So today I'm tackling a reader question which came in from an Anonymous commenter:
"I've just started college; I'm 17 years old next month. I'm taking English Literature because it's my favourite subject, but I feel like a baby because I discovered yesterday that most people in my class read 'adult' books and I'm still in the YA section. Is it stupid that I feel like crawling into a hole and dying, to never pick up a YA book again? I feel like such a baby, should I stop reading YA and move on to 'older' fiction?"Oh, sweetie! This question makes me want to scream and run around in circles and bang my head against the wall until the sweet oblivion of a fractured skull takes away the pain. Not because of you! Because of this cray-cray world we're living in, where being judgemental and prejudiced is so damn trendy.
I'm guessing someone sneered, didn't they? It might have been the other students, maybe a teaching assistant or even a lecturer. They asked you what your favourite book or author was, and when you told them an author or book they didn't know, and you explained that s/he/it was YA, they sneered. Maybe it was a flicker of an expression before they said: 'Oh! How nice!' or maybe it was a full out, pitying laugh followed by some nasty little remark.
Or maybe it wasn't even that. Maybe everyone was having what seemed to be this enormously erudite discussion about Faulkner or Chaucer or Franzen and you immediately realised that mentioning Pullman or Rowling or Pratchett would make you stick out like a Goth Rocker at a Justin Beiber concert.
But whatever happened, suddenly all your joy in reading and books and the English language - all the things that you went to college to nurture and develop - withered away and you felt like dying.
Here's my verdict on these people and this environment that have already started to make you feel insecure and unhappy and lesser.
Seriously. It's not you. It's them. You are an articulate, open-hearted, wonderful person. It shines out even in those few lines you wrote there in my comments trail. It shines out even though you were writing from a cold place of anxiety and doubt. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.
You are a young adult. You enjoy reading young adult literature. In what sort of strange universe could that possibly make you a 'baby'? You're the person young adult literature is aimed at! You're the person I'm holding in my heart the whole time I'm stringing words together and blubbing over my keyboard and revising until my brain burns. You're the one I'm desperately hoping to reach. You're the one that makes it all worthwhile.
Now, look - maybe I'm biased. I'm a young adult writer myself, after all. It makes sense that I'd want young people to read young adult fiction with excitement and happiness rather than shame, or worse, give up reading YA altogether. But I'm an adult myself, and guess what 75% of my reading material is? That's right. YA fiction.
And my writing friends, some of whom are enormously successful bestsellers? They're all adults. Between 50-90% of their reading material seems to be young adult.
What about my other friends? The doctor, the IT specialist, the civil servant, the librarian? The teacher, the accountant? OH LOOK! They all read YA too!
Why is that? Why do so many adults read heaps of YA fiction? Why does YA fiction seem to be outselling adult fiction disturbingly often? Why are so many films being made from YA books right now? Because YA is good literature, that's why. It's just as well written, just as experimental, just as beautifully characterised, just as complex, just as worthy as literature aimed at adults. The only difference in most cases is that the protagonist is younger. And, as you may or may not know, many YA books come out these days in twin editions, with one lot of cover artwork aimed at adults and a second aimed at younger people. Often when YA books are sold in different countries, there's a debate over whether they should be marketed at adult or YA markets because these books are so strong that, basically, anyone can love them.
It's great that some of your fellow students enjoy books from the 'adult' section of the library or bookshop. There's some fantastic stories there! In truth, I spent much of my own teens reading adult books, mainly because I'd already gone through all the children's and YA books in all my local libraries and the adult sections were much bigger. For a while I even forgot how much I'd loved YA books. But when I got older I was drawn back to all those old favourites. I was drawn to discover new ones. I was drawn back to YA.
As an adult, with adult responsibilities and a full-time job, I realised that I loved reading books aimed at YA, and writing stories intended for YA, more than I had ever loved ANYTHING. I decided to devote my life to YA books. That is some strong shizz, yo. YA is strong shizz.
But this isn't just about YA. It's about the fact that, in this life, there are always people who seek to make themselves feel better by making other people feel worse. The people/person that sneered at you, or the people/person who held forth on their favourite books in a way that was no doubt intended to impress everyone with how terribly grown up and clever they were while making you all feel childish and stupid? That's what they were doing. They have chosen to do that in this case by setting themselves up as arbiters of literary taste. And I'm sorry to say that even if you stopped reading YA books RIGHT NOW, that wouldn't be enough.
They'd be on your case because you read books that were science fiction or fantasy. Or because you read books with romance in them. Or because you read books by female authors. Or because you read historical fiction.You can't win, and trying to do so will just make you miserable.
I've been exactly where you are. I went to college with amazing GCSE results, a bright and eager reader and writer, exactly the sort of person that everyone there should have been keen to support and develop. And instead, I found college incredibly isolating. In my case it was because I didn't have as much money as the other students, because I was pretty sure there was no way I could afford to go to university. Everyone around me, from my contemporaries to the lecturers, made assumptions about me - where I'd been, where I was going - and I tried to fit in with that. I wanted to avoid being sneered at and bullied like I had been all my life so far, so I suppressed my real personality.
When everyone was talking about the amazing holidays they'd had abroad, or the West End shows they'd seen, or what they were doing over the weekend, I smiled and laughed and hoped no one would notice that I had nothing to add. The lecturers told me off because I never went along on field trips, never thinking that it might be because I couldn't afford to.
In the end, of course, everyone began to sense that something wasn't quite right. Rumours started. My fake personality caved in. I ended up dropping out, and that's something I've regretted ever since. But even more than that, I regret that after so many years of being true to myself at school, I allowed my desire to fit in at college push me into pretending to be something I wasn't. It was doomed to fail from the start. The only way to deal with feelings of insecurity and uncertainty - the only way to deal with the people who seek to make you feel insecure and uncertain - is to laugh at them.
Listen to me now. It might take a while for this to sink in, but I'd like you to remember these words and think about them from time to time, because I think they'll help.
Your goal in life is to be an interesting, fully rounded person who cares about other people, but doesn't let them influence her. Your goal in life is to be funny, and strong, and kind. Your goal in life is to be happy. Your goal in life is to be the best version of you, with all your unique strengths and desires and dreams. Your goal is never, never, never to change yourself, or try to be like any other person.
Go forth and be proud, Anonymous YA reader. You're following in the footsteps of giants like Phillip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Le Guin. You're following in my footsteps. But the path you take is your own, and no one can turn you from it, unless you let them.
Go forth and kick some ass.