September 02, 2015

Confessions of a Senior Blogger: My Take on Ageism in the Book Blogging Community

My darlings, this will be a very long post, I'm sure.
I was already debating the post title theme with myself, when the book blogging community got hit (so to speak) by the New York Daily Times bomb a few days ago. I use the word "hit" in a heavily ironic way, of course. The plain truth is, everybody just laughed at the NYDT for portraying such community as a squad of mature readers who only cared for threesomes.


Most people ironically pointed out that "love triangles" and "threesomes" hardly have anything in common. Only a few, as far as I could see, mentioned that YA is full of stories that don't necessarily imply (graphic) sex, or that barely skim it altogether. It's so obvious, there's no need to state it - not even in order to delegitimate a short-sighted article (not that I blame those who did, or am trying to lessen their efforts). But such article did hit the community, in an oblique way. After reading it (and denouncing its ridiculousness), someone voiced their concern about teens getting the short end of the stick in the YA book blogging world. The latest - and probably best articulated - post about this issue is The Unspoken Ageism in YA by Christina Li. I'm quoting a passage from it, though you should read the whole thing (I recommend that you read the comments, too):

We are not your perfect high school fantasies. We are not your constantly witty, gorgeous, and sexually confident characters. We come from all races and from every type of social situation. We develop all kinds of identities of sex and gender. We can love boldly or hesitantly, or not at all. There is no one “right” way to write YA. The next time you write about teenagers, listen to us. Respect us. And please, please don’t try to speak for us without considering our voices.

Christina's post mainly deals with the strong impression that YA has become "adult property", for a bunch of reasons. Its authors, of course, are adults (more than 18 years old at the very least). Its publishers, of course, are adults. But also most of it readers (beta, too) and reviewers are adults by now. And real teens are beginning to feel marginalised, as if adults were teaming up to decide what teens should look, think and talk like in books, without them getting a say in it.

I can't honestly dismiss Christina's concerns. As a matter of fact, for a while now I've been feeling slightly guilty for wanting to step out of the read zone and actually reviewing (and now even beta reading) YA. Because maybe I shouldn't be the one doing that. Because I'm in no position to tell people what works and what doesn't in a book aimed at a much younger age group than mine. Or am I? After all, I was a teen once. I guess I want to recapture the feeling of being young, while living all the adventures I didn't get to live in the process. But do I really remember what's it like to be a teen? Not to mention, I was a very peculiar one. I used to spend my days by myself, listening to music and writing poetry and feeling so utterly out of place. I guess that's more to being young than that...
At this point, you might ask, "isn't ageism supposed to mean discrimination against the elderly? When coming to your blog, I thought I'd read a post about some hard spot you found yourself in for being an adult reading YA, but it looks like a young blogger is the one who feels marginalised". Well, to be precise - according to the Merriam Webster - while the term is indeed more accurately aimed at the elderly, ageism has a wider meaning, that is "prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly". That's how the article I quoted chose to use it, so ironically, I'm not the target here :).


Now, before I come to the very ageism debate, I'll have to delve into a longish, personal explanation. I started blogging almost three years ago, without stating my age anywhere in my profile. I didn't even had a human avatar back then (though the one I have now is just a cartoonish version of myself, but at least you get an idea of what I look like). It's not that I was ashamed or afraid. I was just dipping my toe in the water. And mostly, I thought that displaying my age could distance some potential readers from my blog, because maybe I was their mothers' age and they would have felt awkward while talking to me. This never prevented me from jokingly calling myself "an old lady" and admitting I was an adult when there was a reason for it. But only lately I've begun to openly label myself as a "senior blogger", because I thought I owed my readers and pals (here or in emails or on Twitter) that much. Also, I've made friends with a few teen bloggers, and they are amazing. They simply don't care. They talk to me and I talk to them and there's no age barrier. So my confidence stepped up a notch. I still don't want to put my age on a banner for everyone to see, because I don't want to get defined by a number - but I've come to realise it probably isn't the burden I thought it could be.


