Written by Pramika Kadari
As an English major, I’m nervous to admit that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay is one of my favorite books in the world because it’s labeled as a young adult book. In the world of readers, many look down on YA books as being childish, trashy entertainment, or simply not intellectually stimulating. Instead, they praise the classics. The snobbishness is most common among English majors who spend most of their time analyzing the patterns of iambic pentameter in Hamlet, learning to read Middle English, or discussing the motivations of authors writing centuries ago. Of course, yes, The Hunger Games is a page-turner, and an easier read than older or more dense works. But why in the world should that mean it is not as intellectually stimulating? I don’t believe books need to be difficult to be important.
The first thing to note is that “young adult” is not even a genre—it is a marketing category. While many YA books have similar characteristics—a young protagonist, coming-of-age themes and feelings, and a writing style that doesn’t require you to read everything twice—it’s the publishers who decide whether to market a certain book as YA or not, based on what age group they think will buy the book. And the publishers can be wrong. With this in mind, it makes even less sense to look down on the whole category. Why judge The Hunger Games for being YA if the label only determines the target audience—not its impact?
But now, I’ve accepted pink as one of my favorite colors, and I’m completely fine with admitting I like a wide range of movies, even ones more “sophisticated” people might consider stupid.
The series—especially the last book—is full of questions about sacrifice, war, love, justice, and more. And it’s not the only one. The last few books of Harry Potter are rich with moral dilemmas and nuances about humanity. Several stand-alone YA novels such as I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson and It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini helped shift my perspective on life. The latter, which follows a clinically depressed teenager during his stay at a psychiatric hospital, helped me through my own struggles during my freshman year of high school. Despite its seemingly bleak premise, the novel itself is actually quite uplifting and inspiring. Its final words are “So live now for real, Craig. Live. Live. Live. Live. Live.” In high school, those were words I needed to hear.
Another factor contributing to YA’s status as the scum of the literary world is gender. A majority of popular YA series today are written by female authors or feature female protagonists; for example, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments, Six of Crows, and Throne of Glass, just to name a few. Because overall the category seems to be more targeted at teenage girls than boys, some people might experience an indoctrinated twinge of derision. Even outside of literature, society in general has a tendency to look down on things that teenagers like—especially teenage girls. We need only look to artists and bands with largely young female fan bases—such as Taylor Swift and One Direction – who often get hate for little to no reason, to see this reflected in our society. Because of this, many young girls feel ashamed to be girls. I was one of them; when I was little, I was adamant about pretending like I hated pink, romantic comedies, and anything else stereotypically “girly.” Instead, I declared my favorite color was blue and I only liked action-based movies. But now, I’ve accepted pink as one of my favorite colors, and I’m completely fine with admitting I like a wide range of movies, even ones more “sophisticated” people might consider stupid.
In school, teenagers are often forced with great ceremony to read The Classics, a title justified mostly by time. But what would be wrong with reading modern adaptations or retellings, if they offer the same themes and lessons?
In no way do I believe Shakespeare’s works are more intellectual or thought-provoking than The Hunger Games. In my opinion, many readers put classic writers such as Shakespeare on a pedestal for a few reasons. First of all, they were novel for their time—when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, it hadn’t yet become the cliché that it is today. However, I refuse to believe the thirteen-year-old star-crossed lovers are more meaningful just because they’ve existed longer in the literary canon. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games is one of the most realistic yet inspiring characters I’ve ever read. Throughout the second novel in the series, Catching Fire, two sides of her are constantly battling between whether to run away or stay and encourage the rebellion. Her choices provided me with more food for thought than Juliet’s ever did. Of course, it’s not like every great literary classic is worse than any YA novel, but I am tired of people assuming that a YA label automatically consigns a book to the bottom of the heap.
In high school, I had to read parts of The Iliad for English class. And yes, I know Homer is the most important poet of the Greek world, but wow that book was boring. However, when I read the YA novel Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller last summer—a retelling of The Iliad with a more contemporary writing style—it instantly became one of my favorite books. The Iliad was written 2,400 years ago, translated from ancient Greek, and written in verse. These cultural, temporal, and linguistic barriers make it more difficult to enjoy for the modern reader. That does not mean it’s a fact that Song of Achilles outshines The Iliad—and of course, the latter has merits that the former doesn’t—but I believe the two should receive similar levels of respect. If a modern reader can find more worth in the modern adaptation because it is easier to digest and strikes more emotional chords for her, what is the harm in reading that one instead? In school, teenagers are often forced, with great ceremony, to read The Classics, a title justified mostly by time. But what would be wrong with reading modern adaptations or retellings, if they offer the same themes and lessons? At one point, most of the classics that teenagers read in school were “contemporary” works targeted at the masses. However, now they are considered more valuable than our current contemporary works, which does not make much sense to me. This is another reason why I believe, at least to an extent, people place classics on a pedestal they don’t always deserve.
For me, it was a YA book, not a so-called Classic, that impacted my life more than any other: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I read it in sixth grade, and it’s been my favorite book ever since; the only one that’s matched it is the aforementioned Song of Achilles, which I read a few months ago. Ender’s Game, however, is the book that made me want to write my own book. Set in the future, the military science fiction novel follows a group of brilliant children who are being trained into ruthless soldiers. I knew creating something even half as poignant as Ender’s Game would be the most gratifying experience of my life. Of course, I’d written stories before I read the novel, but that book is what pushed me to complete my first full-length manuscript – titled Grayscale – in 8th grade, because it made me realize how truly beautiful literature could be. While Grayscale was objectively terrible, and I’m glad I never tried to self-publish it, finishing it was also one of the biggest milestones of my life. Since writing Grayscale, I have completed manuscripts of two more books – including the one I am working on right now. That project, titled Nearly Human, is currently in its second draft. Because I am more passionate about this project than anything I’ve ever written before, I am seriously considering pursuing publishing it —only because of that initial push from reading Ender’s Game years ago.
YA is full of stories about people who would do anything for the people they love, and that’s a beautiful thing.
While YA novels come in all shapes and sizes, my favorite familiar current running through each of them is how raw the emotions are in character relationships – all types of relationships, including romantic, platonic, and familial. Whether it is Katniss’s sisterly protection of Prim in The Hunger Games, or Ari’s friendship and romance with Dante in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of The Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, I’ve never felt more deeply impacted by character relationships than I have by those in YA. Because the characters are young, their emotions are more wild and uninhibited. They’re unburdened by the hesitations, and doubts that most adults have, which adds a searing and fiery element to their love. Often, that fire is irrational, but it’s still a wonder to read about. YA is full of stories about people who would do anything for the people they love, and that’s a beautiful thing. That’s what makes me reread certain emotional quotes and moments from these books over and over, a million times, as my heart pounds and races along with the characters’ hearts. In my experience, while classics can have that same rush of passion, it’s much harder to find.
In the end, I am not saying classics are garbage, or that YA novels are always better. In fact, some of my favorite books are classics, such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. However, I do believe that YA books as a whole deserve the same respect as other works of literature. The label is just that—a label—and that shouldn’t put a smear on the wonders inside.