Friday, October 15, 2010

What the Cool Kids Are Reading These Days

At some point, I’m not certain precisely when, the adult population decided to take teen literature seriously. More than that, teen lit became the hot new thing. My initial impulse is to point the finger at J.K. Rowling. After all, the Harry Potter phenomenon was larger than anyone could have anticipated. Suddenly people old and young were rushing to bookstores, lining up around the block like the Beatles were back on tour.

Still, at some point adults had to pluck copies of Sorcerer’s Stone from their kids’ hands and take their stolen tomes to the beach or the dentist’s office. And this happened in mass. And then those people owned up to the fact they were reading “kid stuff” to their friends and got them to try it. And so on, and so forth. But the question remains: why did so many adults turn to teen lit? Or perhaps the question could be rephrased like this: why did so many adults turn away from traditional adult lit?

I have a friend who theorizes that the boom in teen lit is just symptomatic of the dumbing down of society. I might have lent this theory more credit if I wasn’t in the thick of it. Teen lit readers aren’t stupid. In fact, they may just be on to something.

For a long time teen lit was ignored and a lot of edgy cutting edge stuff squeaked in that might not have made it years ago. While contemporary fiction continued to crank out yet another book about divorce or racial strife, teen lit was digging into universal questions like how to belong, be happy, or survive in a changing world. The appeal is broad and the audience broadened to match. And the genre is currently exploding. If you can’t find something in teen lit that appeals to you then you simply aren’t looking. I’m speaking now from experience.

Sure, I read Harry Potter. And I tried to read Twilight to see what the big fuss was about. I try to keep up as much as I can with lit pop culture, but I never really took teen lit that seriously. It wasn’t until I started reading through things in the teen section that I made a surprising discovery. There’s some dang fine stuff in there!

While I still read plenty of “adult” books I now have a healthy stack of teen lit at home as well. I dare say I’ve brought home more teen books this past year than I did when I actually was a teenager. Right now I’m hip-deep in Paolo Bacigalupi’s teen book Ship Breaker, and it’s easily the rawest, grittiest book I’ve read all year. (Which will likely change once I read Windup Girl as I understand it, but the statement stands.)

If you already read teen lit then none of this is news. But if you don’t I’m here to let you in on the secret. Don’t count teen books out because they are marketed differently. And don’t cheat yourself by dismissing them. The next time a friend, or a friendly bookseller, hands you a teen book do yourself a favor and consider the possibilities. You may be happily surprised.

Teen Read Week is October 17th through the 23rd.

- t

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