Young Adult or Old Adolescent: Why Grown-ups Can Enjoy Books for Kids

This is an essay by Fiona Stirling.

May the odds be ever in your favour!

If you recognise this line you might just have heard of a little film called ‘The Hunger Games’. On its opening weekend it set a revenue record for a non-sequel film, pulling in a massive $155 million. With two more sequels to come, Lionsgate are expecting to make an insanely large profit of $1.5 billion. Yeah. One-point-five-billion. And where did this movie executives dream film come from? A book. And not just any book, but a book written for young adults.

Young adult fiction (YA) is designed to fill the void between children’s books, under 12’s, and adult books, over 18s. But this 13 to 17 target audience is leading to a phenomenon of books with an incredible appeal to any age. What is it that makes these works so special?

Even if you have somehow managed to escape The Hunger Games publicity machine – perhaps if you’ve been living in a cave or a desert somewhere – there is not a chance you haven’t heard of a young Mr. Harry Potter. From 9 to 90 years of age, people across the world have fallen in love with JK Rowling’s wizarding adventures. It works across generations because of one simple fact – adults see much more. Where children see a fantasy world of good vs. evil, with the tantalizing promise of a magical school they could one day escape to, adults can see in-depth explorations of major moral issues. There is ambiguity over who will win and what is right. There is heartbreak and tragedy. There is real life in a bubble of fantasy.

Rowling’s difficulties in real life are reflected throughout her tale. The haunting dementors for example, black faceless ghouls which suck every drop of joy from living creatures, are manifestations of the crippling depression she suffered after her divorce. To children they are bogey men; to adults they are the very real heaviness which can threaten to overwhelm even the best of us. It’s a message of hope that this darkness can be banished by casting the right spell.

A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield […] In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up… lose yourself in it… then speak the incantation “Expecto Patronum”

–          Remus Lupin, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Another popular book-turned-mega-franchise is Twilight. Bella Swan is the loner at a new school who quickly becomes smitten with the local vampire, Edward Cullen. Vying for her attentions is the often topless werewolf Jacob Black. This is a book like Marmite. I love it, many people I know hate it. Yes, it’s simplistic and the writing not A-class standard but the story it weaves is the epitome of romance and love. It explores marriage, commitment, fidelity and family bonds. Some say these themes brainwash children into the author’s Mormon way of life, I feel it simply introduces the topic of matrimony in an exciting way. It also offers an avenue to explore sex in a safe way, with masked metaphors and gentle hints. For adults this can still be exhilarating; it’s the less is more paradox. By not reading explicitly about the lust between Bella and Edward our own minds are free to imprint whatever we want.

I promise to love you Forever- every single day of Forever

–          Edward Cullen, Twilight

Anyone that tries to say they wouldn’t want the above quote whispered in their ear someday is either a liar or a fool… or already married.

I think the important question with YA is really, what makes a good book? In a recent New York Times article it was summed up in the following.

Good  Y.A. is like good television. There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging. Y.A. authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or disappointed people

YA books have a specific magic to them. They are light, but not too sweet. They are dark, but never devastating. They do not tell lies about happy ever after but they try and reach something like it. Goals are achievable, even in fantastic circumstance. Speaking to a friend about this article she said that in her head she was still just a kid herself. I think that is true for many people, and YA fiction lets our inner kid rampage across the imagination. Think of a toddler high on the old blue Smarties (the ones with the fit inducing E number count), dancing like a pirate in an adventure playground. This is your brain on YA fiction.  Reading about young people battling the odds can give us hope for the future, while reinforcing the satisfaction of the trials we have already overcome.

“You aren’t a hero and I’m not beautiful and we probably won’t live happily ever after ” she said. “But we’re alive and together and we’re going to be all right”

–          Phillip Reeve, Mortal Engines

So next time you are looking for something to read, let yourself wander over to the YA section of the bookstore. Don’t be put off by the colourful cartoonist covers, and if you truly find them unbearable there are often ‘adult’ black covered versions hiding on a shelf somewhere. You can even ask the staff to help you find these, they won’t judge because they already know the secret – YA fiction rocks.

Now, having thoroughly convinced you to give YA fiction a go, below is a list of top books to get you started. I haven’t rated them purely because it’s too difficult to pick a favourite…

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

If I had to sum this series up in one word, it would be ‘Wow’. The films go some way to telling the story of Katniss and co., but only the books can hit you with the full force. There have been a few calls of plagiarism, but only of the idea. The execution is not comparable to any YA fiction out there at the moment. The central themes are class divides, poverty, opulence, war, redemption and the power of popular culture. If it doesn’t blow your mind, nothing will.

Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness

I recently gave this series of books to my grandfather for his 80th birthday and he is absolutely loving it so far. Todd is the only boy in Prentisstown, a settlement on a planet mankind moved to after exhausting earth. The odd thing about Prentisstown is that everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts… Quite a concept, eh? The story follows Todd as he uncovers the truth of the new planet, along with his partner in crime Viola. This is an incredibly violent book which challenges the very concepts of right and wrong. It almost has an Avatar quality to it (and by proxy a Pocahontas quality), with New planet dwellers vs. the Old. The style is also unique as it is written very convincingly from Todd’s point of view, complete with spelling and grammatical errors.

I’ll find you-
Keep calling for me, Viola-
Cuz here I come.

