Musings on “Middle School” Media: Berkeley’s Young Adult Literature Decal
by Andrea Aquino
We read Milton’s Paradise Lost, we read Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, we read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, we read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice — and the list only goes on. We read countless works, from novels to poetry to drama, as part of our studies in English. The titles we’ve thumbed through are hallmarks of literature, significant to both literary canon and our lives, and each one poses us with questions that we must think deeply and critically about in order to answer.
Over the past three semesters, I’ve been challenged to consider why these texts are still relevant today and why they continue to be read — more specifically, why I’m reading them. It would be easy to respond with something like “I think reading is fun,” but frankly, many of the titles I’ve read as a Berkeley student are not ones that I, personally, would pick up on my own volition. That isn’t to say that I haven’t been appreciative of the literature I’ve been taught thus far, of course. Simply put, my interest in English was not sparked by an author of literary merit or a title that is key to literary canon. In actuality, I first began to appreciate books when I was a middle schooler reading young adult fiction.
Those roots are the reason why I jumped on the opportunity to take one of the English Decals offered this semester: Young Adult Literature. After spending a year at Cal, I realized that what was missing from my extensive “to read by X day’s lecture” list were the very kind of books that initiated my interest in reading. My schedule was so inundated by Shakespeare and Chaucer and Wordsworth that I couldn’t remember the last book I had read for plain, simple, no-essays-attached fun.
In contrast to my first two semesters, the Young Adult Literature Decal gave me the chance to take a break from my 45 course’s texts in a way that still felt productive. One of the things that had stopped me from reading for leisure was the looming feeling that I should have instead been tackling the number of works that were required for my classes, but with this Decal, I was put in a win-win position. Before, if I picked up a book (often YA) that wasn’t on one of my syllabi, I felt guilty for not spending my time reading those titles instead. I denied myself the chance to read for fun because I needed to read for school — meaning the YA Lit Decal made the kind of books that I read for leisure mandatory parts of my day.
And again, it’s not that I find the texts in core English classes not engaging or not interesting. Rather, deciding to take YA Lit was a matter of having variation in the type of things that I’d be reading. Switching between genres, in my experience, was refreshing; for me, putting down one book and picking up another allowed me to take productive breaks from each class. Between Faulkner and Woolfe, I was reading John Green and the debut novel of Berkeley graduate Katy Rose Pool.
The cover of Katy Rose Pool’s novel, There Will Come A Darkness, is the image behind mine at the top of this article. Her book is full of worldbuilding and vibrant characters with unique, compelling motives — and knowing that she walked the same lengths of Sproul as us made me feel like there was something special about reading it. The idea of one day writing and publishing my own novel felt so much more tangible after I read her work. I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. I could see the care that went into its craft, and I feel like its existence is a testament to the potential success that we can work towards as Berkeley attendees.
It saddens me to know that not many students here will read it because it is considered “young adult” literature, but I don’t think I’ll ever be too old to read fantastical adventures characteristic of the YA genre. That’s another thing that I appreciated about this Decal: it put people who feel the same way I do in the same room. The course grants college students the opportunity to discuss books that are inherently seen as “childish” because their intended audiences range from middle schoolers to early high schoolers. Though the target demographic is embedded in the name of the genre, I stand by the notion that young adult literature is not strictly for “young adults” — especially now.
For example, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is considered young adult literature and was on our syllabus this semester. Though it is an easy read, it deals with topics and concepts that are not irrelevant to adults, like Nazi Germany and death. In my opinion, the same can be said about Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, which was another title that the class read. It addresses police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, racism, and more. John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down discusses mental health and mental illnesses. Katy Rose Pool’s There Will Come A Darkness shows us aspiring novelist Berkeley students that we can do it, too. Even the books that I was not so fond of and had strong opinions towards taught me something about the kind of literature I like to read — and they fostered interesting, opinionated discussions between my peers.
Diversity, representation, history, social commentary… These are not uncommon topics in young adult literature. Yet the stigma surrounding the genre seems to discount the potential YA books have to be poignant and thought-provoking. I find this unfair. These books have points and problems that I was able to discuss with my fellow Berkeley students, and after talking about them in an academic setting, I found a new appreciation for the genre. I think that’s another great thing about this Decal: nobody discounted another for having an interest in so-called “childish” books. After all, we were all taking the course and we were all finding things to appreciate about the authors of today, about the craft of writing, about the structure of plots and the building of worlds and the development of fictional characters.
Through this class, I found that enjoying novels that are directed at youth, even though I’m an adult studying the literary canon, is not unique. There are many of us who reminisce our days reading Percy Jackson and Harry Potter and other YA novels that ate up chunks and chunks of our childhood. Just because we’re in college, we don’t necessarily have to give up the things we found fun as kids. Just because I’m an English major reading and studying J.M. Coetzee, I don’t necessarily have to stop reading Rick Riordan.
This is essentially my long-winded way of saying: if you’re looking for a change of pace in your reading-heavy course load, take Young Adult Literature. If you feel kind of awkward saying that your favorite book is by Suzanne Collins or Maggie Stiefvater or Rainbow Rowell or some other YA author, take Young Adult Literature. If you’re anything like I was, and you feel bad reading YA instead of reading your class material, make YA part of your course load. Take Young Adult Literature. It’sfun. Though my time in the class is coming to a rapid close, I’m thankful for my experience in it and I plan on reading more YA as a Berkeley student — sans the guilt.