hands are the nutritive classics they were told to read during their own youths, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Great Expectations or The Catcher in the Rye. But if any of those books were published today, it would likely be published as young adult. With few exceptions, the publishing industry has come to a consensus: if a book has a young protagonist, and if its worldview is primarily interested in the questions that crop up when coming of age, then it's a young adult novel.
The designation doesn't have to mean a book is easier or pulpier. You wouldn't know that from the stern commentary, though. One problem in the recent debates about literature for young people is that most of the commenters and scholars are coming to the topic from adult literature, and in order to analyze the growth of young adult they examine the recent mountaintops: typically The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars. I enjoyed reading each of these books, but they hardly summarize the field. To make an argument about young adult literature based solely on them would be like assessing the whole of adult literature by scanning the books on sale at a drugstore.
In a complicated world, genre is useful. It's a grouping tool, a way of cutting through the noise of the tens of thousands of books coming out each month. ("I liked the last ___ book I read. I'll get another.") Young adult is another one of those genre classifications, and one that happens to be growing. But once a book is in the hands of a reader, its genre ceases to be important, and attention can properly turn to the magic of text and ideas. Calling a book "young adult" is only important in that it can help get a book to the right reader. After that it's a useless abstraction and should be discarded.
In my teen wanderings through the adult section, I found some beloved books, but also many whose concerns were too distant to grab me. All a young adult category does is say "check these out: these books were written with you in mind." Resourceful teens will always find books to read. But for the others who come to literature halfheartedly, who are already nudging toward the sharper pleasures of the video game over the relatively muted joys of the novel, having a category like young adult shortens their journey to the right book.
I recently re-read Charlotte's Web, which I hadn't opened since childhood. I'm so glad I did: It's an extraordinary book that manages to be simple and huge at the same time. It was published for kids. You should go read it.
Eliot Schrefer is the author of Threatened, a 2014 National Book Award finalist in Young People's Literature, and Endangered (2012), also a National Book Award Finalist. Visit him online at www.eliotschrefer.com and on Twitter @EliotSchrefer.