Teenagers & Reading

I have been asked for my take on last week’s question about teenagers and reading. To be honest, it’s difficult to know where to start because there are so many assumptions embedded in those questions. I’ll start by unpacking them.

    1. There seems to be an implicit assumption that all teenagers are the same.

    2. There’s also an assumption in all these discussions about YA that it is primarily read by teenagers.

    3. Another assumption is that a) only reading fiction counts and b) reading is better for you than any other pastime.

    4. Then there’s the assumption that there is such a thing as good writing and bad writing and we all agree on what those are.


Let me take numbers one & two first and point out the bleeding obvious. Not all teenagers read fiction. Of those that do read fiction, many are not reading YA at all. A sizeable proportion of those reading YA are 12 or younger or 20 and older. The age range of YA readership is every bit as broad as any other genre. Yet almost every discussion of the genre acts like it’s read only by teenagers.

So when there’s a discussion of the pernicious effects of a particular book on those young easily disturbed teenagers I have a range of conflicting responses. One of them goes very much like Tansy Rayner Roberts’ response: I read Flowers in the Attic and Angelique and many other even worse books as a sub-teen and teen and am now a fully functioning member of society. Those trashy books did not corrupt my delicate brain, thanks very much.

How much damage can reading a book do to you? If books can damage you, are you truly only vulnerable when nineteen or younger?

I have friends who are disturbed by almost every book they read, every movie they watch, everything that happens to them. I suspect they have been that way all their lives. Some people are simply way more sensitive than other people.

I used to be the neighbourhood babysitter. There were some kids I could tell the Grimm version of fairy tales too, who were gleeful about the blood on the snow, and some kids who couldn’t handle them at all. I tailored my storytelling to the kids.

I still do this with book recs to my adult friends. There are several friends I’m actively warning not to read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale because I know these books would gut them. I have friends who are allergic to a particular kind of bad writing. I don’t recommend my favourite bad book reads to them.

I don’t think there is any difference between teenagers and adults in this regard. There are only differences in particular individual sensitivity. When we talk as if teenagers are more delicate or sensitive we do them an enormous disservice. They are not identical robot people who suddenly become individuals at the age of 20. Indeed, until very recently, “teenagers” did not exist, they were adults.


What is so important about reading fiction? How is it superior to reading non-fiction? To reading newspapers, magazines, airplane manuals, the back of cereal boxes? Why is reading for pleasure so routinely exalted? Why is there so much panic about those who don’t read for pleasure?

Look, don’t get me wrong, I love reading fiction. Even more than I love writing it. But I also love Elvis Presley and Missy Elliott and I don’t think it’s a sign of moral failure that others don’t love them. Why is not reading for pleasure a cause for panic?

This is particularly invidious because I keep coming across teens, who read voraciously, who have teachers and librarians and parents freaking out that they’re not reading. Why? Because they’re not reading novels. They’re reading manga, or graphic novels, or books about cricket, or baseball, or jet engines, or World War II, or something else those well-meaning adults have decided doesn’t count. Sometimes teens have told me of well-meaning adults encouraging them to stop reading YA and start reading “real” adult books. You can imagine how I feel about that.

Illiteracy is definitely something to get wound up about. People who can’t read or write are at a horrible disadvantage. I am all for literacy. But that is not the same thing as reading fiction for pleasure. Many people who don’t read for pleasure are extremely literate and go far. I’ve met fabulous, smart, wonderful teens who don’t read fiction. I am not worried about their future.

I would love it if more people read fiction for pleasure—in particular I’d love it if they read more YA—because that’s how I earn my livelihood. I have a vested economic interest in people reading YA, but I don’t confuse that with thinking it’s morally good for them. Frankly, I’d be horrified if anyone thought reading my books would improve their moral fibre. Ugh.

(The ironc thing about all of this is that there have been many past moral panics about the perniciousness of reading novels.)

Is it really better for a kid to stay inside reading a book than it is for them to go outside and play cricket? How do we compare such activities? They’re both wonderful. I don’t think reading a novel is morally superior to baking a cake, swimming, dancing, or gardening, or any other fun activity a teen or anyone else could do with their time. Best of all is to do all those activities. Sadly, few of us have the time or energy for that. More’s the pity.

