Cabral: The value of young adult fiction

Emilio Cabral, Columnist

In April, bestselling and award-winning author Becky Albertalli was kind enough to talk to me about good faith in queer literature. On Wednesday, she agreed to speak to me about another topic of discourse: young adult fiction.

“Every few months there’s an op-ed that comes out on how books like ‘Twilight’ are dumbing down literature,” Albertalli said.

While novels like “Twilight” may have been indicative of young adult fiction in the early 2000s, they are not an accurate representation of what the genre has become.

Though “Twilight” might be stocked in the young adult section of my local Barnes & Noble, it sits right next to “You Should See Me in a Crown,” by Leah Johnson, and “Camp” by L.C. Rosen. These books depict the queer coming-of-age stories of a poor, Black girl in a rich, white town and a boy exploring gender norms as he tries to win the heart of his crush — themes that are perhaps a little more hard-hitting than a paranormal love-triangle involving vampires and werewolves.

But even as young adult fiction has changed and evolved, the sense of shame literary circles place on its enjoyers remains.

An idea parroted to me time and time again is that reading books like Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” and Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” grants you access to an exclusive club that readers of Casey McQuiston’s “Red, White & Royal Blue” will never be able to access. This idea is based on the assumption that, unlike literary fiction, young adult books do not engage people in or spark conversations about the world around us.

“It’s not just people on the internet, either,” Albertalli said. “Once, at an event for emerging authors I attended while I was writing ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,’ a man who was writing a literary fiction novel told me I would be the bestseller and he would win the awards. It was his face I pictured when I won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award in 2016.”

The problem I have with claiming that young adult fiction does not engage in or spark conversations about our society is that it isn’t true and that the conversations around a book aren’t the only measure of its quality.

As a queer person of color, I have found more books about people who look like me in the young adult section of bookstores than anywhere else. This isn’t to say literary fiction doesn’t feature people of color — but one of young adult fiction’s greatest strengths is that its wide scope allows room for more diverse stories. 

When I read “Red, White & Royal Blue” for the first time, I was a junior in high school. I’d recently come out as queer, and all I wanted was my own love story — something that wasn’t available to me at the time. Seeing Alex Claremont-Diaz — a queer, Latine character — get the happy ending usually reserved for his white, heterosexual counterparts nearly moved me to tears. It didn’t matter that the plot of the book was unrealistic, or that it featured cringy Taylor Swift references, because it gave me hope that I would get everything I wanted, too.

This doesn’t mean we can’t criticize young adult fiction.

“Negative reviews are part of the ecosystem,” Albertalli said. “You as a reader are allowed to hate it, throw it across the room and critique it. But is your critique based on something quantifiable like the language, or are you upset that it isn’t another piece of media? Books shouldn’t be weighed against something it’s not trying to be. Just because it doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to exist.”

Young adult books are cultural touchstones. They represent the time periods in which they were written and their fictional worlds depict real-world struggles their readers face in their everyday lives. Some might be absurd, or poorly written, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that someone somewhere is finding hope for their future in the pages of a romance between the son of the president of the U.S. and a British prince.

Emilio Cabral is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.