What do literature scholars think of YA, and why?

In the footsteps of many fellow book lovers, I have fallen into the trap of becoming an English Literature major at my university. But I did this because: 1) I like books in general, 2) I want to write books in my future, and 3) there was literally no other choice. 

While, I call this a “trap”, it’s… more of a never-ending cycle of reading books by old white men who have long passed away, and being taught by old white men about why these books are the best books in the entire universe. *sarcasm*

I would like to preface this argument by saying: I have nothing against Classics, or older novels. It’s just not my preferred genre or time period to read from! I prefer to read books, usually YA, written more recently. I hold no grudges against the authors of older books, because during their time, these books were probably fantastic and all the rage! This argument is not against the books, but against the school system for making me read them, and for not teaching me to read them properly. 😌


As someone who just loves books so much, I wonder why I have such a strong distaste for the literature novels I read in school. I rarely enjoyed these books, in high school or college, and it makes me sad to say so. About 45% of what I have studied in these courses has been poetry, and if there’s anything I dislike more than these 200-year-old novels, it’s 200-year-old poetry. 

Whenever people over the age of 50 learn I like to read, they assume I mean Agatha Christie and Jane Austen. Why? And when professors over 50 learn this, they assume I mean Shakespeare and Chaucer. Why??

I’ve recently learned that some professors and scholars don’t like or don’t know about YA, and while I can see where this is coming from (and I don’t like their taste in books either), I still wonder why they consider Young Adult books invalid to the reading community. I think they even feel this way about modern Adult literature, as well. Apparently, anything written within the past 50 years doesn’t count as actual literature to them?


The Difference Between Modern Fiction and Classics 

The major difference between these books is that the Classics have had more time to be read and appreciated by their audience. Older novels also tend to be more story-based, and how those stories appeal to life from back when the book was published. Many of the older novels we praise today are more about the story than the characters. Although they may have complex characters, I personally do not connect with them at all, and the characters are not always likable (to me, anyway).

Modern books, particularly in YA, seem to be more character-based. They tend to focus on character motivation, why and how the characters do what they do, and the overall “like-ability” of these characters.

Of course, this is not true every book in these two categories, but these are just my general observations. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’ve always been a more character-based person (as long as I love the characters, I’ll love the book, no matter how bad/strange the story is!), and I think that has a something to do with my distaste for older novels. It’s just the style of writing the characters.

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Why I Dislike (some) Classics

These are just my preferences more than anything else!

1) Many of these books have elements which would not, usually, get them traditionally published today.

For example, I’m currently reading a “classic” wherein many of the paragraphs are just a single run-on sentence, with a heavy amount of commas. Not only are modern-day students taught to avoid writing these sentences at all costs, but extremely long sentences make me loose my train of thought. The sentence will start with one subject, and then go on to four other ones before explaining what the point of the sentence was to begin with.

Other publishing no-nos they often include:

  • constant info-dumping,
  • not getting to the plot until half-way through or later,
  • introducing too many characters at once,
  • page-long paragraphs,
  • page-long sentences,
  • long/detailed character descriptions for every introduction,
  • vague plot points which don’t matter until the last chapter,
  • overly-poetic paragraphs about nothing in particular… etc.

2) I dislike the story structures.

Some older books are 500 pages, but nothing happens for the first 200, and even my professors will acknowledge this. “Just get past the first 200 pages, and the rest will ~enthrall~ you” they say, as if that makes it any easier. And no, the rest did not enthrall me. It gave me a headache.

Other books will be structured… differently. I recently read a novel wherein the main couple fought and made-up consistently over the course of 20 pages. One moment, they were staring at each other with fury, and then, after thinking they wanted to kill each other, they kissed and suddenly the world opened up to them, and they were so deeply in love, and nothing could keep them apart… but then they wanted to burn the other with the fire of the sun! And it just went on and on like that! I firmly believe that this is something most agents and publishers would not allow today.

3) My main issue: More often than not, I have absolutely no idea what is going on, or about the purpose of the story.