– Todd, Monsters of Men

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

These books are pretty epic, mostly because of how they challenge the huge topics of life, death, religion, time and space. Lyra and Will are the 12 year old protagonists who go an adventure between the very fabric of worlds in order to save the universe from collapsing. Most memorable is Pullman’s manifestations of the soul. ‘Dæmons’ are the soul which follow their human counterparts throughout life as an animal-shaped being. Separation from this is torturous, and the interactions between human and ‘soul’ are some of the best parts of the books.  At its core the story is about the human struggle for free will, destiny and physical pleasure. Pullman reinforces the importance of this by making Will and Lyra’s physical pleasure the tonic that saves the world, in contrast to the overbearing church which seeks to halt them. This book is controversial to say the least, but thrilling all the same.

For all of [the Church’s] history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out

–          Margaret the Witch, The Subtle Knife

Hungry City Chronicles by Phillip Reeve

Extra bang for your buck here as Mr. Reeve has dispatched with the trilogy and opted for a cheeky quartet instead. And bang is certainly what you get in this story. In an unspecified number of years into the future Earth has been reduced to wasteland by a devastating conflict, known as the Sixty Minute War. The world as we know it has disappeared, replaced by Traction Cities. These are entire cities made mobile to allow them to escape natural disasters. The cities power themselves by using giant jaws to devour one another for resources. The imagination in this book is incredible and the warnings of a dystopian future to come all too clear.

Twilight Trilogy by Stephanie Meyers

Let me start here by acknowledging the haters of this series. Dear Haters, the problem you seem to have is that you compare the Twilight series to a fine steak. Twilight is not steak. Stephanie Meyers is not a Michelin starred chef. Stephanie Meyers makes McDonalds hamburgers in a greasy back room. There’s too much salt, and the only flavour comes from the gherkin. It’s not gourmet, but SOME PEOPLE LIKE IT. Some people even love it. If you taste it without expecting steak, you might just enjoy it too. If you want a story about life, love, free will and choice, with a healthy dose of fantasy then this book is for you.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickets (aka Daniel Handler)

Ever heard of a tridecalogy? You have now. Lemony Snickets’ adventures span thirteen books, chronicling the unfortunate events which befall the Baudelaire children. Charlotte loves to invent, Klaus loves to read and Sunny loves to bite. Together they use these loves to navigate the world after being orphaned by their parents in a tragic fire. The books paint adults as macabre and sinister, blindly obeying authority and succumbing to ambition and peer pressure.  The Baudelaire children on the other hand are free-thinking and independent. Filled with dark humour these books are also educational, with Snickets often satirically deconstructing words and metaphors for the reader.  Those who read within the books are also good characters, while anyone who shuns knowledge is often a villain.

“Composer” is a word which here means “a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the orchestra is going to play.” This is called composing. But last night, the Composer was not muttering. He was not humming. He was not moving, or even breathing. This is called decomposing.

–          Lemony Snickets, A series of Unfortunate Events

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My name is Fiona Stirling, I’m 24 years old and I left teaching a few  months ago to become a counsellor. I’ve written as a hobby for a few  years now and have had success with comedy skits being performed in the past. I live in St. Andrews, Scotland with my partner who spoils me with French quinine and Rose wine. In my free time I like to watch trashy films and I love to read even trashier books.

Photo: Some rights reserved by andromeda8236.

7 comments

  1. Chris

    I love YA, and Stephanie Meyer. She might not be my caviar, but what can I say, I love easy cheese. I even enjoyed her alien book, “The Host”. Of course, “The Series of Unfortunate Events” books by Lemony Snicket are among my favorite young adult books to recommend to second-language learners and friends who don’t read. They’re funny and easy to get addicted to. Of course, I read anything I can get my hands on, and that includes children’s books, romance novels, and the free newspapers they give away in public transport—and I will not be ashamed 😉

  2. Sue

    Great post. I love YA because the stories are great and it is a chnace to bond with my kids by reading the same books. Hunger Games was the first book all four of us had read & went to see the movie together, then out to dinner to discuss it- thanks Suzanne Collins!!

  3. Christina Hamlett

    Fiona–
    Hi from across the pond! (My husband and I actually exchanged our wedding vows 14 years ago at Stirling Castle.) How could you not be inspired living in such a beautiful country as Scotland?!
    I thought your post was spot-on. Although I’m well past my own young adult years, I write stage plays for this target demographic and I’ve always found that the best way to keep a finger on the pulse of what interests them is to read YA titles. Not only do these books conjure memories of adolescent angst and the desire to fit in with the popular crowd but they also reinforce the timeless message that the dreams, hopes and fears experienced by the younger generation are many of the same themes that we carry with us into our adult relationships with family, peers and coworkers. Thanks for a great article!

  4. Christina Hamlett

    For those of you looking for some more great books to share with your kids, my Oregon colleague Cindy Hudson started a fantastic site called Mother Daughter Book Club at http://motherdaughterbookclub.com/. She welcomess guest reviews as well. Just tell her that Christina sent you. 😉

  5. Fiona S

    Hi everyone!

    Thank you all for the lovely comments. Chris, so glad to see other people are enjoying Stephanie Meyers talents, the Host was another good read by her.

    Sue, you’re very welcome!

    And Christina, so glad you enjoyed your time in Scotland, it offers some great scenery for any occasion! And thanks for the link, some more books to get started on….

  6. Alasdair

    You really know your stuff Fiona.Dyno article

  7. Jan Nerenberg

    Fiona: Spot on! Did a MFA thesis on this topic and wish I’d have had this to add to the arsenal. YA rocks and as it bridges the generation gap, it becomes classic as in the works of Dickens, Barrie, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Lewis, etc. – all of which can be read on multiple levels and by any age.

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