Getting Back on the Teenage Rollercoaster: The Appeal of Young Adult Fiction

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It occurred to me recently how much young adult fiction I’ve read over the last couple of years. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, to name the most recent. I started to think about why this was. I’ll be 27 in a few months, so I’m not technically a “young” adult anymore, so in some corner of my mind I started to wonder if I should still find these novels so appealing. Is there a cut-off point when we as adults should put away the stories of first loves, heartaches and hormones and turn our attention to more “grown up” fiction? It didn’t take me long to decide that the answer is definitely NO.

So what is it that draws adults to YA fiction even years after we have left those tumultuous teenage years behind? Why do we want to get back on that emotional rollercoaster when we spent so long struggling to get off? After musing on this for a while, I think I’ve figured it out: our teenage selves never really left us. Careers, financial concerns, marriages and kids might have hidden them, but they’re there. It’s their voices we hear when we have rebellious urges, when we temporarily push our adult responsibilities aside and just have fun. It’s them that make us sometimes long for a time when bills, full-time jobs and other obligations didn’t dampen our limitless plans for the future. It’s our inner teenage selves which allow us to relate to the characters, situations and emotions portrayed in YA novels and reminisce about the times when we were experiencing those things too.

I think some adults might be a bit afraid of YA, though. Some might be embarrassed because they feel they should be reading something more mature. I remember when the so-called adult cover editions of the Harry Potter novels started to appear on the shelves here in the UK, no doubt to market to those readers who felt this way, as if simply changing the covers somehow made these books more acceptable as reading material for adults. Author Benjamin Alire Sáenz makes the very valid point that “the Young Adult label is just a matter of marketing — it’s a much bigger market than literary fiction. In the end, a good novel is a good novel.” Of course, many YA novels deal with mature topics that affect most of us in some way, regardless of age, like grief, death, mental and physical illness, fear and love. John Green’s brilliantly moving and hilarious story of two teenagers falling in love while battling cancer, The Fault in Our Stars, has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 77 weeks and currently sits in poll position, no doubt due to the upcoming release of its film adaptation.

Or they might be afraid for a deeper reason, one they might not even be consciously aware of, and one I’m only just starting to notice within myself. Maybe some adults are reluctant to read YA because they’re afraid to revisit some of the emotions they experienced when they were younger. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would never want to go back to their teenage years. To the anxiety, the confusion, the overwhelming need to feel accepted and the pressure to conform. For some of us, certain experiences were made all the more frightening and traumatic when we were teenagers because we had much less control over our lives when we were that age. We hadn’t learned how to deal with difficult and stressful situations and so sometimes that emotional rollercoaster we were forced to jump on at age 13 took us spiralling down into a place we thought we’d never get out of.

So why would we ever want to relive that? I thought I didn’t, until I realised that’s what I was doing when I read YA novels. Without realising it, I was relating to these characters even if I didn’t want to. Sure, it was nice to remember some things like first crushes and all-nighters hanging out with friends, but there were plenty of emotions in those books that I never wanted to remember feeling. One of my friends is an avid reader and I often chat about books with her. Recently we discussed Love Letters to the Dead, which we’ve both read. In her review of it, which you can read here, she said that “This book is so powerful. There were several times that I just had to put the book down and breathe.” She and I are very alike in lots of ways, reading tastes included, so when I read the book I expected to be emotionally affected in a similar way. I wasn’t. The writing was beautiful, the emotions well portrayed, the characters well developed and the style creative, so what was the problem? It’s taken some thought, but I understand it now. I wasn’t affected because I didn’t want to be. I was putting up emotional barriers so that I could read the words but not really feel them. I think I was afraid that if I did then I would end up back on that rollercoaster and not be able to stop the ride.

I’ve since realised that doing this means denying myself the full experience that these books can offer. The powerful emotions are a major part of why these stories are so compelling, so cushioning their impact only dilutes the experience. I’m starting to convince myself that I don’t need the barriers. I’m not stuck on the rollercoaster anymore. I don’t remember how, but at some point I managed to get off it, and taking an occasional nostalgic ride every now and then doesn’t mean I’ll be forced to stay there. I’ve taken a break from YA for now, but when I inevitably return to it I’m going to try my best to keep all this in mind.

If there are any of you out there who feel the same way, who are reluctant to pick up a YA novel because you think you’re too old for it or because you’re afraid of what it might make you feel, I urge you to try anyway. If you want my recommendation, start with The Fault in Our Stars. Yes, it’s sad and might make you cry (even my barriers struggled with this one), but you’ll also laugh and root for Hazel and Gus as together they face what life has thrown at them. You may be an adult now, but there’s still a teenager inside of you. Let them remind you of who you were, and show you how far you have come.