Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why Adults Read YA & A Book Review - Stargirl

So the NY Times had an essay about all the adults reading young adult literature earlier this month. Big discussion. Why is this happening?

Personally, I took a break from reading altogether a few years back. But I'd also had two babies less than a year apart (brill!) and I rarely stopped moving.

Before then, I'd made a steady diet of Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Anchee Min ... ZERO young adult.

I vividly recall the year 2000 when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out and that 600+ page YA novel made the news. I remember my graduate assistant was SO excited--she told me she and her physician Dad had been reading the series together.

I was astonished. "Really?" I asked. "But aren't those... kid books?"

These days I'm not just reading YA, I'm also writing it. So I'm doubly astonished.

Seriously, though. I think there are two very good reasons adults are flocking to the YA aisles in bookstores and online.

Reason #1: YA has just gotten really, really good!

I mean, when I was a YA, we had Nancy Drew, Judy Blume and Francine Pascal. I'm just going to be honest with you. I loved all those books, but only one of the authors wrote fiction that would captivate an adult.

Which brings me to today's impromptu book review for Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl.  I'm very late reading Stargirl. It also came out in 2000, and I can tell you, there's only one thing wrong with this tiny, 192-page novel.

The cover.

What's wrong with it? Well, the book's written by a man from the POV of a 16 year-old boy and I can't imagine a teenage boy (or any age boy) walking around carrying this. (PLEASE correct me if I'm wrong. I'd like to be wrong...)

Stargirl tells the story of a sweet, free-spirited girl who transfers from homeschool to public school in Arizona during her sophomore year. The main character, Leo, observes her throughout the story and ultimately develops a crush on her.

In the beginning, the student body is fascinated with her zany antics--Stargirl (aka, Susan Caraway) plays the ukelele, she sings happy birthday to students in the cafeteria, she has a pet mouse, she joins the cheerleading squad and cheers for both teams...

But as the story progresses, the students turn on her. And eventually she's shunned. Leo as her boyfriend is shunned as well and he sets about trying to change her to help her be accepted.

What transpires is absolutely heartbreaking to read, but ultimately it's not sad. The ending is actually positive. I give it a solid A, and I bet even male teenagers would like this book. But that's another topic for discussion.

Now I'm willing to bet most teen readers will have a different reaction to Stargirl than I did. They'll probaby view it the same way I did The Chocolate War--disturb the universe my butt. You can't act that way in high school and not expect a backlash.

Adult me read it and got the message of the retired professor in the book--every now and then someone comes along who's really special. Try not to miss it.

But that's my whole point with Reason #1. There's so much Kidlit now that's captivating for all ages. (It's gotten really, really good.)

There's also Reason #2: Escapism.

I'll admit, Stargirl isn't the type of YA book I immediately reach for. My 8 year-old wanted to read it, so I actually read it as a preview for her. (It's totally safe, Moms. There's no language or situations, but it is emotional.)

The young adult books I most enjoy reading are romantic, fast-paced and plot driven, and the stakes aren't too high. Which is what led me to my theory about escapism.

My sweet, book-devouring husband got a Barnes & Noble gift card recently. He went out last weekend and bought two books by Norman Mailer and Phillip Roth, and then he came at me with American Pastoral again.

Now I know JRM looks at me the way Alvy looked at Annie Hall with her cat book... But I read The Human Stain. I get it.

My adult life is complex and frustrating. It's also happy! But it's filled with enough difficulty that the last thing I want to do in my free time is sit around reading about some other adult's miserable life and poor choices.

I mean seriously.

It's far more relaxing (and entertaining) to grab Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side or Geek Charming and be swept away or giggle at silly stuff for a few hours. And I don't think that makes me any less deep or intelligent.

On that note, anyone who would argue adults reading The Hunger Games books are shallow or ignorant just isn't paying attention.

That's my two cents. I wonder if anyone else has a theory on this topic. I'd love to hear it.