Most of the time, I will finish the book and say, “So this man died and everyone was sad… but what was the significance of the story? What was I supposed to get out of this?” And usually, there are a lot of things I missed about the story. Then, the professor will spend about 4 hours lecturing about all of the things none of us understood when we actually read the book ourselves.

But that’s the problem! If the professor has to tell us about the author’s intentions and hidden meanings, but we didn’t understand this from the book at all, then why didn’t the author give us this information in the first place? I would have very much enjoyed these books if I had actually cared about it while reading, using my professor’s info.

For example, my professor will say, “This passage replicates the heart beat, what the characters were feeling in their ~lust~,” and then proceed to read the passage aloud, breaking it down in a way which would not be natural to reading. Even when he read it to us, I did not understand the heartbeat thing. I never would have read it like that without his prompt to do so.

If a scholar must explain everything the author wanted me to know about the story, and I am physically incapable of figuring any of this out on my own by reading the book as it was intended, then what’s the point of publishing it? Wouldn’t it have been easier if the author had found a way to explain these things in the text, or make them clear enough for the reader to understand?

some classics i do enjoy, just to make myself feel better about this
(i’m just boosting my self-worth)

Click here to see the list! No pressure!

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
I liked Frankenstein, and I’ve read it twice. Not for fun, though – both times I read it for a class. Still, I did enjoy the plot and the character arcs as well, although it was hard to get into at first.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
I read this about 4 years ago, but I remember really liking it, compared to the other Classics I read for class. It was short, creepy, and kept me thinking.

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
I read this one last year, and I was surprised to like it so much. It was a short novel, and I enjoyed the connections between the main characters, although they never actually met. I also liked the message, and I understood what was going on the whole time.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (?), by Shirley Jackson
I’m not sure if this is considered a “Classic”? But it’s over 50 years old, and I happened to like it. It was strange and creepy, and had a few twists. It was also a little difficult to understand at times, but I was still satisfied.

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What’s “Wrong” with YA? 

We all have our reasons for liking YA and modern novels. I love reading YA because I connect with it well enough! But why might people outside of the YA readership (and scholars in particular) dislike YA? 

The Birth of YA

The main problem I see is YA’s beginning in the literature community. The YA section of bookstores began about 20ish years ago, when people needed to market Twilight on an acceptable shelf (which I believe is actually true, or at least, the increase of books with Twilight-like content caused this). Books for teens, and older teens, were on the rise, but where to put them? YA as a genre has not been around for very long, which also means that there are no 200 or 100 year old YA books. *dramatically sad sigh*
Of course there are old books about young people! But these are not classified as YA, and they are typically still as complex as the other novels of the time.

Simplicity

Okay, I’ll admit that YA books are often “more simple”, or less complex, than Adult books. A lot of the YA plots are formulaic, as in “girl meets bad boy, they fall in love, they kiss, the end!”, (and YES of course most YA books are not that bad, but you get my point) compared to Adult complexity, which I assume is more like “his wife died in a tragic accident, those government people are out to get him, will he possibly survive this deep deep travesty??“.
Hopefully you can tell that I’ve never read an Adult Contemporary book, haha

When I say YA books are “simple”, I mean they usually include topics teenagers (and not adults) would deal with, because… they’re about teens. I guess adults just don’t find that exciting enough.

Recently, I believe the YA genre has expanded to discussions about a wider variety of real-life issues, but the language is also what makes some of it simple. The paragraphs are to-the-point, the characters have clear motivations, and the prose is often easy and fun to read.

But does a lack of explicit content in YA make it less complex? Absolutely not.
(I can tell you right now that I once accidentally read a very terrible page in The Casual Vacancy, and it was just about the least complex thing I’ve ever read 😂)

Reputation

Outside of the book community, YA doesn’t exactly have a gorgeous reputation. When you look at some popular adaptations of YA books (such as 13 Reasons Why, Divergent, and The Fault in Our Stars), these are not always the best representatives of the YA genre we know and love. However, they are some of the most marketable representatives, usually because they have some kind of major romance plot.

