You Read YA Lit?

Friday, April 24, 2015

"You read YA lit? Isn't that, like, for teens? Aren't you a legit English major?"

I feel like this topic has been written about countless times. I think I may have even written over it before, but I was recently asked what kind of books I generally read by one of my graduate classmates in the English department. I told them that I really enjoy reading YA lit. They looked at me like I just shattered all the respect they had for me.

For some reason, there is this pressure as an English literature academic that makes students think that all they can read and enjoy are the classics and canonical works deemed worthy by society to fit into that very small fraction of the world's published books. If you enjoy your run of the mill crime novel, or God forbid, Nora Roberts book, you are doing a disservice to the field of literary studies, which honestly is a sad way to live.

Putting that little snippet aside, this semester I have been taking a YAL class. It counts toward my 20th and 21st century literature requirement, and it has been one of the most eye opening experiences.

Before setting out for this course, I thought I knew YAL. I mean REALLY knew it. I have been reading YA ever since I was a kid, and now I'm 25 and still reading it. But this class completely blew my mind. Luckily, I had the privilege of taking this class from the wonderful Dr. Bolf-Beliveau who loves YAL just as much as I do--and that's saying a lot!

Her book list of about 12-15 novels took on a variety of genres and all of them were chosen with diversity and/or social justice in mind. That being said, it required me to read books I didn't think I would be interested in, but soon figured out that I loved. I read my first graphic novel (American Born Chinese), my first YA nonfiction book (Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice), I got to reread Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

I knew I would enjoy the class, but what I didn't know was how literary it would be. Back in undergrad, I took a YAL course, and it was mostly based in education: how do you get students to start reading in general? Answer: By incorporating YAL in the classroom. 

But this class wasn't like that. This class was demanding (in the best way possible) and Dr. BB challenged us as English majors to apply theories to the works we read... like actual literary theories. I've seen this done in a few instances like Marxism for The Hunger Games, and Feminism for A Mad, Wicked Folly, but I never really had to write papers over any of it.

Some of the papers I had to write for the class surprised even me. It was the first time I was truly very excited to write a paper. I wrote over social justice and marginalization in the Shatter Me series. I wrote over fat feminism and fat-studies as used in The Girl of Fire and Thorns and Dumplin', I even wrote about the superfluousness of rape and rape-like situations in YA fantasy as seen in Defy, The Winner's Curse, and Snow Like Ashes

I didn't know these deep-seated ideas were bouncing around in my head until my teacher told us to write about them. 

So going back to the classmate who looked down on me for reading YAL because it wasn't literary enough, I say that's bollocks! They obviously don't read between the lines of a YA novel if they can't see the importance of it in society. They are just as 'literary' as any other book, and in my opinion, deserved to be included into the literary canon.

So have you been looked down for reading YAL? Have you had a teacher that has encouraged your love for reading and challenged your mind?


  1. I haven't really been looked down upon for reading YA because most of my friends do! But I have been in situations where I have been judged for my reading tastes, because I don't read classics all the time, or the fact that I haven't read ALL of them - even for the fact that I have not read the Harry Potter books. Unfortunately reading can be a very judging little niche and that sucks a lot. Reading is about you and what you like to do with your free time. No one should be able to judge you for that, or make you feel bad about it.

    As for a teacher encouraging me and challenging me in regards to reading ... no. Which sucks. I've been into reading since I COULD read so I never needed a teacher to encourage that. but I never had a teacher who encouraged anyone. And I think that's really sad, because reading is so fantastic and I think English teachers could have such a bigger role in introducing the magic of reading into students' lives. But I found almost all of my teachers very uninterested and uninvested in their students, outside of whether or not they handed in assessment.

    I think your class sounds amazing, and I totally want to take it!

    1. Ah I totally agree!!! I think English teachers have the opportunity to make some amazing changes, sadly it's the state and testing (at least in America) that keeps it from really making the biggest impact. It was a really amazing class! If I could take it again, I totally would!

  2. When I tell a teacher or another student that I read mostly YA there is always a pause before they say something like "okay" or "hmm". I can tell that YA is a genre they would never get into and that makes me feel weird and strange compared to them but, on the other hand, I look at them weird for loving poetry and horribly depressing novels. I figured out pretty quickly that they might not like the stuff I read, but I don't like their reading choices either, so it's even.