Good Books v Bad Books

There is no consensus on what makes a good or bad book. I think Patrick White is a shockingly overrated purple prose producing misogynist, misanthropist hack. He is studied at almost every Australian university and widely admired. I think his autobiography Flaws in the Glass is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. It is incomprehensible to me, likewise, that there is any place for the works of Henry Miller in any canon ever. Unless it is a canon of badly written misogynist crap. In which case he’s in with a bullet. (Any defences of White or Miller in the comments will be deleted because it will give me great pleasure to do so.)

So I say potatoe and you say potatoh. Whatever.

Fashions in good writing ebb and flow. What was consider great in one decade may not last into the next. Some of the most admired writers of a century ago are no longer read. And so it goes.

But even if we could reach a consensus on good writing—so what if a teen is only reading books you consider appalling? Plenty of adults are doing ditto. The pleasures of bad books are many. The pleasures of reading a book your parents don’t want you to read are even greater.

I’ve seen a lot of concern about girls in particular reading books where the female characters have little agency and spend the whole book mooning about some bloke. This could describe pretty much every Hollywood film of the last few decades. I mean, if they actually have any female characters in them at all. So, sure, limited depictions of women worry me. However, YA is much much much much more diverse than Hollywood. There are gazillions of bestselling YA books with complex female characters, who have female friends, and concerns beyond their love life.

Also I read heaps of appalling sexist crap growing up and it was, if anything, a spur to my feminist politics. Thank you, crappy books of my youth.1

So my response to the question

What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?

is to say: does not compute.

  1. That’s a special shout out to you, Enid Blyton. []


  1. Ana on #

    Thank you for this. Those assumptions have been plaguing me my entire life, basically. As a teenager, I’ve always been insulted when my parents or anyone else got mad that I was reading a certain book that was ‘too scary’ or ‘too mature’ for me. When I got sick of having them inspect the books in my satchel, I started doing most of my reading online, which scared them even more. Because apparently digital media doesn’t count. Anyways, thanks again, your deconstruction of these aggravating myths was apt and logical, and made my day. 🙂

  2. Naomi on #

    Never heard of Patrick White. I guess I’m just an ignorant American who enjoys reading loads of fiction, both YA and adult, and loads of narrative nonfiction on any topic imaginable. Long live freedom to choose! I hope I provide plenty of choice to my students as a high school librarian.

    Thank you for your books and your fine blog!


  3. Kelly on #

    Personally, I think twilight is a HORRIBLE book. Do I own all 4? Sure! Have a read the “secret” 5th book? Of course! It’s a guilty pleasure for me. How old am I? 21!

    I don’t think that it’s right for someone to say to a teenager that “you can only read such and such genre because it’s better for you” or ” that’s not appropriate for you”. As a recent teenager, I can say that I definitely wasn’t a robot from 13-19. I made decisions about what I liked to read and what was “appropriate” for me and I haven’t murdered anyone or stolen anything yet.

    I say that reading is an intensely personal decision and it seems that teenager’s guardians (teachers, parents, etc.) seem to think that their decisions will be the “appropriate” ones for their children/students/etc but that they don’t take the individualism of the person in mind. I hate horror novels because they scare the pants off of me but not everyone could take learning about the history of foie gras as scintillating, where I do. None of that matters. I’ve been chided for reading graphic novels by my parents but aren’t they books too?

    If Alice in Wonderland is in the children’s section of the library, does that mean I can’t read it?

    I hope that when I have children, I can encourage them to be as interested in reading as I was. And I’ll try to take a hands off approach to their subject matter 😉

  4. Aimee on #

    Derailing comments to say CONGRATULATIONS on being nominated for the CBCA Book of the Year award! 😀

  5. Kathryn on #

    Ever since I’ve been old enough to read, I’ve been choosing books that are considered above or below my reading level (along with “appropriate” books). I read YA when I was 8, and I still read YA as an adult. Books are books. Just because the characters in the books are a certain age doesn’t mean that it only has relevance to you if you are that age. You can derive meaning from all kinds of novels. Sometimes the perspective of age helps you discern a different, more insightful meaning.

