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Arts & Culture

Why This Grown-up Reads YA

October 24, 2014 | by


When I was a senior in high school, I took a class on Freud in which we read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, published not so many years earlier in 1982. Gilligan traced the history of the way in which a female mode of thinking, especially about moral dilemmas, had been diminished and misunderstood by psychologists—not just by Freud, but by others like Lawrence Kohlberg, well-known for his theories of moral development. In answer to an ethical question—Should a man steal drugs for his sick wife?—Kohlberg had found girls to be less developmentally mature than boys, as the girls were unable to respond with a simple no. But Gilligan, a clinical psychologist and researcher, suggested an alternate way of looking at how girls reason, morally or otherwise, that had to do with a much more nuanced understanding about the network of the connections girls felt between themselves and others. As Gilligan describes it, girls saw “in the dilemma not a math problem with humans but a narrative of relationships that extends over time.”

The effect In a Different Voice had on me was shattering in the best way: I felt that someone had finally recognized and articulated my predicament as a teenage girl. An old, black-and-white way of thinking—the kind I was at that moment trying to shoehorn myself into at my boarding school, which had only recently become coed—was being put to question. The gender ratio at my school was kept to one-third girls, two-thirds boys, so the girls wouldn’t “overwhelm” the boys, or so I was told. Urinals stood sentinel in our bathrooms, as if waiting until the whole thing went back to the boys. We even wore boy’s clothes—preferably our fathers’ or boyfriends’. It was mens sana in corpore sano all the way, but it was the boys’ corpora everyone was trying to emulate.

At the time, I was also reading, for pleasure, an ever-changing assortment of what I now know to call high and low: Marjorie Morningstar and Goodbye, Columbus; Diary of a Mad Housewife and the essays of Joan Didion. With the encouragement of the teacher who’d introduced me to Gilligan, I even wrote my college essay on Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” and if I had become a writer it would have been because of her. At the same time, I was also reading a lot of Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy, who I didn’t even know was the same totally delightful writer. Starting with Little House in the Big Woods when I was six, which I pretended not to have been able to read so my father would keep reading it to me, I had read and read and read and read.

I kept reading—everything—and since it was the only thing I was truly good at, after college I became a bookseller, then a magazine intern, an editorial assistant, and an editor at a publishing house. Now I’m a literary agent, and I represent all the different kinds of books I’ve always loved to read: literary fiction, children’s fiction, serious nonfiction. With a range like this, I find myself at what feels like the center of an increasingly contentious debate: Is it appropriate for adults to read children's fiction? And the unhappy, always unspoken corollary: Should any self-respecting adult write it? (If you missed this kerfuffle, you’re lucky. But it’s out there.)

All of which has brought Carol Gilligan to mind again. When I read YA and children’s fiction, I feel knit together with the person I was and who I am, still, becoming. It feels, in Gilligan’s words about girls’ relationships, like a “continuing connection” with my past internal selves—especially my reading selves, my favorite selves. I love the intrepid eight-year-old I was, and I reinhabit her when I read Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. I feel for the upset, confused seventeen-year-old I was, and I wish I’d had Kristin Cashore’s Graceling to help her through the thicket of adolescent sexuality. (Meg Wolitzer recently characterized this as “access to a pure form of the complications involved with being young, now filtered through the compassion, perceptions (and barnacles) of my older self.”) But the books on my nightstand right now—I’m not cheating, I’m just looking at what’s there—run from Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name to Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages, because I am an adult, and I read as one.

C. S. Lewis wrote in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” that “the third way, which is the only one I could ever use myself, consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say.” (He continues, amusingly: “just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form.”) The binary between children’s and adult fiction is a false one, based on a limited conception of the self. I have not ceased to be the person I was when I was an adolescent; in fact, to think so seems to me like a kind of dissociation from a crucial aspect of one’s self. And the critic should be concerned with what is good and what is bad, what is art and what is not—not with what’s “appropriate.” As C. S. Lewis also wrote: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness”—and so have I.

Sarah Burnes is a literary agent at The Gernert Company. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.



  1. Margaret Stohl | October 24, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    How much do I love that the Paris Review has just published a defense of adults reading YA lit? Deft & canny as always. My life is now complete.

  2. Heath | October 25, 2014 at 2:00 am

    Wait…who wouldn’t steal drugs for their sick wife?

  3. Eliot Schrefer | October 25, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Great article. Loved seeing the YA attacks framed by all those other arbitrary ways establishments find to feel exclusive–and exclusionary.

  4. Dianne Lynn Gardner | October 25, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Love this! I’m well in my 60s and I write YA because I have developed a passion not just for what you speak of, but for youth themselves. Somehow I can understand exactly all that young people are going through and see how widely they are misunderstood! Thank you for sharing. Lovely discourse!

  5. P.D. Workman | October 25, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    I have weighed in with my own opinions on the YA fiction debates as well…

  6. Frank, Anagrammatically | October 25, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    “I have not ceased to be the person I was when I was an adolescent; in fact, to think so seems to me like a kind of dissociation from a crucial aspect of one’s self.”