    And then there's always the creative writing teachers who don't want the students to write children/YA or any genre fiction. They want everything to be "literary fiction" despite the fact that they've never actually defined "literary" to us. I find the Lit department and teachers to be a lot more accepting of all types of books, while the Creative Writing professors are more snobs. I can understand that they want us to write stuff that has a possibility of getting published in a journal, but it still feels really prejudice to me.

    I really want to take a YA lit class but I'm worried because I've seen the booklist and all of them were published before YA was even really a defined genre and some are children's books, not YA. I want to learn, but I don't have high hopes for the class. I hope that I'm wrong and that it will turn out more like your class, but I guess I won't know until I take it.

    1. Oh I totally know everything about this! I'm getting my MA in Creative Writing, so writing genre fiction and YA is especially looked down on. Though I'm deciding to do that anyway because who the hell wants to read a boring work of literary fiction.... I don't... It sucks though because I think YA lit has so much to bring to the table!

  3. This sounds like a great class! I took one like this when I was in college and loved it! It helped that my professor loved what she was teaching as well. That makes all the difference. There are so many things YAL has to offer. Just not everyone realizes it and some even judge us for reading mostly YA. I say to anyone and everyone... read whatever makes you happy. :D

    1. definitely! It really is such an amazing class!!!!

  4. I don't know that I've really been looked down upon, although I have had people question my reading choices (especially when I bitch and moan about the writing in some YA books). But I'm still drawn to those books! I don't really care what anybody thinks about my reading choices. I'll read what I feel like. I'm not going to sit there and read nothing but literary fiction and classics just so I can appear "smart" to some random person.

    I never really had to be encouraged to love reading. I did have a snobby professor in university who made me hate it for a while, though. She probably would have hated YA and looked down on it with a sneer. She made us read one horribly boring classic, one modern literary novel, and Jane Eyre... which she ruined for me by spoiling the ending before I'd gotten there. I had to make a concerted effort after that to get back into my reading groove.

  5. What I feel people don't realize is that there are GENUINE issues in books and they're done so well. When people are like "why do you read YA?" I'm like, "because I can relate." Even if it's fantasy, there's something that I can connect to.

    Plus, I've read a few classics that are racist and really horrible so to read YA is something I am lucky to be able to do.

  6. I was an English major too, and before I took my YA class, I only read adult fiction and the classics. That class changed my life. I took my YA class alongside my theory and criticism class, and studying the two side by side was just amazing.

    I am glad that people don't think I'm crazy, or worse when they find out that I read a lot of YA. I'm an English teacher, so it's a good thing that I'm able to read and enjoy the books that the kids are reading. I feel like I can relate to the kids more, and it's always an amazing feeling to talk to a student about what they are reading and how they are liking it.

  7. That sounds like a really valuable class. I love classes that can take a topic that you're already interested in and make you MORE interested in it. The classes that really challenge your baseline way of thinking through an every-day task such as reading YA always feel like they're the most rewarding. I had an econ class that was like that once --- I was already interested in education, and I was already interested in econ. But this class really made me PASSIONATE about both. And I came out of it so much more capable and confident about the ideas that I had in my head. I would LOVE to take a lit class that made me feel that way --- the few that I had in college were pretty lame, and I didn't feel at all inspired about what we were reading or discussing.

  8. My cousin and I usually swap book recommendations at family gatherings, and last time, when I told him I was in a big YA reading binge, you could *see* his eyes glaze and his interest in the conversation check out. My BFF also has no patience for my book recommendations once she finds out they're YA. Like that makes a book lesser, or means I'm not actually as bookish or interested in reading as I am. I agree with you -- that's bollocks! Not only do YA books often deal with very heavy, very important subjects, but -- they're books! They're entertainment!

    At the end of the day, any book, any movie, any TV show is there to entertain us, let us escape from our lives and our own heads for a while, and make us think or feel. YA books can be incredibly visceral, engaging, exciting and funny ... It's unfortunate that so many people look down on this genre, and the people who enjoy it.

  9. YES! I totally loved this article! :)
    I was so sad there was never a YA class when I was in school (I just went to a small school). I took a genre fiction class, and the prof was awesome and talked about how he was looke down upon by his english prof peers, and they all thought he was wasting his time. We covered (obvs not all of it, but touched on) sci-fi, horror, and mystery, and it was the most interesting class I took in all of college. We did the same, and applied traditional themes, issues, and discussions to these stories, and talked about how these handled the issues in a more creative way by adding the sci-fi, horror, or mystery elements to it.


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