Martinez: YA novels still resonate years later

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

Young Adult novels have been a big part of my life since entering middle school. I remember eagerly checking out titles like “My Faire Lady” (Rowena works at a renaissance fair for a summer, eventually finding love) or “Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour” (Amy can’t drive herself across the country and enlists the help of a family friend, eventually finding love). I devoured these books: They offered a look at the mysterious life of high school students, an era of schooling I was terrified to enter.

While it may seem (literally) childish to still follow YA literature, it’s a genre I’m not ready to let go of yet. Reading YA allows me to escape the confines of logic in my life, to focus on the bright side of life. The girl gets the guy at the end, the crown is restored to the rightful heir, the main character achieves closure with their deceased relative. No matter how turbulent their lives are, the leads always find a way to balance everything. There is resolution.

Even though it’s a bit unrealistic to apply these scenarios exactly to my life, it’s still comforting. No matter how much goes wrong, the character goes through an introspective journey and ends up a better, more well-rounded person for it.

The book starts out defined by their struggles, obstacles that seem impossible to overcome. But this conflict only strengthens them. They rarely experience disappointing endings: Readers make it to the end and see the lead, the anti-hero, triumph. While my problems at Northwestern may seem more large-scale than the troubles of middle school, it can still feel like I’m plagued by my issues with no possible escape. Reading YA novels reminds me that with a little bit of courage, self-reflection and some cringeworthy banter, I too can face my demons head-on.

Many YA books are unrealistic, yes, but the topics they cover are as serious as any “real” novel. Over several years, I’ve read about racism, homophobia, death, body image, school shootings and income inequality as much as I have unrequited love and fights between best friends. Putting these serious topics in the context of a fictional “regular life” can help readers of all ages process some very difficult concepts without being condescending or pretending like the problems aren’t important.

This is a skill that many YA novels have picked up. For example, one of my favorite series, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” dealt with issues of mixed-race Korean-American identity, becoming the adult of the household, and family structure just as much as it talked about the now-omnipresent Peter Kavinsky. Sure, the subsequent Netflix film lost much of that nuance in favor of the romance angle, but the books will always have a special place in my heart for putting my teenage racial identity crisis into words.

The genre is nowhere near perfect: While the books contain a lot more diverse characters than they did when I was younger, they still represent overwhelmingly white and heterosexual characters who seem to live in a world void of socioeconomic or political struggles. Publishing companies need to prioritize contracting more young authors of a variety of backgrounds. I was able to see myself in many characters, but it often took a bit of effort.

Many people write YA novels off for being too simplistic. But a good plotline is a good plotline, no matter who writes it or reads it. Sales prove this. Demand for Young Adult and New Adult novels is increasing. According to a survey by the Association for American Publishers, publishing company revenue for children’s and Young Adult novels has grown by 11.3 percent to $3.67 billion. In the first half of 2017, the genre had generated $852.4 million in sales, with the biggest increase in readership in comparison to Adult and Religious books.

As we grow older, our problems will resemble the petty situations we associate with YA novels less and less. But at the end of the day, we’re still kind of stuck in teenager-mode, trying to navigate social, academic, mental and romantic situations, not unlike the Rowenas, Amys or Lara Jeans of the YA universe.

No matter how old we are, we all have a little coming-of-age to do. For now, I’ll do so with a Young Adult novel in my hand.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.