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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

When Adults Read Books For Teens

I am not a teenager.

Not for quite some time.

But, for multiple reasons, I read a lot of teen books. I read them because I review them, here at Tea Cozy; I read them because as a librarian who works with teens, I need to know about the books they want and need; I read them because they are good books.

I’m not the only non-teenager who reads teen books. Other people who read them, like me, have many reasons for reading them.

I read the reviews and comments by non-teen readers, and there is one particular type of reader reaction I’d like to explore in a bit more detail.

It’s how adult readers respond to the adults in teen books. I’m not going to link to any particular review or response, because this isn’t about one person or reader or book.

In a nutshell, the type of response I mean is when the reader complains that the parents are too absent; the parents are too uninvolved; the parents are too mean, or too controlling, or too clueless. The teens do everything and the adults are useless and why are the adults that way? It’s not realistic!

Listen, I get it. I read the teen books and I do the math and realize that I’m the age (or older) of the parents in the books.

As is often said, books can work as both mirrors and windows. An adult reading a teen book is reading a book for a teen audience. Read it with your teen self in mind; read it with teens you know in mind; read it just because it’s a good book.

But to read it looking for a mirror of yourself at your present age — that’s not fair to the book. And it’s not fair to the teen readers the book is intended for.

There are many reasons why adults and parents in teen books are portrayed the way the are. Because some parents are like that, and it’s some people’s reality. Because sometimes even if it’s not a teen’s actual reality, it’s an emotional reality. Because a teen perspective and an adult perspective on the same thing may be very different, and books for teens are about their perspective.

Because it’s a book written for teens, so of course the central players are going to be teens, and there will be various and sundry reasons as to why the adults aren’t taking care of all the problems. Some will be realistic; others may seem a stretch, in that really, there is no one else who can stop that war?

Because the point of a teen book isn’t to get teens to appreciate adults, or to see how you should ask adults to solve your problems. It’s not for teens to learn a message about how adults see the world.

Books for teens are, well, for teens.

And there is nothing wrong with adults reading books for teens. But there is something wrong with reading books for teens and expecting the adults to behave the way that you, the adult reader, either behaves or believe you behave.




About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. A big reason absent, uninvolved adults exist in teen literature is to allow the teen protagonist freedom to get around unsupervised. It’s the 21st century equivalent of killing off parents in 19th century and early 20th century children’s books and early Disney movies. With the parents gone, particularly the mothers, the kids were free to act in the story.

    My own objection to the nasty parent, controlling adult in YA isn’t that it doesn’t reflect my reality but that it’s become a cliche.

    • AND YET! It is important to understand that – from the psyche of a teen, even ones with loving, doting parents – the relationship that the child experiences and that the adult experiences are RADICALLY DIFFERENT. A young child is, all day every day, hard at work gathering bits and pieces of information about the world around them and integrating it into their knowledge about the world. Often, those bits and pieces will be wildly misinterpreted. Why? Because a young child is perceptive, but has very little contextual knowledge. As a child therapist friend of mine once said – “Kids are incredible noticers but TERRIBLE analyzers.” When mom or dad are distracted or crabby, if their behavior alters because of whatever reason, that interaction is going to be interpreted very differently by the child than it is by the adult.

      Similarly: a teenager, who is hard at work at the daunting task of understanding their own identity, and how that identity fits in with the larger world, is going to respond to fairly normal things like parental concern, or parental expectations, or even differences in parental moods in dynamic and confusing and constantly changing ways. A teen will sometimes place their own parents in the context of the controlling parent or the absent parent or the nasty parent – because that is what makes sense IN THAT MOMENT. They are in the process of throwing off the identity that their parents have placed upon them for their whole lives, and learning how to understand themselves on their own terms. And that’s uncomfortable. And it’s scary. And sometimes it FEELS like your family has abandoned you. And sometimes it FEELS like everyone is against you. And sometimes it FEELS like the world is mean, and that you can’t rely on anything.

      The reason why those storylines resonate with teens is not because they are cliche. It is because it feels like their reality.

      Being a kid is hard. Being teen is hard. I think our job – as adults who read the books that our teenagers read – is not to judge them for being cliche, but rather to look at how kids reach for books that help them to make sense of the world around them. That yes, sometimes we feel alone. And yes, sometimes the people who are supposed to love us aren’t there for us 100% of the time. And yes, understanding who we are and why we are and how we are is scary.

      We, as adults, don’t need to have major roles in these stories. We just have to listen.

