Blanket statement: “literary potato chips”

This is it, guys. This is the one.

This is the post that has been brewing in my head since my last months of high school. The post I contemplated writing when the social media world responded to a derogatory article in the Wall Street Journal with the “YA Saves” campaign. The post that will try to do justice to a genre that arose out of nothing before breaking away like roof shingles in a windstorm, and has since become one of the most widely snubbed genres of literature in the modern world.

This is the post about Young Adult literature.

OH YEAH GETTIN’ DOWN TO BUSINESS.

But I only ask that for a moment, we all turn off our inner English majors, we silence our horrified literary critics, and we remember what it was like to read as kids in middle school, junior high, early in high school—before life started to seep into our pores, and introduce acne and a quiet disdain for the speed-read. Ready? Ready? …okay. Storytime:

When I was in my last year of high school, I was blissfully unaware that I had “come of age,” in a manner of speaking. Apparently, this was the time when I was “supposed” to transition out of reading fairytale retellings and stories about brave princesses, and move into reading a more serious form of literature. In complete ignorance, I would happily pass around my copies of books by Gail Carson Levine and Ally Carter and E.D. Baker (because The Frog Princess is where it’s AT), while my friends talked about reading Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte*, or just not reading at all. I was completely oblivious to the fact that the sort of fiction that I had come to love was becoming regarded with more and more contempt out in the real world.

That realization first hit me in English class my senior year. Every few weeks, we were required to read a book of our choice (with approval from our teacher), and give an oral report on it. One week, I chose 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, and I brought it to class to get it approved. As I proudly placed my choice in my teacher’s hands, she took one quick, skeptical look at the cover and said, “I don’t know, Samantha. This looks like kind of a literary potato chip.”

I felt like I’d taken a sucker punch to the stomach. A literary potato chip? I didn’t know such things existed. To me, they were all just… books. It was all just art, pages and pages of portable beauty that I could experience anywhere at anytime I pleased; characters that I could grow up with; characters that taught me the value of life.

Granted, this was a senior English class, and there are likely no questions on the ACTs about 13 Little Blue Envelopes. But if other people could give reports on the equivalent of watered down romance novels, why couldn’t I give a report on a book about a girl my age going on an adventure through Europe?

But when I looked back at my English teacher, and saw the obvious disapproval on her face, something changed inside of me. A light dimmed, a fear was born, and even though I decided to read the Maureen Johnson anyway, I stood up in front of my class a week later and tore those poor, undeserving, little blue envelopes to shreds. All because one blanket statement taught me that that was what I was supposed to do.

My freshman year in college, I was force-fed Chaucer and Shakespeare and medieval memoirs written by strange old women who needed to bathe more often than they actually did. And in the midst of all of the required reading, I got a little lost. I quickly forgot what it was like to read for fun, and I was subconsciously driven away from the books I used to love by high-minded professors** who treated the texts like cold, hard stone.

Meanwhile, I was toying with the idea of writing as a profession… I started tinkering with my writing style, experimenting with writing non-teenage characters in non-teenage situations, wondering if I should just “grow up” already and start writing for adults.

Finally, during the summer before my sophomore year, I picked up a copy of Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, and from the moment I finished that first chapter, I knew I wasn’t going to be the same. If you haven’t read the book (read it!), the main character is a teen girl living in the aftermath of her brother’s death, and throughout the book she struggles with depression, addiction to drugs, and an all-encompassing anger at the world. I had never read anything like this book. Everyone had been telling me that a work of YA fiction couldn’t be anything but a once-upon-a-happily-ever-after, summer fling story.

But this? This character laden with tragedy and pain and raw emotion? This plot that shifted through time and space like the colors of a symphony? This could not be part of the genre I had heard so much about. It just couldn’t.

But it was.

I started to dust off my old books, the ones I used to love so much, and I began to remember why I’d loved them. I tumbled right back into the worlds of my former heroes, I fought their battles with them, and I closed each cover with a renewed thirst for more. So I bought new books. I read books that experimented with futuristic societies firmly based in reality, I read books that were about not knowing how to face the darkest parts of human life, I read books that made me laugh and cry and fall in and out of love. All of them beautiful. All of them “literary potato chips.”

At the end of that summer, I started to write my own stories with a rekindled passion in my heart. And after I completed a few short pieces, I realized that if I was going to write what I loved, then someday, somebody out there would probably consider ME a YA fiction writer, too. But strangely… I was okay with that.

It took me a little bit longer to understand that practically no author sets out to write YA fiction in the first place. They simply write the story they want to write, just like I was/am doing, and somewhere along the way, they get a label slapped onto their masterpiece and are told to live with it.