But keep in mind, these adaptations are the only bit of YA that people outside of the book community know about, and so, that’s what they think of when they hear about the “Young Adult” genre…. The major flops and the problematic, angsty teens of literature. (I’m lookin at you, Tris)

Some YA adaptations are great (like The Hunger Games #1, and… idk, The Book Thief? The Perks of Being a Wallflower?? I can’t think of any “great” ones 😅), but that doesn’t erase the other adaptations, which are only okay or even bad, from the minds of the public.

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What is the Future of Today’s Literature? 

One of the scariest things I’ve heard on my English major journey was when my professor, who is about 70 years old, said he read the same old books we read today in our class, back when he was in college. 50 years ago!

I mean, I get it, these are revolutionary novels. But… what about my future children? What about my future grandchildren? Are you telling me that everyone will continue to read these same books forever more? The preferences of young readers are going to change even more over time, and these novels will just continue to be confusing.

When will students begin to learn about more modern literature? And does this mean that YA isn’t “good enough”? Sometimes, the answer is yes, because some YA is just for fun. But some YA novels and topics are more important and really need to be read!

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“But Xandra, I’m busy. Can’t you just tell me what the purpose of this post is?” you, the ever-questioning reader, ask me again.

I would like to say that I understand why we have to read these books in school. They paved the way for our current literature, and that’s awesome.

But from my perspective… I’m very tired. My brain hurts, and I’m stuck between loving YA (because I write YA and I grew up with it) and constantly reading 100+ year old books which are not enjoyable to me, a mere inexperienced young person in 2019. I wish that we read books which fit my preferences better, but alas, that is not the case. I understand that I can’t possibly enjoy everything, and I have accepted that as my fate. My literary destiny, if you will.

Not everything is fun to read, and we just have to live with it, and learn from it as well. It may not be fun, but that doesn’t mean it is not important to learn about. 

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PS: I’m sorry if you saw this post a few days ago, when I accidentally posted it! (It’s honestly still so embarassing, even though we all know I do this every other week. 🙈)

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What say you? How do you feel about the books we typically read in school? Do you like reading books from the 1800s, and why? Are you an English Lit major? Or are you… a literature scholar?

I want to hear all of your thoughts! 😊


You can also be my friend on Goodreads! 📚

Happy reading, everyone! 😀

Starry Sky Books-13

 

29 thoughts on “What do literature scholars think of YA, and why?

  1. I personally can’t do classics at all. Especially for the formatting points that you mentioned above. I hate the run on sentences, I hate that like the first half of the book has nothing happening, and I hate that if you aren’t in love with classics or you aren’t reading classics, you’re considered “uncultured” or whatever other insult people want to throw at you. I love this post, Xandra!

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  2. One of my undergrad profs had a theory that so many people like YA because population literacy levels aren’t actually all that high. (In Canada — CANADA! — about 40% of the population is functionally illiterate, meaning they’d have trouble reading a menu.) YA is a form of accessible literature that many people are able to pick-up and enjoy.

    There are a number of classes at my university that are starting to feature YA/NA literature — though, ithey’re mainly classes like “Children’s Publishing” and “Folk & Fairy Tales” … (albeit, one sex/gender course did include Twilight). Hopefully we see more inclusion in the coming years, because these books do provide some interesting social commentary.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great, thoughtful post! Thank you, I really enjoyed it 🙂

    I graduated with an English degree, so I too had to suffer through many college literature classes. I do genuinely love Shakespeare and Jane Austen, but I think we can all agree that Chaucer sucks. Fortunately, my Modern Lit classes were really good (lots of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield), and my school offered a YA Lit class which was SO amazing! Even though my professor was 60 years old, he had us read over 30 YA novels throughout the semester and advocated for the validity and importance of the YA genre!

    Some of the classics have earned that title, but YA is such an incredible, relevant genre. Because you want to write and publish in this genre, you are doing well to focus on those reads! YA rocks! 🙂

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  4. Oooo yes, a fellow book lover who also prefers reading books written more recently. I’ve never felt like the books from back then appealed to me EVER and then I wondered why I hated all the required reading except for maybe 2. Which is um… a really small percentage overall.

