Before I begin, I should confess something: I’ve read all of the Harry Potter books. I’ve listened to all of the His Dark Materials trilogy on books on CD. I’ve tried to read a couple of Lemony Snicket books. And I’m presently listening to The Hunger Games in my car. I’ve never read anything to do with Bella Swan, not even a fan fic.
And, I have to say that the Harry Potter series really captured my imagination and I really wanted to know what happened next. (I also wanted the books to continue to be as well crafted as the first three, but was continually disappointed by what seemed to be a substitution of quantity of words for economy of story-telling.) I would eagerly await the next book and would devour it in a weekend.
Still . . . .
Why do adults, and mostly adult women, read these YA books? Why is there craze after craze for these sorts of books, but it’s not just teenagers and prepubescents; it’s their moms too? Why is that?
This question occurred to me on my Friday morning drive into work as I began listening to The Hunger Games on CD. The language was simple. The narrator was ever-so-slightly self-important. As I listened, I imagined a teen girl staring meaningfully into the middle distance as she spoke with a hollow, distant ring. It seemed so very perfectly created for the mind of a young person.
But not perfectly crafted for me: I’m 41.
There's no denying, though, that there are lots like me, me included on occasion, who lap up these sorts of books like sweet cream. Why?
Why, when there are such meaty novels written for bona fide adult-adults out there to read, do we retreat into the Young Adult section? I hate to think that the reason is because the YA books are easier to read, and that it’s a symptom of the dumbing down of America. And, in fact, I know that this can’t be true because the His Dark Materials trilogy is some dense and complicated stuff, and Philip Pullman does not talk down to his readers.
So why? Why do adult women want to follow the exploits of teenagers? And, indeed, why do they write their own fictitious versions of what those teens get up to? Why?
Honestly, there’s what I anticipate to be a fantastic new Hilary Mantel book out, now, Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel to Wolf Hall, her tale of Thomas Cromwell in the Court of Henry VIII that won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. If you know history, you know that this is a sexy, political, violent, and intriguing story. It is every bit as engaging as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so why aren’t we grown-ups drinking more deeply from that cup?
For me, I can say that I picked up all of these books – Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Lemony Snicket, and The Hunger Games – out of curiosity. Because the furor had already risen, and I wanted to know why . . . . (I was never curious about Twilight – seemed to be your standard damsel in distress tale with an overlay of the paranormal.) My general feelings were that Harry Potter started out brilliantly and then became turgid, bloated by the fame of its author and editors who could no longer afford to tell her "no." The His Dark Materials trilogy started out with such an interesting premise (essentially, “what if physics was never divorced from metaphysics and the Church retained all authority?”), and then fell into the trap of trying to send a message, such that the message was swallowed by the effort. Lemony Snicket bored me from the start; I can't exactly articulate why. And The Hunger Games has not so far grabbed me in the manner in which I have been informed that I should be grabbed. (But I’m only one chapter in. Perhaps it will lasso my imagination yet.)
I don’t think I’m typical in how I've gotten into these books. Maybe, as The Boy grows and begins reading these books himself, I will find myself on the cutting edge of YA fiction. But, so far, I have followed along behind the masses, scratching my head and saying, “What’s the big deal here?”
Is it that these YA books allow us to slip back into the simpler times of our youths? Do they remind us of our teenaged selves? If it is the pull of the drift back into our innocence, why, then are these pretty violent, dystopian stories the path we take back to our own pure hearts? (And, do we want our kiddos to be dragging their actually pure little hearts through these dark valleys? Then again, have you read The Brothers Grimm lately? Maybe these stories are just the modern outgrowth of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.)
Or perhaps it is that these books seem to more clearly define good and evil than “grown-up” books. In the Mantel books about Thomas Cromwell, we see that he was a complicated man. He was a loving father. He was a horrendous torturer. He was smart. He was amoral. You cannot fully line up behind him (or behind Thomas More) and say, “I am Team Cromwell!”
So I still don’t know exactly, and still don’t understand really, why YA fiction is all the rage with the middle-aged. But I do imagine that I will read a lot more young person fiction as The Boy matures. I will want to know what’s going into his head and will want to be conversant enough with it to chat with him about it.
In the meantime, I think, though, that I’m going to make an effort to take my personal reading list chiefly from the Man Booker list (at least until another YA craze piques my curiosity again).