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Open Letter to Brian McGreevy – Swiss Cheese Approach to YA Books

Swiss Cheese

Grant Cochrane /

Dear Mr. McGreevy,

Your recent post “Why teens should read adult fiction” is as full of holes as Swiss cheese – the kind you discover lurking at the back of the refrigerator – and it also doesn’t pass the smell test.

Perhaps the YA category is a “marketing distinction”, but more importantly, it describes a body of work with hundreds of contributors, just like Adult Literature. The YA label is not an indicator of inferiority to adult fiction as you seem to imply. These books are aimed at an age niche, but clearly, superlative YA books transcend age barriers.

Arguably, YA books existed before the label; if published for the first time today, classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Red Badge of Courage, Kidnapped, Great Expectations, and The Hobbit would probably be classified as YA.

The YA label is for convenience so that teens and young adults can easily locate books written with their age group in mind, almost always about teens and young adults. Give ’em a break; teens more easily relate to characters in their own age group. For reluctant readers, finding characters who matter to them is often the key to becoming avid readers who will naturally turn to adult fiction when they’re ready.

YA isn’t “safe”, Mr. McGreevy, hence the huge debate that’s been raging in recent months. Some YA books are just trashy and have little redeeming value.  However, the YA classification at least implies a dedicated group of authors committed to engaging people in this age group, usually with benevolent intentions, something that cannot be said of adult fiction which is written for adults.

The best of YA fiction strives to be:

  • Engaging
  • Age-appropriate in its presentation of material
  • Thought-provoking
  • Written at a level that will challenge (but not overwhelm) the reader

YA books promote imagination, rational thought, and second-hand experience. They spark discussion, analysis, and exploration of difficult subjects.

The Twitter hashtag is #YASaves, not #YAScars.

As an aside, Mr. McGreevy, your maunderings about reading American Psycho as an adolescent sound like they came straight from the therapist’s couch. You could just as easily have been talking about an experience with a child molester. The Twitter hashtag is #YASaves, not #YAScars.

YA books don’t “prolong childhood”; YA books are all about maturation. YA books directly address the subject matter you’re so adamant about: sex, violence, birth, death, and everything in between. The young adult characters in these books endure hardships, face challenges, make life choices, and experience sharp conflicts.

  • You stated: “Put another way, not only will your kids survive an exposure to violence and sexuality in books, but it is crucial to their moral development.”   Children, especially teens, are already over-exposed to gratuitous sexuality and violence.  Body image issues and acting out (for the bully and the bullied) are symptoms of this over-exposure for kids without the moral maturity or the adult guidance needed to handle that kind or quantity of information (or misinformation.) Why expose them to more of the same, couched in “adult” terms and graphic descriptions?
  • Because, you say, “…adult genre fiction will be of considerable appeal owing to the accessibility of the prose and story lines.”  Adult books tend to be written at a higher Lexile than YA books. They assume a fair amount of life experience in their audience.  They use a wide range of figurative language, colloquial expressions, and jargon. How does this make adult fiction more accessible to young adults than YA books? YA books act as a bridge from children’s books to adult books. Children don’t just wake up one morning prepared to wade into adult fiction without parental supervision.
  • You also say, “…human beings have an innate attraction to the dramatization of issues around life’s central mysteries…” True.  YA books satisfy this desire. You don’t have to read adult books to find dramatization.
  • Your conclusion about teens: “Life’s genesis and termination — and every gradation of human experience in between — is their birthright. They are entitled to learn about it at exactly the rate it is appropriate to their individual moral development to do so. And as long as you love them enough, they’ll end up basically OK.”  

“Basically OK” is a poor goal to aim for in raising children. Personally, raising my children is my greatest endeavor, and I know many other parents would say the same. As a former Reading teacher, I’m an advocate for Teen and YA books, but as a parent, I’m a critical reader of those same books and adult books, too. I agree that there are MANY adult titles children should read as they grow up; but my children will get the benefit of my protection and intervention until they have matured enough to recognize perverse, twisted, or harmful material for what it is, from any book classification.

So, Mr. McGreevy, the next time you want to give parenting advice, don’t serve up something half-baked, covered in moldy Swiss cheese.


Kathrese McKee    Send article as PDF   
About the Author

As a middle school Reading and ESL teacher in Texas, I have fallen in love with books written for teens and young adults. My favorite books are "coming of age" stories about young people on the difficult road of self-discovery.

As a mother of four and a Christian woman, my concern is to know what is available to my own children and to my students because only the best will do for all my kids.

I am interested in providing a resource to help others make informed decisions. Teachers and parents want to know the facts so that they can intelligently discuss teen and YA books with their students and children. Teens want the facts to help them choose what they read from the bookstore and library.

Please join me in sticking to the facts. People are entitled to their opinions, but the goal of this blog is to provide a forum for the exchange of information. This is not a book review site in the usual sense; opinions about a book will take second place to facts about content.

So, welcome! Your suggestions and comments are valuable. Your knowledge, together with the knowledge of others, is priceless. Let's share what we know and create something incredible.


  1. “Basically OK”? Really? I’d be embarrassed to admit aloud that I thought such a goal was acceptable, much less put it in print and publish it. My goal is excellence. Better to aim high and miss the mark than to aim low and score a bull’s eye!
    And topics by themselves mean nothing; it’s the treatment of the topics that separates great literature from pulp fiction. I’m guessing that the Bible isn’t the sort of “adult” reading he espouses, though several of the items on his list may be found in its pages.

    • I really appreciate your comments about aiming high, Sherry. Yes, the Bible DOES include sex, violence, etc., but as you say, it’s the inspired treatment that allows it to endure and impress us today, AND it’s an entire collection of adult literature I can let my teens read. There are, of course, other adult works we can include on the recommended reading list, but a wholesale endorsement of “adult” fiction goes against common sense.

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