I’ve been struggling a bit with the constant mantra that we see in defense of controversial Young Adult literature, it being that YA Lit lets each reader know that they are not alone. I know in my heart that this is true. It is the feeling I had when I was fourteen and read Sloppy Firsts and finally had a friend who also had acne and frizzy brown hair and sometimes felt disconnected from her friends and family because of aspects of herself that were beyond her control. It is the feeling that I had when I was sixteen and read Looking for Alaska, and had a friend that went to seek a great perhaps and succeeded and made it through tragedy to the other side. It is the feeling I know every teenager experiences when they open a book that reflects a familiar emotion back to them.

But I didn’t know why YA Lit has this power.

Then I realized I had the answer all along. Teenagers usually do not have the ability to articulate their opinions and beliefs as well as adults. This is not because they are not intelligent and it is not because they do not have any opinions or knowledge. It is because there is a huge difference in believing something, and having had the practice to be able to effectively communicate the reasoning behind that belief or feeling. Combine their lack of experience with the crazy emotions and first-time experiences of being an adolescent, and you have a group of people who are going through an overwhelming amount of new experiences, without the tools to work through it effectively. 

This is where YA Lit comes in. An adult who is able to accurately remember what it was like to be a teenager (and they are few and far between), has the unique ability to place themselves back in those hormonal, emotional shoes and now has the ability to articulate it clearly and beautifully. A teenager would not usually be able to write the books that are being written, but they can read it and connect with the words on the page. They do not have to have the ability to write the book to understand it’s importance, and the fact that they are pretty much incapable of writing it themselves makes the book that much more meaningful. A YA book has the power to finally give some relief to the teen who had been struggling with an unnamed, scary emotion like love, loneliness, lust, or longing.

This is why YA Lit is so important. And this is why it is important to not only have well-written, entertaining books, but books about the scary stuff. Anorexia, failing grades, absent parents, addiction. Loneliness, bullying, rejection, rage. Most adults can no longer remember what teenage feelings truly feel like. Most adults cannot remove the tinted glasses of experience and time that have removed them from the raw emotional power of being a teenager. So we have to allow the adults that can remove those tinted glasses to do their work well and in peace. And we have to trust that when a teenager clutches a controversial book to their chest and says, “This book saved my life,” they mean it in a very literal way.

And then, they will get through it, and they will grow up, and they will in turn forget. And they will be the ones having to put their trust in the next generation of teens.