On the other hand, while starting to act more relaxed around people much younger than me, I've run into - well, I wouldn't call it a problem, but still I've begun to question my involvement in the YA book blogging community. The more I review YA and get close to a few authors who trust me with their books (like I said, I've even been asked to beta read for the first time lately, by the amazing Erin Callahan), the more I wonder if I should have a voice (albeit small) in the YA blogging world. I'm not a typical adult, and I read teen books precisely because I want to relive (or live vicariously) a certain phase, or a certain type of emotions/adventures. On a conscious level, I'm sure I don't want my YA to mold around my adult experiences and feelings and expectations. What would the point be in reading those books if I would? But sometimes I wonder if I (along with all the YA readers/reviewers who are anagraphically adults) am  uncounsciously contributing to shaping the genre into something different from what it could - and should - be. Are the teens I'm reading about REAL teens, or simply a figment of what the writers - and me as a reader - like them to be? or think they should be? Are we all deluded into thinking we know what a real teen is? Do we REALLY want to read about teens, as opposed as fantasizing about them?
My answer is, I DON'T KNOW. I'm writing this post for the very reason that I don't. I'm writing this post because I hope that real young adults - but also other readers/bloggers who are past their teen years, and hopefully some writers - can help me figure it out. And understand if I really belong to this world, or I'm only talked myself into it.
(BTW, I'll be 49 in December. God bless my teen friends who aren't afraid of me).


(As usual, thanks to Giphy for the cute graphic stuff...).

A FEW QUESTIONS...

Teens: Do you feel marginalised in the YA book blogging community? Do authors and publishers make you involved enough (by ARCs, interactions or anything else)? Do you think the books you read reflect your reality (I don't necessarily mean "everyday reality" here, because how could sci-fi or fantasy do that? I mean it on a deeper level)? How do you relate to older bloggers?

Adults: Do you ever feel like you're trespassing while reading/reviewing YA books? If yes, how do you deal with it? How do you approach YA books? How do you relate to younger bloggers?


Writers: Do you think you're doing it right? How do you ensure that you, indeed, do? Do you think that writing "real teens" without spicing them up can result in a boring book? How do you relate to your younger readers?

18 comments:

  1. Wow Roberta, and thank you so much for sharing firstly, I know how hard it can be putting your personal thoughts and opinions out there.

    I'm 35 and I read and review young adult. I read simply because I can. There was a time in my life where I fell out of love with reading, I didn't pick up a book for close to 18 years. Even as a teen I didn't bother with anything other than the recommended curriculum, so when I begun reading again, naturally I navigated towards young adult.

    I enjoy your adult for what it is, but even to my older 'been there, done that' eyes, the genre has always felt as though it romanticised teen life. Do teen cancer patients fall in love? Do teen boys declare their one true love after a few conversations? Do parents allow teens to run rampant and raise themselves? Probably not. But fiction is so subjective and while I wouldn't class myself as trespassing as such, I'm still mindful of not being the intended audience when I review.

    It's one of those discussions that the young adult industry needs to have. After one teen admitting she felt a adult male author was creepy, and other adult authors rallied around him. It's a case of authors biting the hand that feeds them. Authors need to start listening to their audience. Incredible discussion Roberta, looking forward to seeing the responses.

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    1. First off, thank you Kelly for stepping in :D.

      I've always been a voracious reader, but like you, I only began to read YA in my mature age (I mean around 30). I wasn't aware of the genre as a whole before. But I'm fairly sure I'd have read it anyway, for a number of reasons.

      I suppose the romanticising part is mostly true...on the other hand, teens seem to like books that do that, so maybe they just need to dream of a world where certain things happen sometimes. I really hope some of them are going to comment on this post, not for the comment number sake, but because I do want to get a perspective.

      I wasn't aware of the incident you mentioned. Maybe some authors should get a perspective too...If you're perceived as creepy, you probably have done or said something that was unclear at the very least.

      Thanks again!

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  2. Great post, Roberta. And to answer your question, as an author I certainly hope I'm doing it right!

    In many respects, YA is currently treated the same way that classic romance novels have in the past: with the expectation that they're meant to be used for literary escapism, and therefore not expected to fit into a realm of reality. I mean, we KNOW that those tall, dark and handsome men in romance novels rarely exist in the real world, and yet we read those books with fervor for the entertainment element. And, some YA exists with the same purpose, for pure entertainment. And that's fine. I want to be entertained.

