A few weeks ago, I had a drink with a new acquaintance whose job involves organizing literary festivals. I wanted to impress her. I was participating in the upcoming festival to promote the book I wrote under another alias, but I was under no illusions about where I stood in the hierarchy of literary talents being featured.
As we got to know each other, I told Lit Fest Person that I write post-apocalyptic novels set at sea under my other name.
“Is it YA?” Lit Fest Person asked.
“No,” I said, rubbing at the condensation on my glass. “I mean . . . it’s an adult book, but it would appeal to the kind of adults who like to read YA, especially dystopian YA.”
Lit Fest Person nodded sagely.
“Actually,” I continued, “I’m sorry, but I love to read YA. No, I shouldn’t apologize. Those books are awesome. Hunger Games, Divergent, Shatter Me . . .”
I trailed off, waiting for the judgment. (I’ve read Salon; I know how some people in the literary community view YA fiction.)
But then . . . Lit Fest Person set down her glass, leaned forward, and said something along the lines of “OMG, have you read Brandon Sanderson’s YA series?! It’s called Steelheart. It’s soooo good!”
We proceeded to gush over the joys of YA fiction, science fiction and fantasy–basically every type of fun (dare I say commercial) genre book you’d expect a literary festival coordinator to deride. It was a real icebreaker when we got past the polite, high-brow conversation to the fact that we both just love reading.
Later (after our second rum cocktail), I got to thinking about why I’d felt the need to apologize for liking YA books in front of a Serious Literary Person, even if it was only for a moment. Why should I be ashamed of reading anything? YA fiction has some of the best world-building and most engaging plots out there right now. There are some cool concepts and great storytelling going around, and the target audience doesn’t change that.
Although Seabound is aimed at adults, I think of my novel as “YA-like” because it’s all about creating a world around a specific concept (people living on a souped-up cruise ship sixteen years after the apocalypse) and seeing what adventures happen there. There are strong coming-of-age themes, and the stakes are both simple and high: escaping mortal peril and saving loved ones.
Esther, the main character of Seabound, is 22. I thought about making her a teenager to fit the YA mold, but it just wouldn’t work. I wanted her to be at a stage in her life where she is still figuring out what kind of person she is, but she also has a lot more responsibility on the ship than a 16-year-old would have. She’s a mechanic and an inventor, and her skills are pretty advanced (though not quite as advanced as she thinks they are). I wanted to explore adult concerns through Esther’s story, but I also wanted to create the kind of all-consuming world that YA writers are so good at portraying.
I’ve been influenced by JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Tahereh Mafi just as much as I’ve been influenced by Robert Jordan, Hugh Howey, Robin Hobb, and Brandon Sanderson, or for that matter, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Hisham Matar, and Barbara Kingsolver. I’m so grateful that we don’t have to only read serious books when we reach a certain age, and that sometimes the “fun” books are quite serious at their heart.
YA books are exciting, page-turning escapes from ordinary life. Adults need that just as much as teens do, and there is no reason we should apologize for it.