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Grownups: Don't be ashamed of your YA habit

Story highlights

  • Slate's Ruth Graham wrote that adults should be embarrassed to read young adult literature
  • CNN's Kat Kinsman says readers should seek out what appeals to them, regardless of genre
  • Kinsman writes that she was "undammed" by the emotion and writing in "The Fault in Our Stars"
  • Adults shouldn't only be seeking to learn more in books, but to feel more, Kinsman writes

It's all John Green's fault.

I'm not just talking about the strong likelihood that I'll be ugly-crying in public alongside fellow fans of "The Fault In Our Stars" in a theater near me this weekend -- I mean the fact that I'm reading much fiction at all these days. But apparently I'm supposed to be embarrassed about my love of Green's books.

Says who?

Says Ruth Graham, author of a recent Slate.com jeremiad that proclaims: "Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children." Graham goes on to assert that realistic (i.e. non-supernatural, non-dystopian) young-adult-targeted books are somehow supplanting works of literary fiction in adults' reading lives and how that's a "shame."

It's the "should" (Slate's italics, not mine) here that vexes me most. It implies that someone else's hierarchy of taste and personal experience takes precedent over your own, when in reality, letting go of that is one of the great spoils of achieving adulthood.

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Let me get anecdotal here for a second.

In my mid-20s, when I was a good deal less assured about my own worth in the world, and rather too highly dependent upon the approval of others, I dated a man who was hampered by neither of those issues. He was six years older than me, born and bred in New York City, possessed of an English degree from a Little Ivy, and let me know in no uncertain terms that he thought my taste in art and media was lowbrow and crappy. I was harangued for my "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fixation, poo-poohed for my love of "Gilmore Girls" and told that my favorite book -- at the time "The Great Gatsby" -- was "so high school."

What should I read then, I'd ask. Something that means something, he'd say, something important. But what I neglected to ask was "Important to whom?" Where did my own pleasure, curiosity and opinion fit in? I'm embarrassed (yes, that word) to say that at the time, I knuckled under.

While my boyfriend and I found common ground with Haruki Murakami books and Guy Maddin films, I distanced myself from the words, sounds and images that connected me to the world at large, made me think and feel, and moreover, gave me pleasure. For my annual birthday movie outing, I opted for "Le Temps retrouvé" and tossed aside my Jennifer Weiner books to heft up "The Golden Bowl" instead.

Was I suddenly a more worthy, worldly person, with bigger, better thoughts? Not that I could tell, but I did get an awful lot quieter about admitting to people what made me happy -- and maybe a little bit judgmental about other people's tastes, too. And that makes the world (at least my world) a little smaller.

But that was a long time ago. I've grown up, and the fellow in question has, too. I told him I'd finished "The Golden Bowl" after we'd broken up -- just to impress and spite him, and he admitted to me that he never actually finished any Henry James. We're friends now, and periodically send recommendations of bands and movies and ridiculous YouTube videos to each other, not for the sake of bettering or shaming one another but simply to share something wonderful with someone who will be delighted by it.

A brief history of young adult literature

Which brings me back to John Green. I surely hadn't stopped reading in the interim years -- and in fact started writing for a living -- but did so with maybe a little more duty and less abandon than in years past. My shelves, and eventually my Kindle app, groaned under the sturdy weight of nonfiction object histories, cultural critiques and work-related memoirs and biographies that made me conversant at parties and a little less giddy about the cerebellum. And if I read any YA fiction or chick lit, I kept my mouth glued shut about it.

But then along came "The Fault In Our Stars." It had been recommended to me by smart people I trust, and I had a multi-hour plane flight, so why not?

It undammed me.

Not just with the obvious, snotty sobbing I did in seat 23A, but in the way that for the first time in ages, I wanted to announce to the world at large that I was in big, sloppy love with a book and I wasn't about to apologize to anyone for that.

This quirky novel about two kids in love who are battling life-threatening illness took the brains and psyches of teenagers seriously. It made me hyper-conscious of the seconds between (hopefully) hitting the tarmac safely and a treacherous cab ride on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, because they were standing in between me and the arms of my husband. It made me feel things and do things, and for the life of me, I can't understand that's inferior to knowing more things.

And I've read a lot of YA since then: old favorites from Bette Greene, Robert Cormier, Madeleine L'Engle and Paul Zindel, and a new canon from writers like Green, Rainbow Rowell, Lauren Oliver, Ava Dellaira and a whole host of others who deserve to be heard.

I read plenty of other books (yes, for "grownups"), too, and probably even more than I used to because my hunger for good words is so keenly whet. They go down a lot more easily now that I'm not choking on all that embarrassment.

Books that changed your lives

Are you an adult who reads young adult fiction? We'd love to hear all about it in the comments below.