    And there are a lot authors who want to write realism into their YA stories, but for some reason they find that the reality of what it means to be an adolescent is too graphic to be put into words. So many authors are okay with censoring out the most crucial parts of growing up. Those adolescent years are crucial to a person's development, and in turn they are awkward and terrifying and confusing and sometimes dirty and graphic and the stuff reserved for diaries (which, by the time you're 30, you risk reading again, only to cringe and gag and laugh hysterically at the horribleness that was your life).

    THOSE are the important moments in life. Yes, that guy you had a crush on in 10th grade was dreamy, and you certainly fantasized about him taking you away to a distant land to deflower you on a bed of water lilies, but what really happened is he barely knew your name and he had a thing for your best friend, and by the time you were seniors he got a freshman pregnant and thank god you threw away that notebook that had his name scribbled all over it. THAT was life. It was painful and awkward and terrible, but oh well.

    But here's what I think happens: We grow older. We have kids. We want to protect the younger generation from feeling like pain is inevitable. So instead of writing stories about a girl who actually really wants to have sex, or a boy who doesn't know the first thing about romance, or about parents who are flawed but trying their best, we create abstract fantasies to protect the reader from expecting the world to not turn out the way they want. Realism is harder to write because it forces the writer to dig into the pain of their own past, to accept the mistakes, to relive the moments of frailty, to accept that they too are not perfect in their view of the world. Fantasy is easier. There are no rules. There are no expectations.

    That being said, I have made it a personal goal for myself to tell the most truthful stories possible. They won't be clean. They'll be pretty graphic. They will force the reader to accept that they too are not perfect, and you know what? That's okay. It's like teaching sex education vs. abstinence only: Don't hide the truth from these young adults, teach them how to be smarter. Censorship equals ignorance, and that is never a good thing.

    End rant.

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    1. Thank you Allison for joining the conversation - I'm honoured to have actual YA authors telling their side of the story!

      I hear what you say. I really do. And I suppose real teens enjoy fantasy worlds - of all kind - for the very reasons you stated, just like older readers do. On the other hand, teens want to see their everyday truth reflected in the stories they read, or at least make sure that adults haven't imposed their version of teen reality upon them. And I can see the truth in what you say about realism being harder to write, for a number of reasons. I suppose it's not easy for a writer to find a middle ground. I do believe it's possible, though - to write a fantasy world of sorts (I mean, a totally made-up environment for a story) while making your characters sound and feel REAL. Round of applause for those who do.

      I have to admit I try to stay clear from sex in books, but it's a personal preference - I feel uneasy reading graphic descriptions of it. But it's totally unrealistic to assume that real teens don't have sex, or don't think about it a lot. So yes, it shouldn't be left out, and it should be reminiscent of what the author experienced, or knows firsthand. Of course, it's not a requirement that a YA book should have sex in it if it doesn't fit the story. A reader like me may still search for books in which sex isn't one of the main themes, but those books that do contain sex may be useful and eye-opening and even conforting for all the teens out there who struggle with it on different levels.

      Thank again for stepping in! It was really appreciated :).

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  3. And for your further reading pleasure, check out my blog post on sex in YA: http://thegirlandthebook.com/2014/09/12/lets-talk-about-sex-baby/#more-400

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  4. So well said, Roberta. And you've raised some interesting and truly relevant questions. I've jokingly said before that I think YA is less of a genre for actual teens and more of a collective art therapy project for post teens. The truth is, I think it's kinda true. And I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that. As Kelly pointed out, YA typically depicts a romanticized version of teen life. Through YA books, we grownups get to experience the cool teenhoods we wish we'd had. And there's something so refreshing about teenage characters and the genre itself. Though tropes and cliches often abound, some YA authors are truly adventurous with their writing (Andrew Smith and E. Lockhart come to mind) and, because their protagonists are teenagers, all the emotions and stakes are amplified. It's life times ten.

    But where does that leave actual teenagers? Like you, I don't know. I really enjoyed Christina Li's post, but I have to wonder if YA books depicted teen life more realistically whether anyone (including teens) would want to read them. Most fiction, whether YA or plain-A, depicts life in a way that's somehow better than reality. Even when completely awful things happen to the characters, it's somehow all for a reason (they learn something, they meet someone new, they reinvent themselves, etc.) and everyone still has a grand old time along the way.

