Young Adulteration

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  September 21, 2011


Maya Escobar has been in teen services at the Cambridge Public Library for 10 years, and is now the head librarian of that department. For the last two years, following the library's multi-million-dollar renovation, Escobar has presided over the Teen Lounge, an airy space in the new addition filled with diner booths. Since the Teen Lounge moved far away from the children's department, Escobar has had more freedom in what she purchases.

"I'm so excited — we have horror movies now!" Escobar says, gesturing to a Lucite case filled with DVDs.

The Teen Lounge is dedicated to the idea of reading for fun — to find a reference book for a school project, a teen must venture out past the reading room into the old wing. The fiction section is a hodgepodge of Twilight-style paranormal romance, sci-fi, and standard YA titles — think Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. While surveying its shelves, I was startled to discover Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

Escobar makes a special effort to integrate adult titles that teens might enjoy, combing reviews and polling colleagues to find crossover books — Stephen King's in there, too, and V.C. Andrews, as well as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

All three authors feature narratives of horror, imprisonment, and sexual assault, which is no surprise: YA novels about sexual abuse and teen pregnancy are so popular that Escobar has created reading lists catering to fans of these topics.

Not to worry — pregnancy and sexual abuse aren't Cambridge epidemics. Rather, kids want to read about someone who triumphs over unbelievable hardship. They want worst-case scenarios. They want to scare themselves silly.

The Hunger Games, the preeminent YA series of the last several years, fulfills that desire: it concerns a teenage girl forced to kill in order survive. This series was also a huge hit with adult audiences — showing that while Pamela Paul and her cohort might bristle at reading about middle-age anomie and disappointment, they have an awfully high threshold for outright horror.

Escobar enumerated the most salient qualities of YA lit: a teenage protagonist, an emphasis on plot, lots first-person narration, demure sex scenes, and no gratuitous swears. What's more, "A lot of teen fiction is aspirational," Escobar said: younger kids enjoy reading about slightly older kids. This desire to look ahead doesn't seem to extend to adulthood — books in which an older protagonist looks back on her teen years fall squarely into the category of adult fiction.

To me, these qualities seemed like arbitrary criteria for a marketing niche, not deep, qualitative genre differences. In the last 10 years, I've read and enjoyed plenty of books geared toward adults that I would have adored — and understood perfectly — at 14. Last year, I spent a solid month plowing through Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire series, which — for all its freaky vampire sex scenes — features a first-person narrator, easily digestible platitudes, and language a sixth-grader could understand.

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