  6. Pam on #

    Just read the CBCA shortlist – like Aimee – and congrats as well! Great book – fingers crossed until August.

  7. Joe Iriarte on #

    I’m an evangelist for reading for pleasure—not gonna apologize for that! It has brought so much enrichment to my life, I would want the same for anybody I care about.

    Aside from that, I think I largely agree.

  8. Rai X on #

    Personally most of the “proper adult books” that I’ve read contain more sex and drugs than any YA novel I’ve ever read. I’m sure there are very “mature themed” YA novels too, but usually its alluded to, wherein the adult books I’ve read, its just tossed in there as if doing drugs is as regular as breathing.
    Most of the reading praise is due to people being afraid of illiteracy, I think (and the illusion that “good kids read”. Granted, I am a good kid, but still know that’s not always true). Though I can’t imagine parents being upset that their kid is reading factual books…Kind of boggling, actually. However, one of my teachers recently was dismayed that I was in fact reading fiction rather than a non-fiction book.

  9. Colleen on #

    Hmm, I agree with you on most of your points. However, I do think there is a difference between reading graphic novels and reading novels and reading airplane manuals; not that one is worse than the other, but that they’re different. I think being literate means more than be able to read at a 5th grade level. As long as everybody — not just teens — is reading a variety of things so that they’re not limited by what their favorite genre is, then I don’t see a problem.

  10. Ash on #

    I agree with you that too much is made of the supposed goodness or badness of the books kids choose to read. If a book presents a whole bunch of ideas I hate and disagree with (dating violent stalkers is great as long as you wait for marriage!), at least it gives me an opportunity to talk with my kid about why I hate the ideas, and gives my kid an opportunity to do some critical thinking.

    But I do think that reading fiction (particularly fiction) is an important thing to learn to do. Fiction imparts world-views and ideas in a really immersive kind of way that isn’t replicable with any other medium. Reading a novel takes a long time (much longer than watching a movie or a TV show or even reading a graphic novel) and spending so much time with a character or characters forces you to empathize with them. I hated almost every character in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, for instance, but even though I only read the book once years ago, I still remember what it felt like to see things from such different and repellent-to-me perspectives. I think that’s cool and worthwhile, and I think it’s something only fiction can do. Even when it’s crappy.

  11. Tony Williams on #


    I agree wholeheartedly. As an adult who has enjoyed your books (purchased for my YA daughter but I get to read them first) and who spent his early teen years reading huge amounts of WWII history rather than novels I don’t think we should try and categorise one form of reading as good and another as bad.

    As for “suitable” my mother once said that the only result she could see from putting the “unsuitable” books in our house on the top shelf away from the voracious reader when I was six and seven was it taught me to climb and she never saw any damage from me reading them.

    // Tony

  12. rockinlibrarian on #

    This whole post seems to sum up the topics I keep coming back to blogging about myself! I’ve blogged about all this so much that I’d want to be all self-promotional and link to all my applicable posts, but there are far too many and I’d have no idea where to start!

    But I DO want to mention that my most recent post was on the topic of “scary=not appropriate for kids.” And my conclusion was that kids handle scary way better than adults (particularly parents) do!

  13. Cameron on #

    I grew up reading Enid Blyton, too! And LOVED her books. It wasn’t until much later that I even recognized the innate prejudice and sexism of a lot of the ideas she expressed – and I would still highly recommend her books. Isn’t it safer for kids to learn how to deal with life by reading about it and then asking questions? I would think that would be easier (with less opportunity for pain and regret) than coming across a difficult situation for the first time in real life, and then having to deal with it with no previous exposure.

    I’ve never heard of adults worrying about kids reading only nonfiction before. What exactly is the reasoning behind that? Ultimately the discussions about what they *should* read won’t matter. Teenagers will read what they want as long as they can get their hands on it, no matter what the adults around them think. I know I did. 🙂

  14. Kaethe on #

    Brava! I agree with every word you wrote, although I know nothing of this Patrick White dude, but given my feelings toward Miller, I can extrapolate an “ugh”.

