How Old is Too Old for YA?

As I was casually lurking on Twitter the other day, I came across this Tweet which, to be honest, took me aback a bit.

Now, YA–otherwise known as Young Adult Fiction–is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart, as a writer but especially as a reader. I’ve been reading young adult books since about the time I was able to choose my own reading material, which was whenever my parents gave their avid reader middle child (me) free run of our local library. With a few exceptions, my parents really didn’t police my reading choices, which meant I was drawing from a pretty broad pool of books from a pretty young age. But my favorite section was always the YA shelves, stocked with books the grown-ups in my life had never heard of before, books that felt like they were just for me, books full of magic and adventure. Garth Nix, Lloyd Alexander, Sherwood Smith, Tamora Pierce–I devoured these old-school YA novels like they were going out of style.

In middle school, things changed. A little book called Harry Potter started getting popular, and suddenly, everyone knew about my genre. Don’t get me wrong–I did and do love the Harry Potter books, and loved that soon after they became popular, the bookstore and library bookshelves were packed with new and more varied YA options. Throughout high school, I continued to read everything I could get my hands on, but YA remained my staple. I remember one douche-canoe who sat near me on the bus used to make fun of my reading choices, sneering at the YA covers and flashing his copies of Dostoyevsky at me (eye-roll). But that didn’t stop me from reading.

By the time the next mega-YA-phenomenon rolled around (Twilight) I was in early college. I actually picked the book up off my little sister’s library stack just months before everyone else lost their mind’s over it. Not too longer after that, The Hunger Games trilogy hit the stratosphere, and I was hooked on those too. Around this time in my early twenties, I had technically “aged out” of the target YA demographic. But honestly, the YA genre as a whole was just getting interesting! New ideas, new books, new authors. And I’d started noodling around with the idea of writing my own YA novel. I wasn’t going to stop reading YA just because I was “too old” for it.

All of which is to say, it’s honestly never occurred to me that there could be a designated age when a person ought to “stop reading YA fiction,” as the original tweet suggests. But as I started to read all the replies to the original tweet, I really started to think about it.

Here’s the thing–I think people should read what they want, when they want. Comic books, pulp fiction, Dostoyevsky, YA fantasy, milk cartons. But that said, I do think as readers we have to cultivate an awareness of who the books we read are intended for, especially when those books are intended for children or young adults. Those frames of reference must inform how we interact with the media we consume. When I was nine, I knew that even though I enjoyed reading about the adventures of teenage heroes, some of their conflicts and interactions were more mature than the ones I dealt with in my own life. Similarly, although I read YA throughout my twenties and now into my thirties, I got to a point where I couldn’t personally relate anymore to all the things the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old characters were going through–been there, done that. That didn’t mean I couldn’t still enjoy those books or those narratives.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure everyone has this awareness. Speaking from experience, many of the reviews for my own YA fantasy novel included a sentence that went something like this: “I would have liked the book better if the main character was more mature and made better decisions.” Ummm, she’s seventeen. Do you know many seventeen year olds capable of acting maturely in every circumstance and making all the right decisions in a high-stress environment? *face palm*

So no, I don’t think there’s an age when a person should no longer read young adult books. I do, however, think that once someone passes the age of both the characters in the books and the intended audience for which the book was written, they have to take a step back and ask themselves, “was this written for me?” Because chances are, once they’re out of the 13-18 age range of most YA books, they may start to relate less to some of the problems, choices, and actions of the main characters. And that’s fine! We don’t have to agree with every choice a character makes to still find their stories compelling and worthwhile. But we do have to stop assuming that YA books will cater to adult tastes when they’re intended for teens.

There’s so much to love about YA fiction. These coming-of-age stories remind us of a time when our experiences were most likely to change us; a time when everything felt newly-minted and shiny; when all our firsts were still ahead of us. I think, ultimately, they are stories of hope. And that’s something I hope none of us ever grow out of.

Do you think there’s an “expiration date” for reading YA fiction? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!