I read the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy to see what all the fuss was about, and I’ll admit that by the time I got around to reading it, there were already plenty of talented journalists writing about young adult fiction’s increasing popularity with adult readers. (Here’s an interesting article in defense of reading young adult fiction as a mindless escape from the workday.)
I tried to approach The Hunger Games with an open mind, excited to read a young adult fiction novel that was apparently loved by male and female readers and featured a non-sexualized female protagonist. But let’s set the record straight, here: Katniss spends a chunk of the book undergoing a “makeover” a la Miss Congeniality, She’s All That, Pretty Woman, etc, and her major flaw is taking advantage of the romantic feelings of a male character. Just because the female lead doesn’t spend the entire novel naked or being rescued by men (though that does happen a few times), doesn’t mean that this is a feminist book.
But the gender implications aren’t the only reason I struggled to finish the book. Throughout the novel I was frustrated (and bored) because the author leaves no room for reader interpretation. Katniss explains and re-explains each thought and action. Here’s an example: After Peeta and Katniss have won the games, Peeta’s leg is replaced with a prosthetic and Caesar tells Katniss that her tourniquet kept Peeta from bleeding to death. Her response:
“I guess this is true, but I can’t help feeling upset about it to the extent that I’m afraid I might cry and then I remember everyone in the country watching me so I just bury by face in Peeta’s shirt. It takes them a couple of minutes to coax me back out because it’s better in the shirt, where no one can see me.”
Part of the joy of reading is the pleasure of discovery — interpreting the characters’ actions and understanding what they imply to both predict the plot and understand the text’s deeper meaning. But this isn’t possible in The Hunger Games or many novels like it.
You may be thinking, Woah, book-snob, not every book has to have six layers of meaning. And this book is intended for young adult readers, not adults. The adults that read it are just reading it for fun.
I don’t have a problem with adults reading young adult fiction for fun, per se. I’m an advocate of reading in all its forms. What worries me, though, is that some adults are only reading young adult fiction. And some young adults never graduate into adult fiction. In fact, when I was teaching at the University of Utah, many of my students admitted to me that they started reading “teen fiction” in middle school and never stopped.
Being a “good reader” — someone who is able to interpret, understand and analyze texts — makes us better citizens of the world. We’re more likely to question political fluff and less likely to be swayed by senseless propaganda or social gossip. We’re more willing to form our own ideas and less apt to blindly accept the opinions of others. (In her most recent book, Swagger, Lisa Bloom has an entire chapter dedicated to showing how childhood reading is a key indicator of success in adulthood).
So here’s my suggestion, adults of the world: instead of heading straight to the “Teen Paranormal Romance” section in Barnes & Noble (yes, this is a legitimate category now), try something just a little bit more challenging (ie better). I’m not asking you to trade in Fifty Shades of Gray for the Ulysses. There are millions of books that are light, fun reads that also require some good old fashioned thinkin’.
I could write hundreds of blog posts on book recommendations, but, for brevity’s sake, here are my suggestions of some alternatives to poorly written YA fiction, including only books I’ve read in the past couple of years.
Like “chick-lit”? Do you buy “beach reads” out of season? Replace with
- Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants
- Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
- Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, and Animal Dreams
Like high school drama/romances like Gossip Girl? Replace with
- Walking Naked by Alyssa Brugman. This is actually a YA novel but makes some very interesting points about the similarities between reading texts and reading people.
- I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson
- The Adults by Alison Espach
- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Like fantasy/sci-fi like Harry Potter and Twilight? Replace with
- Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. This is another YA series, but it’s a bit more challenging and the author wrote the introduction to a recent edition of Paradise Lost, so you know he’s a smart one.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
- Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of Talents