The Fault in Our Stars.

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars.

There’s clearly a category of publishing called “Young Adult”. Whether there’s any way of identifying a YA book from its content alone is hard to know. It’s also hard to tell by the readers of such books. Lots of adults read the Harry Potter books, and The fault in our stars is being read by all these days. So what does YA mean? Is Little Women a YA book? What about Sherlock Holmes?  Jane Eyre? Dickens? Obviously the answer to all is, No, they are not YA books. YA is in a way just a label applied a book to facilitate shelving in the bookstore — it’s a signal to bookstore clerks, book buyers, and librarians saying “Hey. You might be able to interest a teenager in reading this.” Little Women et al were published long before such a label was invented. The fault in our stars, once you hold it in your hands doesn’t shout “Young Adult” at you. There’s a conventional YA cover style, which this one has eschewed. The only hint, beyond the fact that the first line of the text places the main character in her 17th year, is the website reference on the back cover which refers you to http://www.penguin.com/teens. Of course as a teenager you wouldn’t need any such indications, since that #1 marketing tool, word-of-mouth, has already alerted you to the book’s existence. One of our granddaughters turned my wife on to it. I’ve not read it yet.

When I was a teenager I would have refused to read any book designated as being for Young Adults. There is a whole heap of condescension implied in the term: “Here, kid. You aren’t up to the real stuff — read this and that’ll keep you quiet.” But of course that attitude is rubbish — any teenager (with the time to spare) can get a whole lot out of War and Peace, Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend, Les misérables, Wuthering Heights. So why should an adult feel embarrassment at reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or The Giver by Lois Lowry? Yet people always sound a bit apologetic when reporting having enjoyed such books. Ruth Graham writing in Slate says adults should be embarrassed at reading children’s books. “At its heart YA aims to be pleasurable” may be true. Safe and pleasurable are not awful things, but maybe they are not enough. But we don’t have to be always engaging with the most elemental forces — safe and pleasurable are just fine some days. Tomorrow I’ll engage with elemental. The people who say we should be embarrassed at reading YA, probably think we shouldn’t be reading any genre fiction either, no romance, no sci fi, no mystery: just a continuous diet of literary fiction, academic monographs and original historical records. Get out of here: we’ll read whatever we want!

Alyssa Rosenberg, pop-culture opinions blogger for The Washington Post, appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show this morning. Listen here. As she says “I’d never say the world is complete through a children’s perspective, but I’d also never say it’s complete  through the eyes of John Updike either”. No harm in reading anything.