    That said there's a happy medium and, if you're going to write YA, I think it's worth getting to know some actual teens. I used to work with teens and find myself constantly pulling from those experiences. What I end up with is, of course, the fictionalized/fantasy version, but the truth is deep down in there, just wrapped up in something that is hopefully also engaging in entertaining.

    So I say read on. I know I plan to write on. I have a feeling most of my readers will end up being adults, but maybe a few teens will also get a kick out of what this old lady has to say. :)

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    1. First off, thank you Erin for commenting. It means a lot to me :).

      I can only second what you said. All of it. And I suppose that, if we were talking about adult fiction, everybody would agree with your "better than reality" statement without a second thought. But maybe teen readers (just maybe...I'm trying to get in their shoes now, and it would really help if they would stop by and confirm this...or not) resent some representations that books give about them because they feel like the authors, as adults, have the upper hand somehow - while an adult reader would feel less violated by a book that doesn't have it "right". Ah. It's not easy for you writers, is it? ;)

      I know the truth is down there in your books. I honestly think it shows, and I honestly think my certainty doesn't have anything to do with me being an adult :).

      Thank you again!

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  5. Great post, Roberta! It must have really been tough sitting and putting your thoughts out about this. I'm 21, and trust me, even I've felt kinda "old" reading YA at times, the nostalgia for the carefree pre-uni teen days and all that jazz. Since I'm still new to the blogosphere I don't think I'm all that certified to talk on this matter, but yeah.The book blogging community, though, has been nothing but friendly. Most of the bloggers I interact with are in their teens and they are really great- there are exceptions of course. Older bloggers are noexception beacuse frankly, they don't feel any different. More experienced, mature, yeah, but age is no bar when it comes to any genre. That's what I feel anyway. YA books reflect our reality- yes, but in a rosy light most of the times. Even the supposed "dark" books have a lot of lighter stuff in them and try as they might, authors are human too. So naturally the books are made to be a "better" version of real life. Most of the time at least.

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    1. Hey Ruzi! *waves at younger blogger who's not feeling awkward around her*

      First off, I firmly believe that every single reader is "certified" to talk books - no matter how long such person has been blogging about them :).

      It's funny, if you think of it - nostalgia can strike at any age. But I'm sure we all have other reasons for reading YA as well. For me, it's often the road not taken - and, like Erin pointed out, the chance to experience the "cool teenhood" I didn't have. Which may be true for actual teens/younger readers too, I suppose. The important thing is for authors to listen to what teens have to say, to capture their essence, as opposed to making them up in their solitary writing room. It's fine to enhance reality, as long as one doesn't twists it - right?

      Thank you for stopping by - you're a sweetie!

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  6. I thought a lot about this topic last year (I'll get to that in a minute) but I hadn't realized that so many younger bloggers feel marginalized in the blogosphere. Maybe because I'm *ahem* an older blogger everyone seems younger to me.

    I started reading YA several years ago. I was a weird, shy kid and my teenage years were not fun. I never found my experience in a book back then. I found a YA book about 4 years ago that talked about the loss of a parent (my experience) and I felt like I finally found a lifeline - even after all these years and I became hooked on YA. It was and still is cathartic for me.

    BUT.

    As the years have worn on ( & I'm not sure how much of this has to do with reviewing/thinking more critically about what I'm reading) I found myself getting angry with teen characters for being - teens. They DO screw up. I screwed up as a teen but I found myself wanting them to make the right decisions, act more adult.

    Yes, there are some poorly written characters/books and it's fine to point out your issues but once you start criticizing kids for being kids then maybe you should step aside for a bit. These books are for them. Not for us.

    But Christina makes such an excellent point. There is an odd fantasy kind of thing going on in YA now. And there should be to some extent. Nothing wrong with dreaming or fantasizing but I wish there was more variety so that ALL teens are listened to and represented.

    I wonder if it's because so many bloggers started out as teens but are now college age. So the books are growing up with them. I had seen that theory thrown out there at one point.

    We should have honest depictions about sexuality, drugs, mental illness but there are 100's of teen experiences - yet it seems that right now only a few are being explored. (I think this applies to the NA genre as well - where it's all damaged characters and sex).

    So I guess I'm saying that I don't think there's any problem reading/writing YA as an adult but you need to be mindful of "their* experiences and not impose our "adult" wishful thinking, fantasies, or judgement.