How fair is it to hold an artist to a standard that they might not have even chosen to work with? How fair is it to call this book “too dark” and that book “too childish” when the entire genre emerged out of a marketing scheme to appeal to the MySpace and Facebook generation? Who are we to say that such-and-such story isn’t exactly what the artist wanted to create, or that because of a few stylistic choices it shouldn’t be read in a high school English class?

Last week, I turned in my first short story in my fiction writing class, and when the time for critiquing rolled around, my professor shook her head like she was breaking bad news and said, “Parts of it read very… Young Adult.” But I just sat there like a total dork and grinned, because she had no idea that she had just given me the biggest compliment I could have ever hoped for.

To be frank, I don’t think that putting down the genre will ever accomplish anything. The longer we argue about whether not reading certain books is appropriate for a certain age group, the more people are going to give up on reading altogether. I have heard it said that people who do not respect Young Adult literature often are the same people who do not respect young adults themselves. I leave that up to you to debate.

YA fiction has helped to shape me into the person and the writer that I am and am going to be. YA fiction has given me something to return to when I need a haven for a little while. YA fiction changed my life for the better, and the characters that the genre has produced give me hope for the art of storytelling every day. I will always love and support YA lit, because these books have the ability to shine a bright light into the dark, messed up, teenage years, and communicate the message that there is always a way out.

So. Do you have a different opinion? That’s cool, I like opinions***. Let me know what you think about this in the comments or something. I know it’s an older topic, but I’d still like to hear other people’s stories. Has anyone ever ridiculed you for your choice in literature? Or have you had mostly good experiences with YA?

Samantha Chaffin

*I harbor a deep and undying love for both Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Just so we’re clear. There’s no hate here.

**I also love English professors. I think most of them are wonderfully quirky, brilliant souls with true passion for what they do. I’ve based a character on one of my old professors. True story. No grudges.

***I don’t actually like opinions. Just kidding, please share.

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5 thoughts on “Blanket statement: “literary potato chips”

  1. Ben Chapman says:

    This was awesome. It’s art, people can read and write and enjoy whatever they want, to say that a genre has less value than another makes as much sense as saying the color orange is more useful than green.

  2. deshipley says:

    “The Frog Princess”!!! *refrains from dashing downstairs to hug my copy and remind Eadric that I shall always love him* I have yet to transition out of a mad passion for fairytale retellings, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon. It’s what I want to read, and what I love to write (along with other stories where nothing but the emotions need ever aspire to realism), and if that’s YA, then call me YA.
    A book you like is a book you like; what’s genre got to do with it? A book that touches you is a book that touches you; so what if a child can understand it? (So much the better if they can!) A book well-written is a book well-written; adulthood should bring with it more discernment on that front, sure, but not a snobbish prejudice against anything you weren’t made to read at university, on pain of death. …or a lousy grade, same diff.
    Why don’t they make college students read “The Frog Princess”, anyway? I say we grant at least the first three books in the series classic status!

    • samchaffin says:

      DUDE don’t fight it. Just dash. Eadric needs you. 😀 Seriously, I love that series so much. I would actually die of happiness if it was assigned reading in a class. But then we would have to pick it apart and analyze the crap out of it, so I don’t know if I’d love it as much anymore… classes tend to do that to books. :/

      Also I completely agree! You said it: “A book well-written is a book well-written.” And nobody should be made to feel ashamed of a good book, regardless of genre.

      • deshipley says:

        Mmm, valid point re: analysis into a crapless state. That would be a shame.

        Memo to self: The next time you pass your bookshelf, give Eadric a hello from Sam. (:

  3. thejaneite says:

    Ahhhh I love this whole post. Sadly, I remember the time I realized I had “grown out of” Gail Carson Levine (still hasn’t happened with Shannon Hale! Ha!) and Liz Kessler and all of them. 😉 It was kinda sad, even though I kind of wanted to be more grown up. Now my 11-year-old sister is asking me what to read, and recommending all of my old favorites is like getting back into them myself.
    Not that this is a bad thing, as you’ve already mentioned, but I suppose my writing is “Young Adult” if anything. Kinda comforting to know I’ve got a place (I think)….
    Have you ever read “The Ordinary Princess” by M. M. Kaye? I think you would love it. It’s like a drawn out, utterly charming fairy-tale/mini-novella.
    Also, I love the quotation by Stephen King, “Books are a uniquely portable kind of magic.” And I think that’s truer for some YA fiction than most other genres. 🙂

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