(As Emma Stone's character says in "Easy A," "Judy Blume did not prepare me for this." But she did prepare me for almost everything else.)
At least once a week someone asks me what I read. "A lot of YA stuff," I always answer. And then, almost defensively, I add, "I'm a librarian so I try to keep up with what the kids are reading."
There are a few responses to that. Some people seem to think that means I'm just lazy, some decide I'm a Twi-hard (which I am most decidedly not, but that's a rant for a different post), some think I never got over Harry Potter. My least favorite response, though, is sadly the one I get the most often. The person I'm talking to will suddenly turn into a total litsnob and ask why I distinguish between YA and Adult lit since "good writing is good writing." I get it, I usually want to say, you're above such petty distinctions. How very evolved of you. Jerk.
Being a generally nice person, though, I try not to bite the heads off of the few people who still want to talk about books with me--that is, unless the conversation is taking place before ten in the morning. I've read more than the average bear so I have a pretty good idea what makes a book good and what doesn't (I'm looking at you, Twilight). I agree that "good writing is good writing" and that's why I read it regardless of whether it's intended for teens or adults. I don't believe that we should limit our teens to YA lit. But I also know, as someone who is still closer to my teenage years than my thirties, that it can be incredibly frustrating to feel that there is no place for you.
I always took solace in books as a teen. I was awkward and uncomfortable. But books gave me a place to belong, a place to wrestle with my budding adulthood and social awareness. Even still, I recall very specifically a lasting frustration from ages thirteen to seventeen, roughly. YA lit is a fairly new genre. Oh sure, my local library had all of the Sweet Valley books and a battered old copy of The Outsiders but the YA collection occupied one measly bookshelf in the library. A bookshelf, by the way, that had to be accessed by walking through the tree house that acted as the entryway to the Children's Department. Ouch.
Now it may seem silly to create an entire class of literature around the years between ages thirteen and seventeen. What do four years count in the grand scheme of things? In the average eighty-year life span, they count for only 5% of the life. Why waste so much energy to entertain that 5%? I'll tell you why. That 5% is the most influential 5% of most young lives. During that 5%, we often have our first drinks, experience our first loves and first kisses. We sneak into R-rated movies and more often than not see a lot more than we bargained for. We first understand tragedy and appreciate joy. That 5% marks the shift into adulthood itself and often sets the tone for how we will spend the coming decades. Is any other 5% of our entire lives as important as that one?
So despite the fact that "good writing is good writing," I fully believe that YA lit is entirely necessary. We need books that deal with first periods and embarrassing parents. We need smart, confident characters who don't let the agonizing indignities of adolescence slow them down--like Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice, who is smart enough even if her breasts do refuse to grow. (Incidentally, the Alice series were some of the most commonly censored books in America when they were being published. In case you needed more proof that censorship sucks.) We need stories that teens can relate to, stories that address prevalent issues with characters that teen readers can understand and like--if they like anything, that is.
So in conclusion, yes, good writing is universal. But teens need more than good writing. They need the right stories, too. We all do.
NOTE: I recognize that this post is very girl-heavy. Having never been a teenaged boy, I don't really know much about that experience but that is not to say that YA books are any less important for members of the male sex. Good books are important for everyone, regardless of race, age, creed, or gender. If you want a little more information from someone far more eloquent and influential than myself, check out YA Saves.