Why This Grown-up Reads YA


Arts & Culture


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.