    I HATE the info-dumping and page-long sentences and paragraphs, but especially when they’re all combined together. I don’t know how I survived and even read through some of them??? I also zone out when they get too long for me, but I’m guessing this may be because back then there was a lot more time to read super long paragraphs that go on and on and on.

    YES to not understanding the story! I admittedly had so much trouble writing papers because I would end up summarizing the story and trying to analyze MY summary of the story… which was wayyyy off the mark. Oops. But did I ever realize this? Never.

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  5. Reading this blog I think your education has really done you a disservice when it comes to teaching you literary analysis. I really hope you are a Freshman and get more (and better) exposure to it. Although I will be honest there was a lot I didn’t appreciate about those courses until I was out of college and started watching video essays. I think a big issue is that in college everything is so prescriptive that you lose the subjectivity of the experience. Analyzing the text is about building the argument of your own interpretation of it, but in college you often just end up parroting back whatever the professor is saying. It’s unfortunate.

    However, I also think the emotional response and investment in a story is important, and literary analysis (as much as I personally enjoy it) can serve to divorce you from that experience. I see a lot of people who predominately read YA place a really high value on that (as you seem to) which I think makes a lot of sense.

    Personally I love the classics, but I do interact with them differently than YA. Appreciating either of them means engaging with the text differently. I think if you try to approach YA the way you would a classic might leave you thinking the work is vapid and uninteresting, because there often isn’t enough analytical substance in them, while if you read classics like YA you may see them as slow-moving and soulless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am a Sophomore, but I completely understand your argument. A lot of my frustration is due to bias from some of my professors, and their lack of room for subjectivity from students. The best classes I have taken encouraged us to think critically, and let us form our own interpretations about the texts. However, other classes (such as the one which caused me to write this post) are predominately lectures, during which the professor only tells us about his analysis, and does not give us a chance to form our own thoughts or questions about the novel.

      I do hope that my ability to form literary analysis’ will change and expand over time. I am learning, and I appreciate my education, but sometimes I do feel like certain novels need a different teaching approach. I would much rather prefer discussion-based classes, instead of lecture-based ones.

      Sometimes I am too critical of these older novels, and perhaps I should change my attitude about it. The writing style is, honestly, what bothers me the most, as it distracts me from paying attention to the story at hand. Although I do appreciate what literary analysis can do for the story, I wish there was a way I could better analyze and understand the novel /while/ I am reading it, rather than during a lecture after I have completed it. I really believe I would enjoy these books much better if I was not too distracted by the style.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This post is amazing! I hate that I always feel the need to defend myself when I tell people I read YA, because you know people are super judgmental when you read “simpler” fiction that isn’t the classics. I used to hate reading books from the literature list when I was in high school, and at first I thought it was because I was a typical teenager and just didn’t want to do the work regardless. But then I took a science fiction course in college, in which we read science fiction from the earlier 20th century until now, and I loved that class! I hope that professors in the future will re-evaluate which books students should read in college.

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  7. THANK YOU FOR THIS POST. YA is completely valid and personally, I just can’t do classics, so it’s not fair to push the same agenda for, um, fifty years 🙄

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  8. I love this post with all my bookish heart. I read a ton of classics growing up, and struggled so much with relating to the characters. How am I supposed to relate to women in the 1800s who can’t travel without a male (or older female) chaperone – yeah, I’m talking to you, a room with a view. I hated the portrait of Dorian Gray, and it’s the first book I ever DNF’d. I love YA books, and respect a genre that gets young people excited to read. Imagine how many kids would look forward to homework if they were assigned Harry Potter instead of Jane Austen or Chaucer? We need to update curricula.

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  9. This post is fantastic and SO valid! I studied English in college, and even though I did end up enjoying some of the books I read for class and the discussions we had, it bothers me that there is only /one/ type of literature that is deemed ~acceptable~ in academia. The complete dismissal of YA, as well as genre fiction like SFF or most things that aren’t written by dead white people, is disturbing considering how educational institutions are supposed to be encouraging young people to think outside of their normal worldview and gain new perspectives.

