Subscribe to The Horn Book

This was a debate?

That New York Times “Room for Debate” on adults reading young adult books is an odd mess. Of the seven essayists, only two actually grapple with the posited question: “Why have young adult books become so popular so quickly — even with not-so-young adults?” Patricia McCormick preaches to the choir that YA books are more “audacious” than adult books, an assertion that can only resound among those adults who don’t read very much. Sharon Flake complains that the genre is too white: she’s right but completely off topic. Teen book blogger Emma Allison gushes about being followed by Libba Bray on Twitter: nice for her but what’s your point? Matt de la Peña writes about people needing to see themselves in books, which seems to be an argument against adults reading YA more than anything else. And librarian Beth Yoke pleads that teens need popular lit as much as they do classics, an oddly defensive pose given that nobody is claiming they don’t. I’d really like to know if the assigning editor at the Times actually asked these people to answer the same question.

Only Lev Grossman, rationally, and Joel Stein, sophomorically, addressed the topic. Grossman, a book reviewer and member of an adult book club that reads YA, understands the difference between adult books and YA but can’t seem to resist queering his pitch: “The writing is different: young adult novels tend to emphasize strong voices and clear, clean descriptive prose, whereas a lot of literary fiction is very focused on style: dense, lyrical, descriptive prose, larded with tons of carefully observed detail, which calls attention to its own virtuosity rather than ushering the reader to the next paragraph with a minimum of fuss.” Aside from the fact that he’s comparing good examples of the former with bad examples of the latter, Grossman ignores the fact that most of YA (including The Hunger Games, which is what I assume prompted this debate) is not literary fiction, it’s what we perhaps too-loosely call commercial fiction, reading as diversion, where the page-turner is king. A comparison between The Hunger Games and, oh, Mrs. Dalloway (Grossman’s example, not mine) is meaningless. If you want to compare The Hunger Games to, say, Snow Crash, or Sarah Dessen to Jodi Picoult, you might come up with points more interesting and useful.

Joel Stein’s contribution is the only one people on my side of the playground are talking about, and he certainly does provide an easy target. His cry to “let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry” is a small masterpiece of trollbait whose effectiveness you can see in the outraged comments, on the piece itself and in the children’s-book blogosphere. (Really. Does anyone actually think Joel Stein thinks The Hunger Games is about “games you play when hungry”? Although, come to think of it, it is.) It’s too bad that this was the only essay among the seven to dare to criticize the reading choices of some adults, because it did so in a way that was too easily shot down as sexist, ignorant, and elitist (which I stick in there like I think it’s a bad thing when in fact I don’t).

I don’t worry about adults reading YA novels. Read what you want. But don’t tell me you read them because adult books aren’t good enough, or that, God help us all, YA books are all you need. (Lest you think I’m erecting a strawman, I’ve met plenty of people in children’s book publishing and librarianship who are completely proud of their indifference to books for adults). To this point I am less bothered by the fact that YA books are for teenagers than that they are about teenagers. If we preach that one of the goods of YA literature is that it probes and reflects the identities of its readers, shouldn’t we want the same for ourselves? There is life after high school.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Yes. Yes. YES! I looked at it and then had to avert my eyes. Who cares who is reading what? How is it any of our business or concern? (Unless you are, I suppose, a publisher in which case the word “business” will resonate differently.) There are many wonderful and amazing books out there, which we are free to read or not, enjoy or not, as we wish. How is it a topic for debate? Is anyone really looking for someone to say that what they’re reading is OK? It seems to me counter to the whole endeavor. Thank you for expressing the contents of my own crotchety mind.

  2. You wondered if the NYT editor asked the contributors to answer the same question, and from my experience this was not the case. I was assigned a specific angle to address (popular literature vs. the classics), and was not asked to answer the broader question. If you recall, a few short years ago the press was awash in news and opinion pieces about how young adult literature was trashy, poorly written and/or corrupting our youth. It seemed a week couldn’t go by without another “racy reads” segment on broadcast news or in the newspapers. Personally, I think the recent Room for Debate piece shows the progress we’ve made towards changing those attitudes.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Beth, it would be interesting to know if the raciness is less of a problem because a) the books are less racy or b) adults have co-opted the genre and the discussion for themselves–the rule of the TwiMoms! One thing that has changed in YA over the last decade is the growth of what would be considered “airport books” in adult publishing–darkness in service to a suspenseful story, not gritty realism for consciousness-raising’s sake.

  4. Bravo, Roger. Very well said. I would add that Joel Stein has succeeded in his true intent, which was not to convince adults to change their reading habits, but rather to score himself a ton of ink and airtime.

  5. I never understood why this was a subject of debate in the first place. So what if adults read young adult books. With as much illiteracy and aliteracy as there is in this country, I’m thrilled if adults read anything at all. Once we have a better educated and more literate populace, then I’ll worry about elitism.

  6. Thanks!

  7. I had a few thoughts on the comment that “there is life after high school” bit. Have posted them over at my blog since they were far too long for a comment. Thanks for an interesting take on the NYT piece.

  8. One thing I’ve noticed lately is how many adult books actually feature (or begin with) young protagonists. From the classics (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, all of Jane Austen except Persuasion) to the modern (My Sister’s Keeper, a bunch of Neal Stephenson), adult literature is full of children. I actually picked up Among Others, by Jo Walton, as an adult book escape from my usual barrage of middle grade fiction, only to learn that it’s about a fifteen-year-old. Ditto for the magnificent We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

  9. “To tell the truth, I don’t read children’s books. I’m an adult.”
    William Steig

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.


  1. […] This was a debate? @ The Horn Book (on that whole adults reading YA books thing that popped up again earlier this month) Related: What’s with the YA fiction all of a sudden? @ Foxtail Studio […]

Speak Your Mind