    That was rambling and I'm going to stop now before my comment vanishes. I'm not typing all of that again lol

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    1. Such a great comment - and I'm so glad Blogger didn't eat it this time LOL. What can I say? The bit about criticizing kids for being kids was especially spot on. Until we are indeed able to realise we're doing just that and to take a step back, I guess we old girls (and boys) are allowed to read and review YA :).

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  7. I do have to wonder about the personal past experiences of YA writers. I find it hard to believe that all novelists grew up with a sparkly perfect life. I, for one, was an awkward teenager who experienced a lot of heartache and difficult times. My experiences have always been the inspiration for writing, regardless of the topic or readership group. So when it comes to authors who focus on a fantastical version of life, I have to wonder if (and I'm trying to phrase this nicely) those authors didn't really experience any difficulties in life. I find that explanation hard to believe. Life is rarely easy. So then what is the inspiration for writing fantastical and unrealistic stories and characters? Are they really that disconnected from their past? Are they trying to forge a different version of the life they wish they had led as teenagers? Who exactly do they assume they're speaking to?

    It pains me that more authors aren't using real life experiences as fuel to help inspire and motivate teens. Why not get down in the dirt and grit, tell a story that is not always pretty and smooth around the edges, and use that as the catalyst for a happy ending (or at least one with a message). You can do a lot with a little truth-telling. Teens are awesome bullshit detectors.

    I completely agree that we need to ax the love-triangles bit, tell a little more about mental illness, loss, drug abuse, emotional abuse, sexual identity, etc. But at the same time, I think we can all agree that not having a light at the end of that tunnel is a jagged pill* to swallow.

    *purely unintentional Alanis reference.

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    1. Allison,
      it's great that you feel so invested in this discussion that you found the time to comment again. And you are probably spot on - some authors are writing modern fairytales. Which is not a big fault in itself - especially since there are teens who love them - but I, too, think that even the most fantastic of worlds (and I say "fantastic" in the sense of "totally made up" - that is, a fantasy environment) must root in reality deep down...the reality of what makes us human, with all our good and bad traits and experiences.

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  8. Okay, first off I love your post, Roberta!

    My favorite thing in this community is that we can talk to other bloggers without feeling the age difference. I think it's amazing that there are book bloggers of all ages around me who I can talk to about a book or anything else and not feel awkward. I have to admit, I still feel a bit strange chatting up bloggers who are more than a few years older than me, because I'm afraid they'll think I'm not mature enough to chat with but I'm getting over that.

    I don't think books have to portray teens in a completely realistic way. I, for one, rarely pick up a novel because I want to read something that could have happened to me, or to someone else I know. I've been reading YA for 6 to 8 years (I'm 18 btw) but I never once thought the characters should be more like real teens. Moreover, there's still a huge variety of YA novels character wise. There are books where the teenagers are more mature and adult like, and there are books with more immature and teenager like characters.Both can be written awesomely.

    About adults reviewing YA... I think it's totally amazing that YA books are so good that from 12-year-olds to 60-year-olds, people can read and enjoy them. I have to admit, I've seen reviews which I think were too hard on YA characters, but in general I don't think there's a problem with an adult saying that for her the protagonist of X book seemed rather stupid. Most teens in YA are 16-18 and are going through unordinary things, I suppose it's only fair to expect more from them than you'd in real life.

    Lastly, I'd like to say that I love that some aspects of books are not fully realistic. Just think about our favorite couples. In real life, most people won't stay together with their first love or their high school sweetheart. However, at the end of the story, when the couple gets together after defeating everything that kept them apart, you want to fully believe that these two could be in love and stay happy for the rest of their life. For that, the characters have to be at least a little extraordinary.

    All in all, I agree with that a character has to remain realistic and not sound like an adult who possessed a teen's body (lol). At the same time, the best characters have something extraordinary to show, something that makes them your favorite and something that, perhaps, makes you unable to look at them as if they were real life teenagers. But that's okay because this is fiction, with made up stories and characters - this is something we should not forget. If someone wants to read about completely realistic characters, they should pick up a non-fiction novel.

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    1. Thank you Vera for your long comment - they are my favourite kind LOL.

