How cartoons taught me to accept adults who read YA literature

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Now, more than ever, adults reading young adult literature is definitely, finally, a “thing.” I’m not going to pretend like I’m an expert here, but let’s just say that things started changing around the time Harry Potter took off in the early 2000’s, and things haven’t really slowed down since. As an active reader of (and, I guess, participant in) the book blogging world, I’ve noticed more and more adult readers picking up YA books. Many of the blogs I started following five years ago that used to primarily review literary, or “adult,” fiction, are now featuring more YA and graphic novels written for young people than they are “grown-up books.”

Meanwhile, a lot of those adults are also writing about their experiences reading YA, pieces that sometimes spiral into stubborn defensiveness: “YA books have important themes, and are just as good as regular books, so I’m not dumb reading them! It’s actually the smart thing to do! So therefore, I’m smart!” Whenever someone suggests that adults reading YA is not such a good development for our literate nation, those readers go into full attack mode. I recently shared my thoughts regarding only the most recent kerfluffle that erupted around Jonathan Franzen, after the author everyone loves to hate suggested that YA literature is “morally simple.” Oy to the vey.

Now, I’ve written here many times about how my reading tastes could be considered snobby by some, and how that’s OK, and you know what, sometimes you just gotta brush the haters off.  I also somewhat defended Franzen’s comments regarding YA literature in my post, even if I was simply pointing out that yes, folks, teenagers and pre-teens are developmentally less mature than adults, and so books written for them are understandably going to be different than books written for adults. Not worse. Not “morally simple.” But different.

And so, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I state that I, as a “book blogger” and fanatic reader … do not read YA literature on a regular basis.

I say “regular basis” because of course I have, and still do, read a little YA every now and then. Plus, I’ll just up and say that the Harry Potter series has some of my favorite books of all time, and I will re-read them every few years, regardless of who they’re written for.

However, here’s the caveat: I started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was a young adult. I had just turned 13, it was 2000-ish, and the first three books were already out. That was when I first heard about JK Rowling. There were no movies. Harry Potter was not a cultural “thing.” I picked up the first book and never looked back, but you know what? That was at a time when it was actually appropriate for me to start reading Harry Potter, because at the time, I was the same age as Harry.

Now, I’m not saying that adults shouldn’t read Harry Potter, because everyone in the universe should read those books. I mean, it’s Harry f’cking Potter, for goodness sake. But all that aside, that was probably the last “young adult” series I got myself into, because soon after, I started picking up classics and other “adult” books to read on the side. It didn’t hurt that I was a supremely advanced reader who absolutely loved to read, so suffice it to say, once I eventually graduated to the YA section at my local library/bookstore, I got bored pretty quickly.

Since then, I haven’t had much of a reason to go back to YA. I read The Hunger Games in 2009, soon after it came out, because I received a free copy from the publisher. However, I’m not the biggest fan of how the series panned out, so I quit on that pretty quickly. I want to say that I’ve read a few really good YA books since then, but nothing is really coming to mind. All I do know is that I’ve never read Perks of Being a Wallflower or anything by John Green (I know, I’m ready for your stunned looks of disbelief).

Now, I frankly don’t care that I don’t read YA. It’s for much the same reason that I don’t read Westerns, or crime novels, or thrillers, or romance novels – they’re not my thing. I don’t really like them, and given the millions of books in the world that I do want to read, I know I would be wasting my time. OK, maybe one day I’ll read Fault In Our Stars, but I’ve got a lot of other titles to get to first.

All that being said, I sometimes wonder at my ambivalence toward YA when I consider my television-watching habits. Because it’s right there, folks, that I am a complete enigma.

I could say that I “don’t really watch TV,” and it’s because “I don’t have time,” or “I have more important things to do.” All of those things would be true, but then statements like those make me sound like I’m some Luddite snob that scorns technology, which is not true. Because I do watch TV, and when I do, I watch primarily one thing:

Cartoons.

It wasn’t until I started hanging out all the time / living with J that this obsession with cartoons evolved.  J grew up without cable, and so every week, the only reliably “good” shows on television (for a teenage guy, that is) were Sunday night cartoons on Fox: The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc. I, being a good little far-left liberal at 17, didn’t believe in watching anything on Fox, so I thought J’s fascination with Peter and Stewie kind of funny. I mean, I obviously had the good channels – MTV, VH1 – where I watched such enlightening afternoon entertainment as 16 and Pregnant, Pimp My Ride, and endless re-runs of I Love the 80’s. But I started watching J’s shows, and I do remember a spring break trip senior year of high school in which we only watched J’s Family Guy DVDs. Yikes.

