Why I am Still a Child at Heart, or Why I Read YA Books and Watch Kids’ Movies

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After my freshman year of college a group of my high school friends and I celebrated the end of the year by taking a trip down to Disney World. We had a blast (I had never been before), and it was a great chance to catch up after a year apart, to unwind, to not worry about papers or exams, and to welcome summer. We are all Disney fans at heart and it was a great way to end off the year.

About a year ago, an article came out in the New York Times. “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” The article starts off,

“The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter.”

Now, in my opinion the best kind of plane book is one that is not too dense and has a good plot – preferably one that will transport you to another world and will help you forget the crying baby that is sitting behind you, or the guy next to you who keeps leaning his head on your shoulder while he sleeps (and drools). And a good YA or fantasy book would be a perfect example of this.

A few months ago I saw someone (an adult) reading The Hunger Games on her Kindle on the subway. I noticed because I saw the word “Katniss” on her screen as I was looking down to change the music on my ipod. And I was not embarrassed for her. Instead, I looked over her shoulder to see what part she was on. Yes, I was that person reading over her shoulder. If I remember correctly, she was on the third book, Mockingjay.

Yes, there are many great works of fiction geared towards an older reading audience that are fabulous reads, that tell great stories, and that capture language beautifully. I will be the first to agree with that. Everyone should read books like that. As many as they can. But that does not mean that we should write off books written for the younger set as not worthy of our time.

As a 23 year old who majored in English in college, I am a huge fan of young adult fiction. I am not embarrassed by it and you shouldn’t be either.

Young adult stories are huge in the book world right now, and there must be a reason for that. There are so many stories out there aimed at the young adult, or even a child that are fun and worth while, and I would prefer not to pass them over. I am including movies in this as well. After all, the majority of the young adult market is in fact adults. 

I believe that everyone should read what they want to, and I have definitely been enjoying that privilege over the past year. I have deffinitely gotten something out of each book I have read, whether I liked it or not, no matter what the genre was.

“Books are one of our few chances to learn”, the NY Times article states, and I agree with that whole heartedly. Books give readers a chance to see the world through a different lens, whatever that lens may be. I have learned a lot from the books that I read over the years, but that learning did not suddenly switch on in full force when I made the transition to “adult” books. It is a constant stream, no matter what I read. Even if I dislike something (like Twilight). I look at it and ask myself what I don’t like about it, and go on from there.

So why are YA books so popular? And why is it a “concern” that adults are so taken by them? This is going to sound uuber corny, but I believe that there is a universality to YA books that readers relate to. Sure, none of us have gone to Hogwarts, but we have all dealt with evil, conflict, sadness, and hardship in our lives. Or, we don’t live in a dystopian society where our children are forced to kill each other on live TV, but we have all done things for the people we love, or worked to figure out what motivates us and thought about why we do the things that we do.

Every book has those underlying themes and truths that drive the characters and the story into existence. So why discredit some and not others just because of their intended audience? Is it the use of language – that YA books tend to use simpler prose and vocabulary? Yes, that is generally true, but I have read a few young adult books that blew me away with their use of language.

Variety, after all, is the spice of life, and I, for one, need variety in my reading life. I can’t just read only the David Foster Wallaces, Charles Dickenses, or the Don DeLillos of the world. I have to read the J.K. Rowlings and Suzanne Collinses as well or else I will be missing out on some great books.

Frequently after I read a great tome of a novel, even if I have enjoyed it; even if it has changed my life, and I am going to make all my friends read it now so they can understand what they have been missing, I still will want to turn to a lighter (YA) book afterwards (yes, lighter, this however does not mean there is nothing there). I have a friend, for instance, who read Les Mis for months on end and then followed it up with The Hunger Games for a little reading variety.

Personally, I can’t just read one type of book or else I would go nuts. Maybe that is why I tend not to read a series of books one after the other. Whether it is YA or adult literature, I need variety in my life.

So, what do we get when we read YA novels, or watch kids’ movies? Besides understanding “the power of true friendship” and other themes yada yada yada. I believe that there is more to it than that. Frequently, since young adult media is geared towards a younger audience, the underlying message of the movie/book is at the surface of the story and is not buried under layers of sub-context.

Now, as an post English major, I am one of those people who will enjoy analyzing sub-context, but sometimes I’m just in it for the story and I want the sub-context handed to me on a silver platter – one that is well written and not too in your face while still being a good read..

I recently watched Rise of the Guardians, the ultimate kid’s movie, starring characters such as The Easter Bunny, Santa, and Jack Frost. Corny and aimed at your five year old niece, I know. I originally wanted to watch it because I saw that Hugh Jackman played the Easter Bunny, which made The Rise of the Guardians and Les Mis the two movies that he worked on in 2012. What a guy. But in the end I really enjoyed Rise of The Guardians. It’s cute and has a fun plot that adds a twist to well known childhood characters (Santa is a large Russian man with tattoos who throws knives). It’s also pretty funny.

In a way, the movie was kind of like the show Once Upon a Time, in that it remade well known stories, traditions, and characters. Elementary and Sherlock have done that too with the character of Sherlock Holmes. As I writer and a reader that interests me – the process the creator of a story must go through when dealing with a character that already exists. There has to be enough familiarity within the character for the audience to know who it is and to relate to them, but at the same time the creator has somewhat of a liberty to do what they want with them and make them their own.

All in all I enjoyed Rise of the Guardians. And I would say that I got something out of it.

The underlying message of the movie is a question: What is your center? Now, this is not a ground breaking question in any sense of the term. But, as a Christian and a recent college graduate, this question is one that I think about fairly often. Why am I doing what I am doing? What am I looking to get out of it? What is my motivation? Like I said, nothing new, but important none the less.