    It was also frustrating in the creative writing classes that I took how the type of writing that I enjoyed wasn’t taken seriously. I just wanted to write my YA fantasy stories and have those be taken as seriously as the more literary (*coughboringcough*) writing that we had to read.

    It’s fine if professors don’t love YA, since everyone is entitled to their own preferences, but I think if academia actually took YA more seriously, they’d find a lot more depth than expected. YA books might be considered more “simple” than other categories, but there’s still a lot to be gained from them! And forcing students to only read one type of book just reinforces the idea that reading is boring – which it isn’t at all when you have the right books.

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  10. Oh I agree completely with this post! I, too, fell into the trap of becoming an English major, though I’ve had the privilege to be able to take courses on YA lit and genre fiction as well, with profs who see them as just as valid as any other book. Those have been the courses I have enjoyed most – courses that don’t uphold 200+ year books that are way too long written by dead cishet white men as the pinnacle of Good Literature. I’m sure it is, but it’s never Clicked with me (except for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, because I got into the musical and the characters first). (I also really liked Frankenstein as well!)

    I love reading YA and genre fiction for fun. I also like engaging with YA the way that most scholars engage with classics. I enjoy picking books apart and looking at the symbolism in them, generally, but with books I already love I’m SO much more passionate about literature. But because I’m supposed to be an English scholar, I’m supposed to engage with mostly books about dead white men, and that really took away my enthusiasm for literature. Writing about YA lit and genre fiction in the way that I’m not allowed to in school brought that enthusiasm back.

    Academia could really do with taking other types of literature serious. Young adult actually has such a huge history to it that most scholars don’t care about and it’s so disappointing and I really hope that changes in the future.

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  11. A lot of universities now offer YA literature courses, as well as courses on other genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi, so I think people are coming around on it, though of course there are always going to be people who don’t like YA. (I also know English PhD students who study everything from sci-fi to erotica and pop culture, so there truly is space for all types of books in the field.) And I think it’s still fair if people/scholars don’t really like YA or fantasy, etc., as there are also scholars who don’t like other types of literature. You can be a Romanticist who doesn’t care for Modernism or vice versa. I studied medieval literature. I understand it. I love it. I don’t care at all for authors like Joyce, and it’s not really a problem. Once you reach PhD stage, you should have a wide knowledge of literature and literary history, but you’re also specializing in one thing that can be very narrow like “motherhood in Shakespeare,” so it doesn’t really matter if you care about YA or whatever else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would also add that it’s ok if you don’t immediately understand some classics or think they’re confusing. The fact that some students need guidance with them is exactly why they are being taught. Yes, you can have a class about Harry Potter or The Hunger Games and talk about themes in the books, just as you could with many classics. However, you don’t actually need a class or an instructor to help you read or understand the books. They are, in that sense, “easier,” and it can be worthwhile in college to spend time on books that are more challenging and that students might need more expert guidance for.

      I said I like medieval literature, but of course I wasn’t sitting around as a high schooler casually reading texts in Middle English. I didn’t understand it. It took a few classes on medieval literature in undergrad for me to become comfortable with it, and it’s possible I would not have learned to read these texts if I never challenge myself or had a teacher guide me through it. And I needed a teacher to do it; I would have loved to read YA in a college course but, again, I don’t think I actually needed a teacher to help me understand, appreciate, or analyze YA the way I might have with other types of books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That said, it looks as if you go to a large university with lecture classes. I went to a small college with classes of 10-20 people that were all discussion based. It was actually very weird to me when I started graduate school and was a TA for some English classes and saw that 200 students would just file into a room and listen to the professor talk about some aspect of the class reading for 45 minutes. There were, of course, discussion sections (that I the TA ran), but the lecture-based approach did strike me as weird.

        On the other hand, I did find the lectures wildly informative. If you have a discussion-based class that isn’t tightly moderated by the professor (the expert) helping you keep focused on key and interesting points, it can quickly dissolved into more of a book club-type atmosphere where people are just sitting around going, “Wow! Romeo is such a jerk! I hated him!” Like, sorry, but I’m not paying exorbitant sums of money for this class to hear subjective opinions about whether you “like” the characters. In those cases, I think an informative lecture by the expert scholar in the room would have been more interesting to me.

        I’m going to stop commenting now! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  12. This was such a great post!
    I also read for characters (and believe that good characters can save any book) but I’m also a complete plot reader & I have to say, classics really don’t do it for me either. I think it’s the way they write – it feels completely separate & unrelatable to the reader and I just can’t find a way to feel involved. Maybe it’s just because YA is written a lot of the time to be an escape & to suck you in while classics are absolutely not. Anyway, the one classic I’ve enjoyed so far is Jane Austen’s northanger abbey because she wrote out of character, talking directly to the reader for some of it, which I loved & finally allowed me to feel involved in a classic! 💕

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  13. I personally liked very few of the classics I had to read for school and university because I found some of them to be way too demanding. The first book I had to read for university was by James Joyce and the lecturers were very surprised to find out that almost every single person in the class hated it because of how demanding it was. It’s really fun when a book makes you feel like you’re unintelligent.

    I think a lot of academics forget that books are as much a form of entertainment as they are a form of art. Some authors are great at creating beautiful imagery but fall short in creating an entertaining story.

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  14. I think this is a really interesting topic and I’m so glad you’ve brought it up because I remember in school not loving the books we were reading and it certainly didn’t push me to engage with books at all which really in secondary school reading should be encouraged and promoted. I think one class in school was reading The Hunger Games and Noughts and Crosses but they were year 8 I think so about 12 years old but I never got that. But the point about having to be told what the book is about and all these details is missing the point really as like you said students should be reading books they can write essays off from their own thoughts, not someone else’s thoughts on a book.
    YA doesn’t get enough appreciation when so many books talk about real topics and are crafted really well, but it labelled under YA and so it can only reach a certain level of good to some people. Whereas classics are praised and I always felt uncultured for not loving classics myself and that I couldn’t be a respected reader in adult circuits but that shouldn’t be the point and it certainly shouldn’t be the outlook promoted in school. Any books can be capable of doing powerful things and being an amazing work of literature, if you have to be told it is amazing instead of feeling it yourself than it isn’t really amazing for you is it?
    I completely agree with your thoughts and relate to them, I do think it should change so it shows a variety of different works of literature. It would be refreshing. Lovely post Xandra!!

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  15. This is an AMAZING post you so articulately and skillfully and intelligently put into words my grumbling and complaining and ranting about how much I hate classics and English class and now I’m shocked at how accurate your points on why you dislike classics are because they’re basically the same as why I dislike classics!! I remember for AP lit last year we had to write an essay on a book of “considerable literary merit” as defined by the college board, and my English teacher basically told us it can’t be YA or any book written recently as they don’t consider that to have literary merit… I swear English teachers are so pretentious they extrapolate meaning out of literally nothing like the author can say this character was wearing a blue shirt and they’ll have a 20 slide powerpoint explaining why blue reflects the meaning of the work as a whole and I’m just sitting here like… or maybe the author just looked up and the sky was blue so they felt like calling it blue… not everything is that deep…

    I’m honestly so impressed with you for being a “literature scholar” lmao considering you dislike some classics–lowkey thought that all English majors loved classics it’s good to know there are some other YA lovers there annoyed with old dead white guys and their page long sentences. I’ve always loved reading so for the longest time I thought I would be an English major but then I fell deeper and deeper into the hole of hating classics and now I’m studying science haha so that English classes can’t kill my love of reading…

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  16. It is funny that schools seem to stick with the same books forever and ever. So, you’re telling me that in the last 100-200 yrs there has been NOTHING ELSE worth noting?? No writers that have done anything for literature in that long?? COME ON!
    I was also an English major and the problem that I always had were schools telling me what these old white dudes THOUGHT! Did you sit down with Shakespeare and ASK HIM what he thought when he wrote things? Did I miss this crazy pub night?? Because, I’m pretty sure his thoughts were “I should probably get thing piece of garbage out there so I can eat today….and maybe grab a beer for good behaviour.”

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