At some point, though, I fell in love. J became obsessed with Futurama at some point, and it wasn’t long until I was as well. To be fair, that show was so funny and entertaining, and it’s one of the only shows that J and I can watch anytime, anywhere, no matter what. It doesn’t matter that we’ve seen the one about Fry’s dog ten thousand times, we’ll both tear up every time.

When we moved to Michigan and finally had some disposable income, we got cable. But instead of jumping onto the “golden age of scripted television” bandwagon, we got hooked on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim shows. We discovered Archer on FX. We became obsessed with Miyazaki films. We began creating LARP-style Halloween costumes based on Adventure Time characters. Fast forward to now, and me realizing that the only movies we saw in theaters last year was The Lego Movie and Big Hero Six. We do not have Netflix. I stopped watching Downton Abbey after Matthew Crawley died (buzzkill). I didn’t really like Game of Thrones on HBO (love the books, though!).We never got into Breaking Bad, The Wire, House of Cards or whatever the cool kids are watching nowadays.

And yet, I’m the person who only reads “serious” books! I’m the snob, right? And so why, when I “look down my nose” at YA, do I absolutely love a visual medium designed for children? Seriously, J and I totally dig kid shows as well – all your kids should be watching Steven Universe right now, it’s that good. And Adventure Time is just a masterpiece. As Fry would say, “Why are … these things?” I mean, take a look at what we’re watching on a regular basis:

  • Futurama
  • Bob’s Burgers
  • Adventure Time
  • The Regular Show
  • Steven Universe
  • Clarence
  • Archer
  • Kill la Kill
  • King of the Hill
  • American Dad
  • Any movie made by Hayao Miyazaki

Notable exclusions: Family Guy because I actually think that show isn’t very funny anymore, and The Simpsons because J watches it so damn much now that it’s on all the time on FXX.

Meanwhile, the list of “scripted shows” we both like include .. um, Parks and Rec? Other than that, we watch random shows on HGTV, the Travel Channel, the Food Network, and the morning news, and that’s it. 

J and I, most likely feeling our intelligence threatened by all the cartoons we watch, have theorized on this subject before, coming to the conclusion that cartoons have a certain creative leeway and freedom to be absurd, which means they’re able to achieve a certain kind of comedy – and even depth – that live action television can’t. Oh sure, you won’t see any high-level drama, and “adult” cartoons are more likely to be raunchy rather than innocent. But I’ll tell you what: I’ve watched Futurama episodes that are just as hilarious and heart-felt as any sitcom. And Adventure Time takes real risks with what is technically a “kid show,” delving into surprisingly deep topics all the while remaining a positive influence for kids. Hell, Tina from Bob’s Burgers has become something of a feminist icon (I mean, she likes butts and isn’t afraid to admit it).

But in reality, these shows are fairly simple. They’re silly. They’re funny. As Jonathan Franzen says, they’re not very “morally complex.” But you know what, I’m OK with that. In all reality, J and I are very busy and I’m not being pretentious when I say we literally have no time to get sucked into an intense television series. Our cartoon shows allow us a half-hour break on the couch at the end of a long day, when we can escape into some silly, multi-colored fantasy world for a short time, laugh, aw, and then be done. No huge emotional investment, though I guess we’re not getting a huge intellectual return either.

But then … we are in a lot of ways. Like I said, the cartoons on nowadays can really surprise you with their amount of emotional depth, what with their creators and writers all being young’uns like myself – in their late 20’s and early 30’s – who are drawing on life experiences very similar to mine (Cartoon Network’s Regular Show is basically about two 20-somethings bumming their way through life, making up rap songs and drinking lots of “soda”). It’s no wonder I connect with them.

And so what I’m really saying is: I get you, YA readers. Even if I don’t read YA myself, and freely admit I don’t like it, I get where you’re coming from. So, you take your YA book that you’ll finish in an afternoon, and I’ll take Moby-Dick. Then, you can relax with House of Cards while I enjoy the supreme voice talents of H. Jon Benjamin in this week’s episode of Archer and Bob’s Burgers. It all comes out to the same thing.

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