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Alison Kemper | So what if you’re an adult? It’s okay to read YA novels!

March 6, 2014

Alison KemperDONNA OF THE DEADSeveral weeks back, my best friend sent me a picture of this fantastic bookstore sign:

“It’s OK. You have our permission. These books are from our Young Adult Section. But it’s OK to read them even if you are no longer, by any stretch of the imagination, young. In fact, you’ll find they often have provocative themes and complex characters that are the equal of most of the books you’ll find on the ‘adult’ fiction shelves these days. So don’t sheepishly tell us it’s for your kids. We’ve read them, and you can too.”

The sign-maker hit the nail on the head. In today’s fiction market, more and more adults are buying (and enjoying) Young Adult novels. According to Publishers Weekly, in 2013, “84% of YA books were purchased by consumers 18 or older” and a full 80% of these adults reported that they weren’t purchasing a gift, but “bought the book for themselves.”

And yet there’s still that small percentage of readers asking, “Why in the heck would I ever want to read a book about teenagers?”

Here are the answers I usually give:

  • many popular movies are based on YA novels
  • many bestsellers come from this genre
  • YA novels give me something to talk about with my teen nieces
  • we shouldn’t be locked into reading books only about our specific age group

But there’s another reason why I (and many other adults) read YA. And it’s a little harder to explain.

For most of us, high school wasn’t the stuff dreams were made of. We didn’t zip-line off the Hancock building like Tris in Divergent, or have hot Twilight vampires/werewolves fighting over our affections. Many of us went to humdrum classes and after-school band practice and spent our weekends participating in activities that family members planned for us.

But there’s a tipping point in everyone’s life. That phase where you stop being told what to do and start making your own decisions. You spend less time with family and more time with friends. This tipping point—when you experiment with your own independence—can be both scary and wonderful. During this time in our lives, we all make a few bad decisions. The main character in my YA novel, DONNA OF THE DEAD is no exception—she’s an imperfect girl who must stop obsessing over boys and her manicure, if she wants to help friends survive a plague. YA novels often capture these epic bad decisions we all make as teens and remind us (hopefully) how far we’ve come as adults.

There’s another upside to reliving newfound teen independence. Sure there are bad decisions and heartbreak, but there’s also magic and wonder and the sheer joy of being alive. Teens experience so many “firsts” and dang—they’re exciting! Remember the first time you stayed out too late just because you were having fun with friends? Or the first time you took a ride in your very own car? And how about that first kiss? I don’t care if it happens when you’re twelve or twenty—it’s something you never forget.

Being a “grown-up” has its benefits (hello, credit card!), and many of us would never, ever (ever, ever) want to repeat our teen years. But there’s a certain bittersweet loveliness from remembering all those exciting firsts. Reading YA novels recaptures some of that feeling. For a few hours, we experience a rewind our own human experience—watching the world unfold before fresh, unjaded eyes. And that can be a heck of a lot of fun!

So if you’ve been reluctant to try a Young Adult novel, remember the sign. You don’t need to pretend you’re buying a present for your nephew or checking out a library book for your daughter. Go ahead and re-experience the fun, heartache and excitement of all your “firsts.” You won’t be sorry.

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