Why I Keep Going Back to My Young Adult Novels… Even at 32

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Why I Keep Going Back to My Young Adult Novels… Even at 32

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Ithink we’re close enough to the end to be able to call it — 2019 was a hell of a year. And by that I mean that if one of the middle circle of hell was plucked out of Dante’s Inferno and magicked into a year, I’m convinced it would look like 2019. It was the year I suffered health scares and the worst heartbreak of my life so far, and they both came in the same week. It was the year I possibly spent more time outside doctors’ waiting rooms across cities; it was the year I cried a lot and barely got any sleep. And it wasn’t just me alone.

Most people I know — or perhaps I naturally gravitated towards the ones who were struggling as much or worse than I was — would call 2019 the bleakest year of their lives so far: Marriages fell apart, a friend let go of his dream job to save his relationship, another had a nervous breakdown and quit her job after going 84 days without a day off. It was… a sucky year, and that’s putting it mildly.

So obviously, we all found uniquely dysfunctional ways to avoid dealing with our crises. I’m particularly in awe of the friend who lived hers out by fully stepping into the role of the rich diva we’ve always suspected has been hiding somewhere inside of her — she took off to Japan to learn Ikebana, the ancient art of flower arrangement. For six whole months. Far be it from me to diss someone else’s form of escapism; my own, while being decidedly far more economical, is equally embarrassing. You see, I’ve spent most of this year hibernating in my room, devouring books from my past. And by past I mean when I was a teenager. It’s not that I haven’t read any age-appropriate literature this year, it’s just that the lure of teen characters experiencing their first shocking brushes with adulthood has been greater than joining dog tired, hardened adults in their emotionally depleting journeys. 

And so, my reading pile includes well-thumbed copies of all 16 titles within The Princess Diaries series, The Hunger Games trilogy, The Fault In Our Stars, The Carrie Diaries, 13 Gossip Girl books, an assortment of titles from the exhaustive Sweet Valley High and Sweet Valley University series’, the five The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants books, Fangirl, The Hate You Give, The Outsiders, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower… I even attempted one of the Twilight books but I’m relieved to report that I’m at least too old to be able to stomach that level of stupidity. They’re well-thumbed because this isn’t the first time I’ve buried myself in the warm embrace of Young Adult or YA novels. Over the years, I’ve gone back to them often, and I make additions to that corner of my little library every year. Yes, that’s right, here’s my dirty little literary secret: I’m 32, and a non-recovering YA books addict. There, I said it. 

Never judge a book by its cover, but there’s no rule against judging a reader for it.

I know there’s a thriving movement in the Western world, hotly defending adults like me who find themselves routinely absorbed in the lives, vexations, and preoccupations of teenagers. Most of them argue the richness of the backgrounds against which those coming-of-age stories unfold — the characters might be young and inexperienced, but there’s nothing childlike or simple about the worlds they inhabit. There’s merit in that line of reasoning. YA novels like The Hate You Give, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Annie On My Mind, and many others like them thread complex cultural concerns into the challenges that young people encounter while trying to find their place in a bewildering world. Some of these stories are helmed by protagonists so frightfully self-aware and wise beyond their years, they can make full-grown adults feel like gauche, immature babes in the woods. 

But when I say that I’m hopelessly addicted to YA books, I’m not talking about those books. I’m talking about the ones that would make most adults shrink in embarrassment to be seen in public with. The ones that most self-respecting readers consider unsophisticated and frivolous at best, and dim-witted at worst. Never judge a book by its cover, but there’s no rule against judging a reader for it. It doesn’t matter what you read in private, but in public, we’d all much rather be seen with the Andrew Seen Greer or Ben Lerner we didn’t fully understand and aren’t particularly taken by. After all, it lends us an aura of respectability, which, when you think about it, is nine tenths the job anyway for all those blessed souls who can’t seem to take a photo without “accidentally” including the impressive book they are currently reading, than be caught dead looking absorbed in the arresting lives of Serena, Blair, Nate, and Chuck. Yes, those books.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not dissing literature that is cerebral, challenging, and therefore sometimes difficult to comprehend. There’s great pleasure, and a definite sense of accomplishment to be had in that moment when the penny finally drops and you’re able to get — really get — the nuance and delicate layers that the reviewers kept alluding to. I experienced that thrill recently while reading Sing, Unburied, Sing (I’d highly recommend it, by the way). It’s just that I also really, really love the literature that has no greater purpose than to entertain in the moment and spark instant joy. Why can’t Upper East Side and the Republic of Gilead co-exist side by side, and be loved equally well by me? 

There’s something inexplicably comforting about losing yourself in worlds where things might seem bizarre and unnecessarily intertwined, but you know you’re eventually going to be rewarded with a happy, thoroughly satisfying ending. The grown-up, jaded version of you knows that life doesn’t come with any guarantees of happiness, but it’s nice to be able to suspend those thoughts temporarily and be reminded of a time when you believed — truly believed — that anything is possible; that in the end, things have a way of magically untangling themselves and working out for all the good guys.

No, I’m not stuck in some sad little literary time warp, with my stubborn attachment to the stories I should have outgrown by now. I just like seeing the world through the eyes of people less cynical than me, because I was that un-cynical person, once upon a lifetime ago. When I read The Carrie Diaries, it’s like being transported to my life at 16, when my unpaid internship seemed like the best thing that could ever happen to me and nothing in the world could ruin my bliss (if only I’d known!). When I read The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants, I’m nostalgic for the friendships and infatuations that seemed like the only thing that mattered in the world and I couldn’t imagine a time when it wouldn’t be the case. These books remind me of who I was before I became who I’ve become. They’ve been sealed with little parts of my younger self, and reading them allows me to be her again, if only for a few hours. It’s not a world I want to be a resident of, but one that I want to visit from time to time. 

I’m 32, and a non-recovering YA books addict. And I intend to stay that way.