    And congrats on the short list!

  15. the dragonfly on #

    I think reading for pleasure is important…but also that we all find pleasure in reading different things. I have a friend who has 11 year old twins. Last year (they were ten) their teacher informed my friend that her son needed to be reading *only* the things on the 4th grade reading list. He was reading National Geographic and non-fiction books about *everything*, as well as comic books…she said he should only read the books on the 4th grade reading list. I was shocked and sickened that any teacher would condemn a child for reading just because he wasn’t reading the “right” things!! My friend said, sarcastically, “So I should get rid of all the books in my house so he’s not distracted from your reading list?” The teacher said, very seriously, “That would be a big help.”

  16. Stephen Isabirye on #

    I am exhilarated to read about Enid Blyton and Elvis Presley within the same thread. In fact, in my book on Enid Blyton, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com), I compare the pressures of superstardom on both (music on Presley and writing on Blyton) which caused almost similar emotional anguish on their families.
    Stephen Isabirye

  17. AliceB on #

    Hm. I agree with the import of the post, especially that adults are as sensitive to books as teens. But fiction does influence people — it’s a small but real part of how we reach cultural understandings.

    I do not believe in censoring reading for children: their greatest influences remain their parents and peers, not books. But books aren’t irrelevant either. That’s why we use them in schools and people get apoplectic about “kids not reading enough.” (It’s defining the enough of what that gets really thorny.)

    I need to think on this some.

  18. Krystle on #

    Thank you Justine!!! As a librarian I’m constantly having to reassure parents about the justification of reading YA and it drives me nuts when they complain about it not being ‘real’ literature. All I want to do is say, ‘GIVE IT A REST ALREADY!! They aren’t going to read Edison, or Sawyer, or Dumas at twelve! Come on!’ As long as the teens are reading I’m happy, even if I have to slip a book in their back packs before they leave the library I’m happy!

    So again, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!! I’m linking this to our website for further reference!


  19. sarahj on #

    I really appreciated this post, it had good perspective. The main assumption I run into as a teenager who loves to read is that the only thing I’m interested in teen books. I’ve had people “profile” me as a young teenage girl and then suggest titles and authors. It’s usually [Name Redacted] (yuck) or Clique Girlz or something of that brand.

  20. Sara on #

    I disagree that reading books is not a superior activity, to, say, baking a cake. Granted, both these activities are good and commendable. But reading goes far beyond content. Reading is also an exercise in becoming more familiar with language, and better at communication, be it verbal, or written. I don’t think it’s right to say that anything someone reads “doesn’t count”. Reading is so, so important. Even after the plot of a novel has escaped you, long after you’ve forgotten the names of the characters, it does stay with you.

  21. Ariel on #

    Coincedentally I was thinking about something along these lines earlier.

    Every now and then I’ll look at my bookshelf and see multiple books that I’ve bought but haven’t even started reading and I’ll be a little dissappointed in myself, but then I’ll remember that I spend most of my time reading. The difference is I’ve been reading fanfiction, which to me seems even better. Not only do I read, but it allows a place to actually have mature conversations on different aspects of the show/book/whatever else the story is about. I can think deeply about things that I otherwise wouldn’t have given a second thought. Just because it isn’t a published work of art does not mean it doesn’t count as reading, and I read this stuff A LOT.

  22. Alexa on #

    I especially hate the idea that comics and graphic novels are not “real reading”. As someone who was reading at a 12th grade level when I was 6, getting into comics when I was 16 was probably the greatest leap forward my literacy took since learning to read. I defy anyone to read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Alan Moore’s From Hell and tell me those aren’t just as “literate” as any Pulitzer winner.

    Which reminds me: do you think I would have ever read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay without being a huge comic book geek? Probably not. But more importantly, Michael Chabon would never have wrote the thing had HE not been a comic book geek. Junot Diaz wouldn’t have written The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao without comics either. That’s two Pulitzer-prize winning novelists who grew up reading comic books (and still do in their 40s)

    Furthermore, both back in college and now in law school, I frankly don’t have the time to read “real” novels, or even YA novels. I can spend an hour or so a week knocking out a few comics and trade paperbacks. Don’t tell me comics are rotting my brain, when they are in fact saving my sanity.

