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Why you should be reading YA fiction

What do Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan, J.D. Salinger, and Donna Tartt all have in common? If you said, “they are great novelists who explore important ideas,” you were right. If you cheated and deduced from the title of this post that they have also written books for Young Adults, you were also right.


It’s amazing that this (partial) list contains so many literary luminaries, because, honestly, there is a good deal of snobbery surrounding YA fiction from both readers and writers. Both groups are sometimes guilty of looking down on YA lit, dismissing it as “kid lit,” not to be taken seriously. As someone who has published two novels for adults, two story collections for adults, three YA novels, and has a new YA novel due out in 2026, I could give you a dozen examples from my own experience, but I will only mention a couple, and then explain why the assumptions made by those anonymous people are wrong.


Once, I was giving a reading of some of my work to a large crowd in the mountains of NC. The person introducing me had said that I had a YA novel coming out soon (my first at the time). During the Q&A at the end of the reading, someone raised a hand and said, “When you switched from writing novels to writing for young adults, how did you make yourself dumb it down? Was that hard?” I expected the audience to rise up in protest, but they all just sat, waiting for my answer (some version of which I will give below).


When I taught at a low-residency writing program and that same first YA book was forthcoming, I had three colleagues at the time take me aside, like they were staging an intervention. “Brad,” they said, “why are you doing this? You will ruin your career.” I laughed it off and shrugged, but six months later I returned for another residency and the same people asked me some version of this question: “So, are you still writing your little Dr. Seuss books?” This time I didn’t shrug and laugh it off, but made the points that A. I would love to be Dr. Seuss, because he was a freaking genius, and B. if they think YA fiction is somehow simple-minded, they have never read any Young Adult books, known an actual Young Adult, or remembered what it was like to be a Young Adult.


Flannery O’Connor once said, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” What kind of information did she mean? How does a radio work? What is the square root of 37? How much does a non-stop flight to California cost? No…she was talking about emotional information, that set of feelings you will be organizing and understanding and misunderstanding for the rest of your life. By age five, even, you have felt them all—love, anger, dislike, jealousy, joy, regret, even lust (according to Freud). So if you have felt those by age five, then by age 15 you are actively living those emotions. Falling in love for the first time, flirting, being rejected, worrying about the future, feeling anger and disappointment from people you love—all of those are a part of your daily existence, your daily walk at that age. And they aren’t cute, mini versions of grownup emotions either; if you think about some of the things you felt and experienced at that time, the truth of that shines clear. In fact, I would argue (and have, elsewhere) that those emotions are felt more strongly at that age than later, say by 40, when emotional fatigue and decades of coping and repressing have pushed those feelings under the surface, where often only therapy or tragedy can dig them out. At 15, those emotions live on the surface of your skin.

My own new YA novel, The Reel Life of Zara Kegg (forthcoming summer 2026 from Regal House), deals with the death of a loved one, grief, loss, mental illness, personal responsibility, family dynamics, parenting, and falling in love. And the book is also funny, because life can always be funny, even when we are dealing with the worst stuff.

YA writers engage head-on with these raw emotions, digging them up and processing them for older readers (cheap therapy, that), while also helping younger readers make sense of their feelings and know they are not alone. That’s the work of literature, and a good YA book is literature for the same reasons that a book of fiction or poetry for adults is literature.

Comment below, tell me what your favorite YA book is…or was. And go get busy reading some YA fic—you are missing out if you aren't! ren’t!

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1 comentário

03 de jul.

Enjoyed this. The last graf cuts off in mid-sentence on my Android phone. Maybe check? Agree with you for sure about the intensity of certain emotions changing over time.

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