Motivations are pretty basic, and they lead us to do some pretty complex things. In any crime investigation show (Castle, Bones, CSI, the list goes on…) there are only so many excuses that arise from the killer when he is accused of his crime. Jealousy, Greed, Love, Lust etc. It is how these motivations played through in the crime that is the interesting part of the story, the part that ties the whole episode together.

These motivations can be found in any movie, tv show, or book, whether it is for young or old adults. How the movtivations portray themselves in the emotions and decisions of the character, that is the interesting part of a story.

Which brings me to my last point. I am the person who analyzes a movie for plot and character development as I watch it, and I enjoy doing it. Yes, I know, I belong back in school where I can analyze the heck out of anything, but bear with me.

Frequently, as I said before, the motivations and basic elements of plot, style, and storytelling, are seen more “on the surface” of a young adult novel than in the Great American Novel, where more analysis might be necessary. So, as a writer, when I am looking to see how a story is constructed, I frequently turn to YA novels. Really, I turn to any novel, but like I said, the underlying narrative structure tends to be more apparent in YA books.

The summer after my junior year of college, I had just finished exams and a crazy hectic year, and I was in desperate need of a light read. It was late at night and I wasn’t about to go to a bookstore, so I turned to a bookshelf that I hadn’t looked at in a while, and pulled The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen off the shelf. It was the ultimate chick-flick-YA-girly read, but it was late at night and I needed something, so I started reading.

I ultimately decided that I didn’t really like Sarah Dessen’s books, but I did get a lot out of the two that I ended up reading that summer. Sarah Dessen does an excellent job of portraying real issues to her readers. In The Truth About Forever, the protagonist, Macy’s father just passed away, and the book shows her dealing with that loss. I was impressed with how Dessen tackled this heavy subject and made it real, and I even enjoyed her writing style.

Overall, I found Dessen’s books to be very formulaic – girl has problem, girl meets flawed boy who seems just perfect, flawed boy helps girl solve her problems, they live happily ever after in the flawed world. Repetitive. But, I had just finished a semester of Advanced Fiction Writing, and I really enjoyed seeing how Sarah Dessen constructed the plot of the story, and how the character’s motivations were molded by their actions and the issues they faced in the story.

So, even though Sarah Dessen is not my favorite writer, I am glad that I read those two books, and I would say that I got a lot out of reading them. Yes, I could have gotten the same information out of different, more mature books, and I do all the time. But this time it was from Sarah Dessen.

Books like Dessen’s aren’t afraid to tackle real issues either. Because teenagers go through real issues. Not all YA books are fun and games – a lot of them go real deep real fast (I’m thinking The Book Thief here among others). Yes, there might be fighting or fantasy or magic or boy drama, but that doesn’t make it not real.

We can’t only read those hugely impressive academic top 100 books of all time books. We can read them, and love them, and discuss them ad infinitum, and believe me, we will. But every now and again we need to curl up with a Hunger Games, or a Harry Potter, or The Truth About Forever. Every now and again we need a trip to Disney World.

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4 thoughts on “Why I am Still a Child at Heart, or Why I Read YA Books and Watch Kids’ Movies

  1. This was very well written and very well thought out. I agree with you absolutely. I’m 21 and I love to read books such as The Poisonwood Bible, Dickens, War of the Worlds, etc. But I also have a bookshelf full of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Narnia, etc. To read both adult and YA books is to be well rounded. I try to read everything I can and give everything a fair chance before I put it down. I’m glad to find that someone else shares this sentiment. Oh. And The Rise of the Guardians was totally awesome and yeah. I originally wanted to see it because Hugh Jackman was playing the Easter Bunny. 😀

  2. This was a great article and so true 🙂 There are so many books out their with “teen themes” that can be enjoyed by people of all ages because we have all gone through those teenage years and can relate! That’s the best thing about reading; not only does it transport us to a different place and time but it allows us to empathize, relate, and enjoy the characters who remind us of ourselves or people we know! I am turning 30 this year and I have thoroughly enjoyed the “Hunger Games” trilogy as well as many other “YA” categorized books.
    This post has really reminded me of a fantastic novel I just read by Author Max Zimmer entitled, “Journey” (book 1 of 3). Even though this novel follows a young boy, Shake, and his ten-year experience from age 12 to 22 this doesn’t mean that this is the age group that has to read it! Anyone can! Drawing on his own experiences, the author writes here about a boy growing up as a Mormon just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The details he offers about the often misunderstood Mormon religion are insightful and never preachy. The tone is honest, and the story, as seen through the eyes of Shake remains realistic throughout. As he enters his teens Shake begins to question Mormonism and his upbringing. He is hardly a rebel, yet the more he doubts, the harder his parents and his church come down on him. Readers from their teens on up, no matter their religion, will identify with Shake as he begins to challenge everything he has been brought up to believe is true. I recommend this book to anyone and everyone 🙂 No ageism allowed!

  3. Pingback: A Trip to the Library: Why Children’s Books Matter | goodbookscents

  4. You, I like you! Excellent post! 🙂

    I am same as you. I am 20, and I love YA and children’s stories, fantasy and scifi in particular. I have read a lot of books, including all the Russian classics (and classics in general) and I read many many academic books but still …

    What comes to “Adults Should Read Books for Adults”…is just frustrating! Makes me want to punch people in their faces. I always say people read far too less and then there are people who say you should only read this but not that. And like this and not that. What comes to my mind is that, hey you all great authors if you are adults then write books for adults. And movie directors same.

    I found one good post on escapism 🙂 Thought I’d share
    http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/04/fantasy-reading-and-escapism

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