The Young Adult Genre Needs a Makeover
For as long as I can remember, I have loved books. Reading was always my go-to activity. It was my own one way ticket to any adventure and it started with just the flick of a page. The older I became the more and more books I consumed and the more and more adventures I went on. I have gone to Hogwarts and Narnia, Panem and Frell. I have solved mountains of mysteries and have fallen in love a thousand and one times. Who I have become to this day is partially thanks to the stacks of books I stayed up to read under the covers at night.
Books, and the stories that they keep between the pages, have always been something near and dear to my heart. I believe that words are like magic, that they posses the power to take us worlds away and shape our minds. Stories are important—vital—to life because they teach us things that may seem unimaginable, they make the impossible absolutely possible, they teach us about friendship and love and, sometimes, they provide courage even when it seems unlikely.
My own life has been greatly influenced by reading. From “Harry Potter,” I took the value of love and friendship. From “the Chronicles of Narnia,” I learned loyalty and that things never happen the same way twice. From countless others, I took the advice of being brave and thinking positively and holding onto what I believe in. I always found myself enchanted by strong narrators and riveting plots; I followed the stories of girls my age that suffered and learned and followed their hearts. There were stories that touched my life and changed my perspective. I am 21 years old now and I am still affected by what I read.
A particular novel that comes to mind is Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why,” a story about suicide and how it affects people, specifically teenagers. I read it in high school and I finished it in one sitting. I remember closing the book slowly because it rendered me speechless, my reaction simply tears on my face. It made me think of how I treated people—how everyone treated each other. To this day, I try to remember to walk around with a smile on my face to spread a little bit of happiness.
The same year that I read “Thirteen Reasons Why,” there was another popular young adult book series being read by thousands. To me, it didn’t have a positive message. Instead, it played a cheap love story. It told girls that having a boyfriend was the most important thing and it romanticized an abusive relationship as well as an unhealthy obsession. To this day there are multiple stories lining the shelves at bookstores and libraries that copy the characteristics of that series. I see “Young Adult Paranormal Romance” sections at the store, each of them filled with ominous looking books, all featuring a synopsis about a tragically boring young girl who meets a mysterious guy and they happen to fall in love. Even if it’s not a paranormal book, many young adult novels have the same, old formula of girl + guy = love.
Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with young adult novels telling a love story. I have read some of Sarah Dessen’s cute stories of first love and characters finding themselves along the way. But, when novels become all about the love story it loses other elements like friendship, family and just learning it’s ok to grow up and still hold onto being young. I’ve seen novel after novel fall prey to the cheap love story and to the unhealthy relationships that people seem to flock to. These kinds of stories are unhealthy and I constantly find myself wondering—what are we saying with these kinds books? Books are too influential to ignore what’s happening in the young adult genre. What happened to stories about best friends? Or growing up? What about relationships that don’t work out? Or characters who aren’t interested in relationships at all?
The young adult genre shouldn’t be all about finding the perfect boyfriend; it should be about self discovery, forgiveness, friendship, and thousands of other things. The books should say that it’s okay to not fall in love just yet, that it’s okay to be different.
The demographic for young adult fiction is those at the age of uncertainty and development. Therefore, the young adult genre has the responsibility to uphold the values that help readers develop confidence, adventure and courage. Stories should be encouraging to anyone who flips through the pages looking for anything from answers to friendship.
Young people need to read about strong characters, who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they want or for what’s right. They should read about characters that can get emotional. Who aren’t afraid to be different. They need to meet flawed characters with imperfect lives who are admirable and courageous and scared all at the same time.
Young adult novels need more Hermione Grangers and less Bella Swans. They need caring Lucy Pevensies and fearless Katniss Everdeens. They need awkward Percy Jacksons and fierce Liesel Memingers and troublesome Ponyboys. They need characters whose lessons never lose value.
Great young adult fiction challenges its readers to think differently, to become better, and to carry the lessons and stories around beyond the last page of the book. It should tell readers of all ages to value friendship and, most of all, to value themselves. Choices can define us—especially with books.