Late in the summer of my seventeenth year, I decided I wasn’t getting any younger, and I had to do something about the growing pile of unread young adult novels on my bookshelf. In a few months, I would be 18. Adulthood was looming, and it wouldn’t be long before I became too old to read stories about teenagers. Soon enough, I would feel the need to move on.
I kept thinking of a classic Twilight Zone episode about a bank teller who never has any time to read, which is a damn shame, because he lives for it. The world literally has to end before he can even crack a book open — and then his glasses break.
It’s a funny thought: I was 17, and I was running out of time.
I couldn’t be like Burgess Meredith, trapped in his own solitude, unable to turn to even fiction for kinship because it was too late. So I made a choice: For at least the rest of the year, I would read only YA and nothing else. I put off the rest, certain that I had the rest of my life to get to them.
That was the year I kept inadvertently locking eyes with a crush when we’d pass each other in the hallways, eventually working our way up to the slightest of smiles — I didn’t find out his name until a year later, so I called him Dev, because he looked like Devon Bostick. That was the year I met William Beckett and Nick Jonas. That was the year I started a zine, wrote poetry almost compulsively, and went out all alone in a foreign city, taking trains and navigating strange streets.
But when I think back to when I was 17, my most vivid, definitive memory is of reading. On a jeepney ride, at the food court, in a library. Pixels on my phone, bookmarks in a paperback, creases on the spine of a secondhand copy.
Long before farther-reaching media finally realized that we as an audience crave diversity and that representation sells, there were already YA novels that featured protagonists of all races, genders, sexualities, body types, and backgrounds. The books were tackling the likes of dealing with grief, mental health, living with a disability, dysfunctional families, surviving abuse, and other important topics that may be difficult to discuss with others — but through these stories, readers who may be going through similar situations can find solace and understanding, and maybe even a way to cope and keep going.
What I also loved, and continue to adore about YA is getting to live vicariously through it, because of the genre’s unfailing capability to capture the teen experience in a way that’s authentic yet fantastic. Travel through time, visit a different country, or go on a road trip. Stay awhile in quaint small towns that you’ll eventually know like the back of your hand. Have an adventure all over a sleepless city in just one night. YA books have it all: music festivals, meet-cutes, sudden fame, prom. So many others.
My personal favorites are the ones about estranged childhood best friends who find their lives entangled once more. At first it’s stilted and awkward, but then they gradually break down barriers and grow closer, and before you know it, they’ve fallen in love. Nothing like a good slow burn.
I once asked Hannah Harrington, author of Saving June and Speechless, how she writes such great love interests, and she said, “What I like to do is try and write fictional boys who are not perfect, but are perfect for the protagonists I am pairing them with.” The one constant variable, she added, is respect. “I think you can totally gain strength from relationships, and they can help you be more empowered in ways. And bottom line, I think everyone wants to find someone who just truly understands them and wants to stick around even after seeing the messy parts of ourselves, whether it be friend or romantic partner.”
So that’s how young adult fiction royally ruined my romantic standards. I’m (probably not) kidding.
I read a lot that year. My all-time record was 15 books in one month. I read so many that I’ve completely forgotten some books and completely outgrown others. (Good riddance, John Green.) My friends and I formed an unofficial book club: We all read Gayle Forman’s Just One Day at the same time and cried about it to each other, and when she visited the country for a signing tour, we all sat on the floor of the bookstore to wait our turns and discuss the parts that made us swoon, frustrated us to no end, made us think and feel.
Fast-forward six years, and I’m still pretty into YA. It’s an industry and community that continues to thrive and challenge how we live and see things, somehow managing to be both comfortably familiar and constantly disruptive.
Because of YA, I know myself better, and I’m more equipped to appreciate the world I live in. I get to develop along with characters who are learning from their mistakes and figuring out what they want to do and who they want to be. I’m reminded time and time again of the importance of friendship and realizing that our parents are only human. I can be a better person.
When I think of young adult books, I think of how fervently you can love something. I think about being young enough to stick to the smallest of plans and see it through. That kind of pure, reckless conviction fades a little as you get older — but the ardent excitement you get for the things you love and what makes you happy, I’ve come to find that it never really goes away.