Otherwise, have a great weekend, reader-writer friends. Remember, readers are leaders! So grab whatever style book you prefer and get lost~


Natasha said...

I first heard the term Young Adult less than a year back. And the little I have read of it, I really like it too.
For the same reasons you mention, I guess. Mithali Perkin anyone?

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Stargirl sounds good, and something I'd pick up. I love the cover but it's definitely a girl book cover. I can't see any boy picking it up. Not that that would hurt sales since you're right, teen girls, their moms and their grandmas are all reading the same books!

Carolyn Abiad said...

I read Harry Potter with my boys, but of course its a slippery slope. Now the three of us fight over who is going to read what first!

Ezmirelda said...

I read both stargirl and the Harry potter books when I was younger and I loved them. But the reason I got into them in the first place was because of the adult librarians who'd read them and reccomended them to me. Back then I was a Lois Duncan fan and there was nothing kidish about her books at all and they were YA. The only books for adults I really like is the hist romances written by Lisa kleypas and Julia Quinn because their characters are to die for and are not much different then the chracters I read about in YA.

LTM said...

@Rayna: Yes! The Rickshaw Girl--I've seen it in bookstores. Looks interesting~

@Karen: I know--and the cool thing is we're all getting something from it. It's a YA Renaissance~

@Carolyn: Yes, JKR very much hooked the male market. That really is another topic being hotly debated. Why don't older boys read books? (Or WHAT are they reading... ;o)

@Ez: I was thinking this might be more of a school book--because it's great for discussion. Much like THG. Killing Mr. Griffin! I Know What You did Last Summer--I remember reading those... good stuff~ :o)

Carolyn Abiad said...

It's really hard to find books for these boys now. I've been falling back on the classics for summer reading but they don't love it. We need some new material! And yet, they say selling a book with an older male protagonist is impossible?

Cruella Collett said...

Clever - not just dual theories, but also dual form (I like the combination of book review and social commentary - yes, I just referred to your thoughts about adult YA reading habits as a "social commentary"...).

I agree with you on both points - the YA books I read serve both those purposes. In addition, though, I also think that sometimes YA and adult fiction isn't all that different. Why is "The Book Thief" classified as YA, while "Water for the Elephants" isn't? Sure, the latter has one (discreet) "adult" scene, but for the most part, I'd say "The Book Thief" is a much more "grown up" book, with more complex themes, characters, language. I don't really get the distinction.

RosieC said...

Agreed. When I was YA I wouldn't read YA. I didn't like Nancy Drew, I didn't like Babysitters Club (or was that more MG?). Well, maybe that's not true. I was a Christopher Pike addict, but that's pretty telling about my personality. I went quickly through my YA Horror stint into Steven King by the time I was twelve or thirteen.

Now I can't get enough of it. I have a Barbara Kingsolver sitting by my bed, where it's been collecting dust since December. I think I got past page 2, maybe. But there are so many great new YA books that I don't want to invest the time to BK. It makes me sad, but it's true.

Thanks for the book review :) I'm off to add that to my GoodReads list.

Unknown said...

YA is such a phenomenon right now! And I was nodding when you talked about the first Harry Potter book. When I decided to read it back in 2001, I was actually a little...what? Embarrassed? I mean, it was a kid's book. I think JK Rowling changed the literary landscape the way Michael Jackson changed pop music and dance. The literary world is different now, and adults loving YA is a result.

I read an interesting discussion recently regarding YA, but the subject being debated was whether YA books were too targeted to female readers, with the strong heroine and stereotypical hot-boy sidekick male characters. Interesting, no? I know my 12 yo son doesn't read any of the YA novels we hear about in the blogosphere! He's into the testosterone-infused sci-fi and paranormal wizardry books with male protagonists and hardly any females in the cast.

I haven't read Stargirl, but I'm going to recommend it to my 10 yo daughter. She was just looking for a good book. Thanks!!

Hope your week's going great!
((hugs)) Nicole

LTM said...

@Carolyn & Nicole: Wow. I'm totally seeing Monday's post... I wonder if we could get to the bottom of this. Thinking... thinking...

