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In Defense of YA Fiction

By Rachel Roncka

Art by Kaitlyn Anderson

There is one particular corner in every bookstore that seems to exist in isolation. As you wander between its shelves, the once vibrant colors around you begin to darken, and the atmosphere shifts. Those browsing the wares around you appear mostly female, in their early to late teens. As a rule, no hardcover is less than 2 inches thick, and each jacket features an embossed title and some symbol—a sword, crown, maybe an especially sinister-looking flower (extra points if it’s dripping with blood)—foreshadowing a tale of adventure and suspense.

You have entered the realm of young adult—or, more fondly, YA—fantasy and science fiction. This genre marks an obligatory phase for almost any girl who claims the title of “bookworm,” and is unparalleled in its ability to transport the reader. Like most cultural phenomena associated with teenage girls (think rom-coms, pumpkin spice lattes, boy bands), YA has weathered plenty of criticism. Many are familiar with its near-comical overuse of tropes, but fewer recognize its subversion of traditional expectations for female characters and the profound impact this has on teenage girls and non-binary individuals.

The initial allure of YA lies in escapism. Those glossy covers promise refuge from the hail of awkward blunders and uncomfortable emotions that comprise female adolescence.

Haunted by the memory of a joke no one laughed at, an outfit malfunction, or rejection from your crush? Indulge in witty banter between knights dueling for their honor. Let the salty spray of the high seas wash your embarrassment away as you shadow a ruthless captain and her motley crew. Console your own heartbreak with romance that seems pure enough to transcend class division and political conspiracy, only to *spoiler alert* end in betrayal.

There is no end to the comfort YA provides. Each saga is as long and winding as the epic poetry of ancient Greco-Roman tradition, and replete with similar archetypes. Heroes with fantastical abilities. Conniving villains. Kingdoms in peril. However, contrary to the legends of old, these heroes are most often women. With an authorship and audience dominated by young women, these characters can exist free from the distortion of the male gaze. Instead of being relegated to the role of romantic interest or damsel in distress, these young women are leaders of revolutions and prophesied saviors. No other genre affords its female characters such unprecedented levels of agency and importance. Today, film and TV adaptations extend the impact of YA to the screen, changing the narrative of female strength for even wider audiences.

Critics of YA bemoan the surplus of sullen, sarcastic teenage protagonists, but there’s immense value in heroines who stray from conventional feminine ideals. Intentionally or not, many popular works attribute undue value to a woman’s physical beauty. From Dostoevsky to Disney, classic novels and films often portray women’s appearances as reflections of their virtue. We are led to subconsciously link beauty and character, and assume only conventionally attractive women can be the center of a story, in fiction and reality.

Thanks to YA authors, this is changing. For all the teenaged heroines toppling governments or fighting mystical creatures, appearance is irrelevant. Descriptive imagery is devoted to constructing vivid landscapes instead of perpetuating narrow beauty standards. Rather than objectified, beloved characters like Katniss Everdeen, Linh Cinder, and, yes, even Bella Swan are multi-dimensional individuals, as real as the girls pouring over every page.

I won’t defend the deficiencies of this genre. Among the complaints directed at YA is the idealization of unhealthy relationships (although not exclusive or inherent to YA), but perhaps the most prevalent issue is YA’s lack of diversity. While reflecting on the novels that were most formative in my own life, I am painfully aware that almost none of them were written by women of color. Despite their own lack of experience, several white authors make a conscious effort to conceive casts of characters that reflect the diversity of the YA audience. I can’t help but feel some gratitude to them; when so few forms of media centered mixed-race narratives, these authors gave life to complex characters with whom I could identify. Nevertheless, no amount of good intentions can suffice as real representation of authors of color on the best-selling charts, and it would be remiss not to acknowledge the trope of the mystical minority that some authors perpetuate.

There is far more to the discussion of race and representation in YA fiction than I could ever fit into this piece. Every ounce of criticism is necessary, for the genre continues to evolve with every new demand from the vast community that has sprung up around it. This is the legacy of a genre that encourages its readers to challenge the status quo. Now more than ever, authors are using YA fiction as an opportunity to normalize marginalized identities within historical and fantastical contexts. Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009) situates a queer love story within the framework of a beloved fairytale, entwining lesbian identity with a staple of the dominant culture. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (2018) weaves together a magical tale grounded in East Asian imperial history. Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (2008) portrays its female leads as powerful heroines within a medieval setting rife with dragons and (the equally formidable) period-typical sexism. With every page, these authors are reconstructing women’s, queer, and POC histories, casting them in a sheen of magic and wonder. In some of these fictional realms, racism and homophobia are entirely unheard of, allowing readers to indulge in worlds where one’s mere identity is not an obstacle.

Even readers can actively take part in this culture of reinvention. Who didn’t pour over cheesy Wattpad fanfictions (or their more refined counterparts on AO3) and scroll through streams of fanart on Tumblr for a book you just couldn’t get out of your head? For many young girls, the YA genre inspires a deep love of storytelling through a multitude of mediums. With this comes a necessary outlet, one that allows girls to hone the language needed to explore the messy emotions and tumult of adolescence. These budding young authors learn that not only can they be the protagonist of their own story, but they can take up their pens and construct entirely new literary universes worthy of being shared with the world.

I count myself as lucky to be among the generation of girls raised by the fierce, capable heroines who leapt off the pages of YA novels. Between those gilded covers I discovered empowering role models—the older sisters I never had. These characters reflect our deepest insecurities and breathe life into our wildest aspirations. Through every witty remark and heroic endeavor, they encourage girls to confidently embrace and explore every facet of who they are, and to take up space in a world that wasn’t built for them.

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