Books for (young) adults?

Guest post by Jerry Griswold

“The Great Y.A. Debate of 2014” has become so pervasive that the New York Times Book Review provided a summary of the controversy in late June. In one corner is Ruth Graham and a few supporters. Grown tired of girlfriends keen on young-adult fiction (The Hunger Games, The Fault of Our Stars, et al.), Graham asserted in a provocative essay in Slate that “adults should be embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” In the other corner seems to be nearly everyone else on Twitter, those unashamed of their juvenile taste AND PROVOKED TO UPPER CASE.

Of course, Graham may only be playing the curmudgeon to provoke clicks in such numbers that the bean counters at digital publications swoon. Be that as it may, she seems ignorant of literary history when she flatly asserts that “It can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading [a novel written for teenagers] . . . . The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult fiction is now conventional wisdom.”

If Graham had done her homework, she would have discovered that the opposite is the case. As I point out in my forthcoming book Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story, the bestseller lists of the past show that young and old readers happily kept company:

1865–1869: Our Mutual Friend, Hans Brinker, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Ragged Dick, Little Women, Innocents Abroad

1870–1879: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, The Luck of Roaring Camp, Little Men, Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

1880–1889: Uncle Remus, Ben-Hur, Madame Bovary, Heidi, Treasure Island, A Childs Garden of Verses, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Lord Fauntleroy, King Solomons Mines, War and Peace

1890–1899: Black Beauty, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Red Badge of Courage, Quo Vadis

1900–1914: Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, The Virginian, The Call of the Wild, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Penrod, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, Tarzan of the Apes

Indeed, our current era–where some 50% of the readers of the Harry Potter books or the Hunger Games trilogy are well beyond the age of eighteen–is not some aberration, but a return to familiar circumstances. Remember, in days of yore, young and old sat around the fire and listened to fairy tales together.


Griswold_Audacious KidsJerry Griswold is professor emeritus of literature at San Diego State University and former director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. He is the author of seven books, including Audacious Kids: The Classic American Childrens Story and Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literatureboth published by Johns Hopkins University Press.


Filed under American History, Cultural Studies, Current Affairs, For Everyone, History, Literature

3 responses to “Books for (young) adults?

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I read Ruth Graham’s piece entitled that argued that “you feel embarrassed when you’re” reading a book “written for children.” I imagine that Graham probably waved her fists at the sky when she saw adults in line to see “Frozen.” I would advise Graham to stay away from Japan (even though it is a true reading culture) because she would probably lose it when she saw men, women and children devouring magna on the train. What’s odd about Graham’s piece is that even she admitted that young adult fiction “provided some of the most intense reading experiences” of her life.

    Instead of just mocking her argument, Jerry Griswold at the JHU Press Blog demonstrates that American adults have a long history of reading books originally intended for children. American adults have always read the equivalent of today’s young adult fiction. Please, feel free to read Harry Potter, The Fault of Our Stars, Tuck Everlasting or any work of adult fiction. Fortunately, as adults, we get decide what is worth reading.

  2. I’ll be looking for Audacious Kids at my university’s library (or using ILL). Wouldn’t you say, though, that The Red Badge of Courage and Little Women and Huck Finn are more literary than say, Twilight? I have no issue with Harry Potter and other strong YAL, some there is YAL trash, too.

    • Even within the era of Little Women and Huck Finn there were books of less literary merit: Who reads Horatio Alger these days? As for Twilight and its kind, what I find interesting is how fairy tales have been made Gothic. To be sure, the tales have the supernatural, but Perrault and the Grimms would have been astounded by the current categorization. Look at current TV programs. Or consider some recent films: