YA novelist, Malindo Lo, recently wrote an article called "Why I Write Young Adult Fiction," which made me think about the same statement. In her thoughtful and powerfully true piece, Lo explains that young adult fiction as a genre could not be more free for a writer (and, in that regard, for a reader). Adult fiction, she notes, typically has to fit into one category - sci-fi, romance, mystery. It is difficult to write an adult piece of literature that crosses from one genre into the other without losing readers. A fantasy mystery romance for adults doesn't really work; a fantasy mystery romance for young adults sells millions of copies (i.e. Harry Potter). And as a writer for YA fiction, Lo says, you don't have to worry as much about creating a beautiful and aesthetically pleasing piece all the time (although there are certainly those kinds of novels in the young adult world). Mostly, though, you can write a story just for the story. "I tend to prefer an arresting tale over a pretty sentence," she says. "If I want a pretty sentence, I will read poetry."
Aside from a YA novel's structure, Lo also speaks on the topics in the young adult genre, and the ongoing debate in the media about YA fiction being too dark for today's teens. What is allowed? What isn't allowed? The question is less about what teens can handle reading, and more what parents deem as appropriate. "At its most basic level," Lo writes, "[YA is] a marketing category, and libraries and schools are hesitant to buy books that are likely to upset parents. Parents, not teens. I'm pretty sure teens want to read about sex and death." And its not just parents who are critical of "adult" content in young adult reading - many critics raise the same eyebrows. While YA writers sympathize and want teens to have their adolescence while they still can, the truth is that society is different. It is moving at a much more rapid rate than it was even 20-25 years ago, when many of these parents and critics were attending middle/high school. Or, maybe much is the same but folks just didn't write about it yet. Either way, YA fiction aims to offer teens the real world, instead of dumbed down version of society.
Apart from stories and content, though, the appeal in young adult books for me is the characters. Whether the protagonist, antagonist, or the ensemble of voices telling the tale, I can always count on YA characters to make drastic personal transitions. Plenty of adult literature features immense decision-making, too - whether or not to get married, or choosing the right career. But young adult fiction is about answering the question, "Who am I?" Fundamentally as a person and an individual, characters in YA books choose what and whom they will be in the world, how they fit into society, and what change they want to bring using their talents and personality. For me, there is nothing more powerful than a coming-of-age story.
So, yes, YA fiction gets flack for being less important than adult fiction, and its not a genre for everyone. But the freedom to explore multiple topics, the power behind the switch from childhood to adulthood, the emphasis on the story and not so much on the thesaurus? That is why I write young adult fiction.