  23. Shannon on #

    I definitely agree with the example you gave about stories for children. You have to know if a kid will be scared or not.

    I definitely think that parents have every right to say if they think their kids are reading something inappropriate. But that is a parent’s job, not the job of media, the bookstore, etc. They should know what their children are affected by. Obviously there comes a time when they should trust their kids to know for themselves if something is appropriate, that they’ve taught them values, and they’re old enough to know, say, “this character is doing such and such, and I like the story, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay for me to do that.” It’s probably a struggle for some parents to recognize when their teens reach that point, and frustrating for the teens when their parents don’t realize that they’ve grown up.

    I do think it matters what you read, and I’d like to paraphrase C.S. Lewis who said that a book that is only good for children is not a good book at all. A good book is as good at 50 as it was at 10. That being said, I don’t think there’s a reason to keep kids from reading those books that “don’t hold up” for adults if they want to.

    I’m in my twenties and I regularly read YA books. I read them more than “adult” books, actually. In many ways, I think YA books are better than contemporary “adult” books. They’re generally cleaner, for one thing. I have young cousins and I sometimes have to decide if I would recommend a book to the 12-14 year olds. I’m usually most concerned about sexual content or language, but then I’m pretty conservative.

    But then I spent most of my youth reading classics. I read very few contemporary books until after high school!

  24. Ellen on #

    As a kid, my mum told me only one thing in regards to my reading, she didn’t want me to read the Goosebumps series, because they would be too scary. She was right, about a year ago I was in my local library and saw them again, so I picked one up, it creeped me out and made me think, I know that it would have terrified me at 8-10 years old, and I deliberately picked one that looked tame. I read a lot as a kid, until I got my own library card mum “approved” all the books I read, she never told me not to read any other books.
    I say this as an example, my mum knew every book I borrowed til I got my own card, and after that she trusted me; parent know, or should know what their kids can read, and should tell them not to, but also why. If my mum had just told me no, I would have thought she was being mean or wanted to borrow a book of her own, and read them anyway.

    Parents have to be involved in what their kids read, and make sure they dont read anything that they can’t handle.
    And the goosebumps books aren’t bad, just too scary for 8 year old me.

  25. Kel on #

    Well I have to say I’m a big fan of monitoring what your kids read and watch. But by the time they are teens you really need to trust that they know what’s acceptable. I also know that teens that read anything are amazing! I have the dubious pleasure of babysitting a group of foster kids and not one of them reads. Their parents buy them video game systems instead of books. So any book that gets people to read is pretty amazing.

    That being said I don’t care for Twilight, but mostly because of what its done. I don’t want to read another teen fairy/vamp/supernatural romance. I love books that are different and it seems like the popularity of Twilight has caused a market flooding of vampance. I don’t mind fluff chracters or soppy plots, its the actual quality of the writing in books that makes me cringe. Who edits these things? Ahh well here’s hoping that more authors will soon be discovered who write feminist fantasy for teens.

    Love the writing Justine.

  26. Sarah on #

    At 31, at least a third of the books I’ve read recently have been categorized as YA. In the past few months, I’ve read (or listened to–my library has a very healthy selection of audio books) Liar, Feed (absolutely wonderful book by M. T. Anderson), Uglies, and Pretties, and I’m waiting impatiently for Specials and Extras to show up.

    I think that the draw of YA for me has been the strong voices (whether told in first person or third) and the creative story lines. A lot of the other genres of books I’ve been reading (especially fantasy, and science fiction to a lesser degree) have started feeling very repetative, but YA doesn’t feel that way, no matter the genre. Perhaps it’s because the authors aren’t relying so much on tropes, because they can’t assume that the readers know the tropes? Just a thought.

    (I, too, read V.C. Andrews, including Flowers in the Attic and many books ghost-written under the name, when I was in my early teens or before. Somehow, I still managed to become a responsible, rational adult. Who reads YA. 🙂

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