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The case for young adult literature

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For most of us here at Stanford, young adult literature is a thing of the past. Between classes, work, attempts to maintain interpersonal relationships, exercise, self-care, eating and (heaven forbid!) sleep, there’s practically no time for reading. And even if we choose to read outside of class, Stanford students read big books. Important books. Books whose titles will impress friends’ parents or powerful people when we can talk about them over cocktails or at the dinner table. The days of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” (you can admit you read them, I did too) are behind us.

Young adult (YA) literature simply doesn’t cut it, which is understandable given our time limitations and two simple features of the genre. It isn’t written for people our age: the target audience of YA literature typically falls between the 12 and 17 age range. And it’s commercial: YA novels tend to have a relatively short shelf-life, and they’re made to sell. In fact, YA literature is the only print genre actually improving in sales, while children’s and adult literature are struggling. YA literature is popular, and the last thing that most of us want is to admit that we’re into something mainstream.

However, there are some important redeeming qualities to young adult literature. Plenty of them. Enough, actually, that we should all head over to Cubberly Education Library today to check out a new YA novel to read for a while each night before bed.

We should read young adult literature because the act of reading books trains our minds to work through real-world problems in the same sort of way that adult literature does, but YA makes it easier to digest. This is especially true if the structure and thematic schema of a book are particularly complex, which can often be the case with YA novels. Increasingly, they grapple with darker, more adult themes and leverage a variety of structural strategies. For example, Walter Dean Myers’s “Monster” tells the story of a teenage boy, arrested and on trial for alleged participation in a robbery turned murder, facing the death penalty.

Many YA novels also use a multiplicity of media to engage the reader: a text might structure writing as narrative, journal or diary entries, screenplay, poetic prose, prosaic poetry. It might employ images, cartoons and lots of dialogue. “Monster” is one such book that relies on multiple media, but it certainly does not stand alone. “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang is a popular graphic novel, chronicling the protagonist’s coming of age as he attempts to understand the role he wants his background to play in shaping his identity.

Reading can also be good for physical and social health. In terms of physical health, not looking at a screen for an hour before going to bed has been known to improve sleeping patterns and deepen sleep. Reading a YA novel before bed instead will at least improve quality of sleep even if it won’t alleviate any sleep debt. It has also been found that reading can help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. While this is a benefit that can be accrued by reading any type of novel, if one of the goals is also to help get us into a relaxed state before going to bed, the thematic and linguistic hyper-complexity of an “adult novel” might not be the best choice. YA gives us the benefits of reading a good book without having the added pressure of feeling like we’re going to be tested on the material later.

Additionally, reading can make a reader more empathetic and better able to connect to others. YA in particular is helpful for our age group in accomplishing this, because the primary concerns of the young adults in the novels are closer to our own than some things we find in adult literature. We’ve experienced (or come close to experiencing) a first failure, but not many of us know what it’s like to have to hold down a mortgage or take care of kids. Thus, reading can help improve social health as well.

Ultimately, though, we should read YA because it’s fun. Most YA novels are real page-turners and almost impossible to put down. Additionally, you get all the benefits of reading without the pressure of reading something extremely linguistically dense. You won’t end up having to look up every other word because you’re not fluent in Olde English. Young adult literature can feel really relevant to things that we’re dealing with in our own lives, even if the characters are sometimes slightly younger than we are. It deals with a lot of firsts (first loves, first experiences with illicit substances, first instances of having to take real responsibility for actions), that most of us can to relate well.

If you’re not already, you should be reading YA. Do it. It’ll improve your mind and your social life, and you will love every minute of it.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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