      First off, you don't have to feel like you're not mature enough to chat with us oldies ;). Though I suppose I don't feel so intimidating, or you wouldn't have commented on here! ;) But in general, it would be wrong if younger bloggers like you felt awkward or not worthy around us older ones. If anything, it should be the other way around - we seniors are the ones who borrowed the books that were originally meant for you, so I suppose we should tiptoe around them (and you), not the other way around.

      This doesn't mean I feel guilty for reading YA, of course...but I don't want to be the one who makes the rules - I only enjoy playing in this particular field.

      As for your comment: I suppose there are readers - both teen and adults - who prefer more realistic fiction, and readers who prefer wild adventures or happily-ever-afters. And readers who are in the middle - for example, I love to read about extraordinary events, but there are things (especially of the romantic kind) I can't buy...and not because I'm a grown woman - I've never been able to relate to them, even in my young age. I do agree with what you said, and other commenters pointed out as well: fiction is, for all purposes, escapism. Entertainment. Magic. Even when rooted in reality, it won't be able to be plainly real, or we probably wouldn't bother to read it in the first place. I do believe, though, that the whole "sounding like an adult who possessed a teen body" issue (I love how you phrased it!) is the one younger readers struggle with the most. Whether teen characters are depicted as nerds or bullies, confident or shy, over-sexualised or de-sexualised, writers should take inspiration from real teens, and not put their adult minds into young adult bodies. And there are a number of them who do that, as far as I know. To cut a long story short, it seems to me that writers - as adults - should make an effort to reach out to real teens and to write them with the utmost honesty, while we adult readers/reviewers should never forget YA is a genre (OK, not a genre, but in lack of a better word) that is NOT aimed at us, and maybe try not to punish the characters because they're young. Or we should probably stick to adult fiction in that case...

      Thank you again!

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  9. In all of my years of blogging (which would be three) I have never given my age, or really even an age range to my audience. There have been a few hints here and there that some people might have picked up on, but I like to think that my age is not public knowledge. And I would definitely like to keep it that way due to all of the things you have said in this (very amazing) post. I want to be able to converse with all different kinds of bloggers, regardless of their age or mine. I love being able to have the perspectives of people both older and younger than me, and I believe that those perspectives are vital to our community as a whole.
    I really disagree with any kind of ageism. Neither the young nor the old deserve to be discriminated against (actually, no one does, but that would get me off track). I firmly believe that anyone has the right to read YA, but I still think that YA books should stay reflective of the teenage culture. Personally, I think that there is such a wide spectrum of YA that everyone is represented, or is going to be represented with the diverse books movement. I also believe that there are all kinds of teenagers. There are some who legitimately act like five year olds and others who are so mature beyond their age that they might as well be adults. So, I do not think that infusing a little bit of adult culture into the YA world is necessarily a bad thing, as long as it remains mostly young adult culture. There is a huge demographic of adults who read YA and they deserve to see a little bit of themselves in YA too.
    This was a great post, Roberta, and I really like your twist on the topic. I just hope that as a community we will be able to get past the idea that age is a defining characteristic of your personality and just accept everyone for who they are.

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    1. Quote:
      "I firmly believe that anyone has the right to read YA, but I still think that YA books should stay reflective of the teenage culture."
      YES.
      I think it's what caused a bit of a stir lately during the Kids Book Summit - the adult appropriation of YA lit. I understand that, as adults, our reviews do have an impact on book sales or author/publisher decisions (or I suppose they do...), but it's one thing to review a book - possibly trying not to impose our adult expectations on it...I hope I'm managing to do that, at least - and a totally different thing to ask the "genre" to mold around them. If I wanted YA to reflect my reality and expectations, I'd read adult books...As a reader, all that I ask is for books to be honest and vibrant, and to stay away from tropes. Tropes debase books, regardless of the genre and the age range they are geared to. What's worse, they ultimately debase people.

      As you insightfully noted, there's a wide spectrum of YA, which mirrors a wide spectrum of real persons (teens). Personally, I always try to read books that sound like they can speak to me at some level. Even those can ultimately gain the less-than-three-stars treatment for any reason, but at least I mostly manage not to "punish" books for not being in tune with me, or mature enough for me. I hope to be able to do that, and I hope others are as well. In that case, the most honest review is the one that simply states "not for me" (though I would still like to know why...).

      Thank you for your great comment and support! *sends hugs*

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