    I mean this less glibly than it may seem: you have, on a cellular, molecular level, entirely ceased to be the person you were when you were an adolescent.

  7. Bob | October 25, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Is YA really an aesthetic? Genuine question, I’m no expert. I tend to think of it as something that has been dreamt up by a marketing department. For example, I’m thinking most adults would probably read The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mocking Bird which would most likely get shunted into such a section if they had been written in more recent years. And who knows maybe such books would be slighted by such a YA tag. Glad to see some good points made in this article all the same. People who read what they only consider to be highbrow literary fiction are definitely missing out and in my part of the world at any rate are usually more concerned with conspicuous consumption.

  8. DarwinD0 | October 25, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    @Frank – you’re wrong.

  9. Pat Hobby | October 26, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    How very sad for you.

  10. Richard | October 26, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    Whew, I am so going to read me a bunch of
    HARRY POTTER now, Thanks.

  11. Laura Moe | October 27, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Good writing comes in all genres. And do w. Ever truly grow up?

  12. Karla | October 27, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    The author appears to have forgotten the true problem w Gilligan’s and Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas (Kohlberg isn’t concerned with whether the answer is yes or no. It’s about the level,of moral reasoning behind either answer. And Gilligan’s response was that girls and women are more concerned with a care perspective than the kind of moral reasoning Kohlberg proposes as evolved. ). In spite of this, I’ll take her defense of YA literature. I like a good story, well written, and I don’t give a damn who the target audience is. And I am confused as to why this has even become an issue. Why are my reading preferences the business of another, or something that must be defended?

  13. Julia DeVillers | October 27, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Love finding this thoughtful piece in the Paris Review.

  14. Janelle Fila | October 28, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I write YA Contemporary and read YA almost exclusively. I have a 13-year-old son, and I love sharing a touching, empowering book with him. Reading the same stories opens a line of communication a lot of parents don’t have and I wouldn’t have it we weren’t reading the same stories. I love sharing good books with him to help teach him good life lessons (Jennifer Mathieu’s THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE is on his MUST READ before dating list), but even Percy Jackson and THE MAZE RUNNER get him talking about things that he’s passionate about. And I’m grateful for that!

  15. Deborah Heiligman | October 29, 2014 at 10:03 am

    This is beautiful and true. Thank you, Sarah.

  16. Tim Jones-Yelvington | November 3, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    I think this was well-intentioned, but I don’t like the implication that in order for adolescent subjectivities to have value, we have to relate them with our adult selves.

    Also, I’m pretty sure that in 2014, it’s not cool to be quoting Carol Gilligan without major disclaimers.

  17. nutrition and health | January 27, 2015 at 9:17 am

    I couldn’t rfrain from commenting. Very well written!

  18. Tamara Laurel | August 18, 2015 at 2:17 am

    I recommend a book by Jim West called Libellus de Numeros (The Book of Math) that my 11-year-old daughter just finished reading. The story is about Alex, a young precocious girl, who mysteriously gets transported to a strange world where Latin and Math combine in formulas and equations with magical effects. With a cruel council leading the only safe city of its kind in this world, she will have to prove her worth to stay as well as help this city as it is the target for two evil wizards who seek to destroy the city and its ruling council. To help the city and also get back home, she will need the help of the greatest mathematician of all time, Archimedes. In a world where math is magic, Alex wishes she paid more attention in math class.

    A Goodread 5-star review said:

    “The storyline inspires a hunger for knowledge and a ‘can do’ attitude – a strong message of empowerment for young
    readers. I’m sure that this book will be interesting to read for both, boys and girls, as well as adult readers. Libellus de Numeros means ‘Book of Numbers’ and it’s a magical textbook in the story. Math and science are wonderfully incorporated into a captivating plot: Latin and math are presented as exciting tools to make ‘magic’ and while Latin is often used as a language of magic the addition of math is definitely a fresh approach.

    “The main heroine Alex is a very relatable character for young people, especially girls. I love that she has her flaws and goes through struggles all too familiar to a lot of young people. Alex is an authentic female role model — a very courageous girl, who is not afraid to stand up for herself and others and who is able to learn fast how to use knowledge to her best advantage.

    “She can definitely do everything that boys can and I find this to be a very powerful message that is needed in our modern society. Furthermore, it was a pleasure to read through the pages of a well-formatted eBook. Highly recommended!”

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11 Pingbacks

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  4. […] another view especially addressing adults reading YA or Children’s books, here’s Sarah Burnes in the Paris Review blog: The binary between children’s and adult fiction is a false one, based on a limited conception of […]

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  6. […] I read this article in the Paris Review, in which the writer talks about how reading YA allows her to visit her younger self, a self […]

  7. […] Sarah Burnes (a literary agent at the Gernert Co.) wrote for the Parisian […]

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  10. Why YA? - says:

    […] at BlogHer, Tommy Wallach, the aforementioned Meg Wolitzer at the New York Times, Sarah Burnes of The Paris Review, Caitlin White at Bustle, Matt Haig, the editors at Barnes and Noble, and Kathleen Hale at Nerve, […]

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