Books, Pop Culture

I’m a plain old adult who still reads young adult novels and I don’t feel bad about it

What does it mean to read stories of growth when you are supposed to have outgrown them?

In a world and time where it feels everything is constantly changing, it is nice to know that the place I feel most at peace continues to be in any space surrounded by books. When I am anxious or overwhelmed, I have the routine that lets me breathe again, even if it’s just briefly. I head over to my local library or bookstore, head straight to the young adult fiction section, and judge books by their covers and titles in order to find an escapist gem. However, recently something has changed. Seemingly all of a sudden I have reached my mid-twenties and change has come to find me here too, where I least expected.

David Bowie sings "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes."
Via [Image description: A man, David Bowie, sings “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.”]
I have read young adult novels since before I was a young adult. It started with fantasy. I was always drawn to fractured fairy tales as a child and, as I hit middle school, this evolved into reading books on the same topics but with heroines slightly older than me. I remember realizing I had read everything that interested me in the my neighborhood library’s children’s section and first venturing over the the teen fiction section. It felt like a thrilling transgression (clearly, I was a very tame child). And there I would stay and explore for so many years, eventually dipping into books about young women in high school who had to save their families, go to war, work at their aunt’s beauty salons, and, often, get the guy.

There is a misconception that young adult novels are all poorly written soapy nonsense and that people who read them are intellectually lax, and there are a few issues I take with this sentiment. Firstly, some books are definitely poorly written soapy nonsense and sometimes that is what I like to read because it is fun and there is nothing actually wrong with that. Secondly, a good book is a good book. Some young adult novels are bad just as plenty of fully fledged adult novels are bad, and some are likewise incredibly beautiful. Genre does not equal quality. 

Third, and perhaps most significant, is the fact that young adult novels often feature some sort of transformation. Young adult novels and coming-of-age novels are not necessarily synonymous, but many of the YA novels I have read happen to be both. Growing into a person of increased consciousness, or becoming self-actualized, are themes that I hope I am always interested in. Humans’ capacity for growth is one of the most interesting parts of us, and it just so happens that, because many YA novels take place during the time of people’s lives where they are growing into lightly older adults, they feature plenty of growth.

A lovely red flower grows out of a pot and then retreats into itself.
Via [Image description: A red flower grows out of a pot and then retreats back into itself.]
I used to witness this growth as instructive. As someone who has always had a difficult time with self-actualization, being able to read about and feel like a part of someone else discovering themselves felt like getting the opportunity to feel less alone, and like there might be hope that I too could get there, to a point of growth and acceptance.

Now, however, I find myself in my mid-twenties never having experienced the great loves or quests of these stories that would change me for the better. I graduated high school, and eventually college, without discovering my passion or the love of my life. I read about teens having these experiences and wonder “what’s wrong with me?” Why am I not living my life more dynamically, or taking more risks? Why am I stagnant when these characters grow in front of me?

The answer, of course, draws another question: Why am I comparing my life to those of primarily white fictional teenagers? Or anyone, for that matter?

I still read young adult novels. I still like reading books that I find fun and still enjoy finding characters I connect with. I am still interested in this time of life where so much can change, and I, admittedly, still find safety in the familiarity of some of these stories and tropes. Change has happened whether I like it or not, though, and hopefully for the better. There is more diversity in the stories YA authors are writing and this is truly a blessing. I tried seeking out any YA novels I could featuring South Asian American protagonists and with each passing year, more of these characters are borne and that is exciting. I hope to keep bearing witness to the stories, now, of brown and black women growing and changing.

I have also started drifting into the “fiction” section of my local library as I once did the “teen fiction” section, and making a new home there. It is a slow shift, but I have found friends in these shelves as well. And some of them are growing and changing, too, just as I continue to.