@CC: Hmm... but what comment am I making? ;o) The primary distinction on what makes a book YA is the age of the main character--that's what I've found.

@Rosie: That was me in HS--but I was in college-prep English courses and they had us reading Morrison, Vonnegut, etc. Not much time for anything else. But now YA IS different, and so engaging!

((hugs)) back to you, ND. I think your daughter will like Stargirl~ :o)

Hart Johnson said...

I only discovered YA with my kids, now 15 and 11, but ADORE that so much of it is fabulous for an adult too. I really got pulled in DEEP with Harry Potter, but there are many since then.

I love the complex adult books, but the big thing about YA for me is language. To read my FAVORITE literature (the dead Russians) takes time and attention. I don't have either. I read while I walk, or while I have five minutes. The moderate complexity allows me to put it down and pick it up... to read at 60% attention... and still get a fabulous story.

I also think it's the only genre taking any chances anymore, so it is the only place with REALLY fresh stuff.

Ella said...

I like the flow and it is an escape; YOU can travel back to that time in your life. The formative times of tribulations and tests of our morals. This period in time help develop our character. We can time travel reflect, but enJOY someone else story. Since, my daughter turned 13(she is 14 now). I have started reading more YA!

Great post~

Scarlett said...

THis is exactly why I like to read romance novels- they are an escape. Sometimes you can pick up one with mystery mixed in and that can be a little extra "brain exercise". I believe that is what most women find so enthralling about the Twilight novels, they are an easy read with little thought required. When you are a busy wife and mother, reading is for relaxation, and hey, if you learn something along the way good for you!

LTM said...

@Hart: Wow. I always faked reading the dead Russians... LOL! But I think you're right about taking risks. YA is so fresh and alive right now!

@Ellie: It's true! I was thinking that as I wrote--part of it is remembering a time when things were far less irreversable--? (Is that fair?)

@Scarlett: Oh, yes, the whole easy to read is a big part of it. But I've been finding that even the easy to read books pack a punch. That's what I'm saying--it's like an amazing combo of Reasons 1 & 2. Good stuff! :o)

RaShelle Workman said...

Hey Leigh - What a great topic, girl!!! I've heard publishers are dying for material for teenaged boys. I can't think of anything. There is the younger set (Harry Potter, Fablehaven) and then adult. But what if the kid doesn't like fantasy? Sheesh. Maybe it's because boys that age are dealing with adult situations already. I read The Chocolate War. Yes they were in HS, but the language and the content was quite adult.

Also, I agree on why YA is so popular with adults. I read as an escape too. It's nice not to have to think too much and still really enjoy a story. I don't think that's asking too much. Life is challenging and difficult enough already.

LTM said...

Hey, Miz RaShelle--I was actually going to attempt and get some good feedback on the boy book topic w/Monday's post. I wonder if it'll work... I should get DL/Jen on the case. ;p

Yeah, Chocolate War was tough, but I was assigned it at 15. Also Slaughterhouse Five, which I was also assigned at 15...? Maybe I'm trying to recapture my lost YAhood--LOL! :D

Nah, YA's just gotten really, really good I think. And not just cuz folks like us are writing it now *wink*~

Ted Cross said...

My main issues with YA are that it tends to underestimate kids (YA will read adult books quite happily; if only agents knew that...) and it is killing adult fiction to some degree. Just try writing for adults and see how hard it is to get published these days. The agents and publishers look at the bottom line and say, "Why buy an adult book when I can get both adult and YA audiences with a YA book?"

LTM said...

@Ted: I agree! Look at those Hunger Games books and how great they're doing. They do NOT underestimate IMO...

You should throw 'em for a loop. Make your MC 17 and market it as YA... see what happens! (I mean, only if you feel like it, of course... ;o)

I've also heard it's the economy, Bill (Clinton). Adults have stopped buying books for themselves, but they're still buying then for the kids--and then they started reading them-! Not sure if that's true...