“The Good Stuff”: Why Arguments about YA Matter

Years ago, after weeks of urging teachers to come to me for student book recommendations, an English teacher dropped by to take me up on my offer. I asked her what kinds of books she wanted for her 8th graders.

“Good books,” she replied promptly. And then, looking over her shoulder as if checking for the library police, “None of that Young Adult literature…just, you know, the good stuff.”

At a conference a few years later, a high school librarian lowered her voice and leaned towards me. “You probably think this is horrible, but I can’t stand Young Adult literature,” she confided. “It’s fine if the students want to read it, but I tend not to recommend it to them. They’ll find it on their own. ”

Despite the increasing popularity and improving reputation of Young Adult (YA) literature, there are still teachers and librarians who aren’t big fans. Not everyone has to like YA literature, of course. Still, as a wide body of literature of many genres published for the students we serve, I always find it interesting when educators don’t like it.

In the past, I have stopped myself from evangelizing about YA. In most cases, critics were merely offering their personal opinions about YA, and I didn’t want the conversation to devolve into an argument over YA’s merits. I felt, as colleagues, that we had bigger fish to fry. I’ve also told myself that one’s personal preferences about YA matter less than one’s ability to recommend a variety of literature to teenagers.

However, I eventually began to wonder what else might be going on when people say that they love or hate YA. The result was Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism. The thesis of the book is that arguments about YA are really arguments about something else: our often unspoken philosophies of reading. When we argue about YA’s quality or lack thereof, what we are really arguing about is not simply what teens should read, but why they should read it.

Pop Culture Battles over YA Literature

Arguments over YA’s merits are not limited to professionals. Attacks on YA from censorious adults, literary pundits, and popular commentators are a common feature of the pop culture landscape. For every reader who fights for YA’s honor, there is another who finds the whole literary category worthless.

Some attack YA for its very popularity, believing its authors pandered to immature readers. In a 2015 interview, author and literary critic Jonathan Franzen described YA as simplistic reading and implied that its readers were lazy and complacent. Others object to YA’s often frank sexuality and serious themes. In “Darkness Too Visible,” The Wall Street Journal‘s children’s book reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon  argued that the protagonists of YA fiction had it much worse than actual teen readers. Still others viewed the entire enterprise of stories about and for teenagers with suspicion. In 2014, Salon commentator Ruth Graham argued that YA’s endings were too tidy and its stories too sentimental. Though she targeted adult readers of YA for criticism, her scorn for all readers who read for entertainment or solace was clear.

In contrast, YA’s defenders see in YA’s relative simplicity no barrier to significant literary merit. For teachers of literature, YA can provide an accessible literary canvas for teaching plot, character, and theme. YA’s focus on issues or problems can add to its authenticity, providing comfort to young readers confused or in pain, or serving as a “dress rehearsal” for readers curious about the troubles ahead. Others recognize in YA the opportunity to discuss themes like alienation and power, or to confront issues of diversity, equity, and social justice.

Whatever we think about YA, it is clear that it matters. And the ways that we talk about YA have consequences beyond simple skirmishes over which books are good or good enough for young readers. When we talk about YA literature, what we are really talking about is why people read.

The Power of YA Literature

In the wars over YA, YA’s defenders and its attackers agree on one thing: reading should be good for the young. We just disagree over whether or not YA literature is good or good enough. Instead of quarreling over whether YA is good enough, let’s cut to the heart of the debate: what do we mean by good? And good enough for whom? As co-proponents of teen literacy, librarians and teachers can have more productive (and interesting) conversations by focusing on the needs of teen readers.

In my next posts, I will explore four themes that structure current debates about YA literature: aesthetics, pedagogy, pleasure, and diversity. My goal in this series is to generate discussions, not simply about YA literature proper, or the merits of individual titles, but about what we are really talking about when we talk about YA literature. My hope is that these discussions will help librarians forge alliances with teachers, parents, and the public about the importance of teen reading and the role that YA literature has to play.

Author: Loretta Gaffney

Loretta M. Gaffney, MLIS, MA, Ph.D., is a librarian and teacher at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. Illinois-born and Iowa-raised, she is slowly becoming an Angeleno by learning to shiver in 50-degree weather. Loretta is the author of Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. A frequent conference speaker and guest lecturer, Loretta taught YA Literature, Reading Research, Intellectual Freedom, and Youth Services Librarianship at both UCLA and the University of Illinois. Her interests include school librarians’ knowledge, intellectual freedom and censorship, social media, and politics. She has twin 13-year-old daughters and a 21-year-old cat.



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2 replies

  1. I found your blogpost quite enjoyable and wanted to immediately start a YA book club for adults to argue the virtues, vices, and worthiness of YA Lit. Goodness: Graham’s scorn for “readers who read for entertainment or solace was clear” = how sad her reading life must be!

    50 years “young”, YA lit came into existence with The Outsiders and what a rich wealth of literature has resulted! I can’t imagine being a school librarian today in a middle school without YA lit. The argument perhaps should not be over the “worth of YA” but rather the value – literary and otherwise – of individual titles and authors.

    I, for one, am a great fan of YA ( and not ashamed to admit it) because as I read, I can just FEEL the urgency, impetuosity, and capriciousness of the teen brain.

    Bravo for your insightful blog, Loretta.

  2. Thank you for your generous comment, Christie! I too have a hard time imagining school librarianship without YA literature. I love your characterization of YA’s “urgency, impetuosity, and capriciousness” and the insights we gain from it into the teen brain. One question for a hypothetical YA discussion group: Can adult writers really capture the character of teenagers’ thoughts and feelings?

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