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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Teen/YA Reads Today: Should Literature’s Main Purpose be to Entertain or Enlighten?



In honor of “National Support Teen Literature Day” on April 16, I pose some thoughts about teen and young adult literature to you.
A while ago there was an article on Slate.com titled “Adults should be ashamed to read young adult books.” The writer argued that the kind of idealized teenage plots and endings in YA reads distract us from the more complex, well-honed adult literature being overlooked. There was also a post from a New York Times blogger a few years ago expressing the same opinion, stating “Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry.” To which each of these articles received hundreds of comments from YA readers who are, yes, adults, about why YA books aren’t just for teens and children, but hold a place on a grownup’s bookshelf as well. There have also been numerous response articles supporting the YA book-lover’s view, and why it holds a dearer place in their hearts than the adult fiction they read.
So this debate has been going on for quite some time now, and there isn’t truly any right or wrong way to view it (unless it’s stop reading altogether, then people are only depriving themselves of any literary joy at all). But it does raise an interesting point about what literature should primarily do for its readers. The strongest arguments for adults reading YA – which now more adults are doing than ever before – is that it allows them a more imaginative journey, a more enjoyable, whimsical escape from reality and oftentimes provide a more hopeful conclusion than many adult books. Those against adults reading “beneath their age level” argue that the writing of YA books is too simple, it doesn’t challenge an adult reader and thus limits their knowledgeable growth. They say adults that read only for nostalgia or entertainment are missing out on books that are more sophisticated and intelligent.
So, what should books primarily do: entertain or educate? Grow the imagination or grow our intellect? Why can’t a book do both on an equal scale?
Yes, I write YA books, so I am naturally going to lean towards the “pro-YA and teen reads” adults. But I like to think that all books should both entertain and educate equally; after all, you wouldn’t keep reading a book if it wasn’t the slightest bit entertaining, and a book wouldn’t leave an impression on you if you didn’t take something new and insightful away from it.
I was at a sci fi convention last year, selling my books besides several other fantasy authors, and someone came over to me to ask me about my books. So I explained, it was a fantasy/historical fiction novel, tying various world mythologies like Greek, Japanese and Native American against a real-world backdrop of 1852. To which the inquirer replied, “Uh, that sounds like you’d have to be pretty intelligent to read that.”
I was surprised by that response for a couple reasons. A. If you knew me, you’d know I don’t write stuff that’s incredibly mind-bending. B. Why did it surprise you that a YA fantasy book might have more than just magical fluff? Or is all you want fluff? Don’t you think you’d enjoy some fact with your fiction?
So, the question I pose is, what do you think the primary purpose of reading should be? What YA books do you think provide a good balance of both fun escapism and complex thought? Which one of the two do you think indicates a truly good book? When is a novel’s entertainment value solely an effective marketing tool, sacrificing genuinely well-crafted writing, or does it matter as long as it entertains? Is a book’s reading level the main determent of how intellectual it is, or can a “children’s” novel be as or more insightful as “grownup” literature?
I’m interested to see what you think! Please leave a comment and let us know what kind of book-lover you are.

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