Today, for about the fifth time, I was told I need to read The Hunger Games. I’m told it’s a YA (young adult) series set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic North America where there’s a Running Man-esque TV show. I don’t know much more than that, and that these characters have some bizarre names that will probably be making their way into the 2015 – 2020 lists of top baby names. Oh, and that there was some controversy about a movie tie-in nail polish. Sometimes I feel like I get my information by playing jacks.
At any rate, I’ll get around to reading it, I will. I haven’t already simply because it’s still pretty expensive for Kindle and I’m cheap. But it got me thinking about YA fiction.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the movie You’ve Got Mail, of all places:
“When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
Because really, it’s true. It’s the same as when I write my Movies That Molded a Geek series, or why we freak out when we see some toy we played with: all those moments, they shaped our imagination, our expectations. They shaped us.
If you’d met me at six, or eight, or eleven, probably my most defining characteristic was that I was a bookworm. I read everything I could get my hands on – a combination of hand-me-downs from my parents (sf, Asimov), my mother (Agatha Christie), and my many sisters (Sweet Valley, LJ Smith… any teen novel from the 70s to the 90s).
Now, the vast majority of stuff I read was aimed at a very specific age group and I left it behind by necessity. There’s not much place in the adult world for Betty Ren Wright or The Babysitters Club. As such, even though these novels had absolutely huge markets, when you catch a reference to one of these it’s like running into your best friend from elementary school. This is at least partly why I’ll happily watch The Secret Circle every week.
Sometimes I wonder what it might have been like to have been really into comics as a kid – to have some property that continues well into adulthood, to have countless movies made. Comics fans have Iron Man and the X-Men franchise. I got The Babysitters Club film that was a huge disappointment even for a twelve-year-old.
There’s also the issue of shared experience. When you read “the classics,” chances are you’re reading at least some of the same books as your parents, or people with more than a five-year age difference above or below you. It’s not hard to find someone who’s read Little Women or Tom Sawyer. But when most of what you’ve read is the equivalent of pop culture, you’ve pretty much got your memories and whatever might turn up in secondhand shops. Many of the books I read aren’t in print anymore. They had their moment, and it passed. Granted, it’s not like many of these were very good, but the fact remains that I’ve never met another soul who read the Cheerleader books from the 80s, and I can’t make those little jokes and references even if the details are still burned into my brain.
But that brings me to the state of YA fiction today. Undoubtedly JK Rowling had the biggest hand in reshaping the fiction landscape; granted, I’m semi-convinced that she wrote new classics, but it was the first time in a long time that books geared for kids weren’t just throw-away trash, but good novels worthy of adult attention AND they were widely considered as such.
I have to grit my teeth to admit it, but Twilight kept the momentum going. And it, in turn, renewed interest in other teen and YA series, which led to more adaptations, and so on, and so forth… so that we now have a situation where it’s not uncommon to see an adult perusing the YA shelves for their own reading.
In my opinion, this can only be a good thing. If we’re focused on “novels for all ages” instead of “books for kids/pre-teen girls/adolescent boys,” the overall quality will probably go up. More people of all ages will have read the same novels, which means it’s easier to find common reading ground in conversation instead of resorting to what’s on TV this season. Parents might wind up more in touch with their children.
Or, to put it another way: in a world where options for entertainment are ever-expanding, this might be a way for us all to gain a little common ground.
What about you? What were some of your favorite novels as a child? Do many of them hold up today?