    • Elizabeth Burns says

      Gail, my main issue with nasty, controlling parent is when it’s one dimensional – when there isn’t a good reason for the parent acting that way. Not that it then makes the parent less nasty or controlling, but I like to know where they are coming from. Unhappiness? Unresolved childhood trauma? Overworked? Mental health issue? Etc. And it’s the same issue I have with any similar shallow character: the bitchy mean girl who makes the heroine’s life miserable. Why? Just because?

      Kelly, yes, I think that part of what happens in teen books is its seeing the world through those teen eyes. And who is to say that just because their view of things isn’t the parents view that the teen is wrong and the parent right? And it can be an emotional truth for that moment, as you say.

      I also think what happens is that teens can still be in that “all about me” moment in time (some people never get out of it) where, say, you walk into that room and people are talking and you “know” they are talking about you. When, really, people are so involved in their own lives that they aren’t. Within the teen context, that may mean that a teacher is shown and indifferent about bullying, when in fact the teachers aren’t all knowing about what goes on in school, etc. But the teens truth is “parents did nothing.” Etc.

      Aside from all that, this is about stories for teens. So it’s their reality that matters, and their story that matters. It’s not about somehow making parents feel better about their own parenting.

  2. “a teenager, who is hard at work at the daunting task of understanding their own identity, and how that identity fits in with the larger world, is going to respond to fairly normal things like parental concern, or parental expectations, or even differences in parental moods in dynamic and confusing and constantly changing ways. A teen will sometimes place their own parents in the context of the controlling parent or the absent parent or the nasty parent – because that is what makes sense IN THAT MOMENT. ”

    I agree that this is reality. I also think it is a very subtle and difficult situation for a writer to present.

    • All right, I’m going to push on you a little bit (but nicely!). I do think that adult readers have a tendency to read teen fiction through the limitations of their own point of view. In some ways, we’re like Peter Pan, you know? We are forgetful. And when it comes to the experience, concerns and world-view of kids, we simply no longer get it.

      I’ve actually been thinking about this all day, as I’ve been running errands in ye olde minivan with my eleven year old along for the ride (the fourteen year old and the nine year old were both at school). Eleven year olds are funny creatures, pulled simultaneously between kid-hood and teen-hood, simultaneously clinging and chafing when it comes to her relationship with me. The fear of abandonment is still very real for her – she requires validation and proof of love. The need to establish her own identity is also very real for her – she often misinterprets parental involvement in her education as unrealistic expectations, or attempts at connection as hovering/smothering. And the thing is? It’s back and forth all in the same day.

      Which means that in her reading life, books with problematic parents or missing parents speak to the larger, difficult and almost archetypical WORK of being a human being at her particular segment of her journey. Moreover, she has friends who have parents who have split up, or parents who are non-functional, or parents who are missing. She’s got one friend with a parent serving overseas, and another who lost both of her parents in a Somali refugee center in Kenya. The stories of her friends are *her* stories too. We take on the experiences of the people around us, you know?

      Anyway, as I was driving around, I was thinking about the division between the cliche and the universal – at what point does trope become emblematic of the human experience? Are stories that have love in them cliche? Of course not. Human love is central to the human experience. Are stories that have loss in them cliche? No again. The one thing that we absolutely know the moment that we are born, is that we will, indeed, die someday. What about stories about a character coming-of-age? Again, I would say not.

      And I do think that it’s important to really question ourselves as we read fiction for kids. Does this seem unrealistic to me because I am an adult? What would my kid-self say? Does this seem cliche to me because I am an adult? Or, from a kid’s point of view, does this speak to one of those yawning, painful, and deeply real universalities of the human experience – this fear, this ache, this storyline in my head spinning around and around during my childhood years that I was powerless to turn off.

      I guess I don’t have a good answer – it’s still a bit knotty for me. But I think it’s good to pick at it a bit, just to untangle a little of it.

      • Elizabeth Burns says

        Gail & Kelly, this has got me thinking about how I see 2 different things about books. Which may sound contradictory, but in my head aren’t. First, I like fully drawn characters, even a supporting one (as I said above) But, at the same time, I don’t want those adults to take over the teen story or for the teen story to suffer in making the adults “real.”

  3. “But there is something wrong with reading books for teens and expecting the adults to behave the way that you, the adult reader, either behaves or believe you behave.”
    I just laughed so hard at this.

    • Elizabeth Burns says

      I have to admit, when I read some comments I wonder at whether the children of the person writing would agree with their parents assessment!

  4. Liz, this piece is really brilliant and spot-on; I like the questions opened in the comments, too, but I think you’ve nicely cracked the problem with one whack of the critical chisel in the initial essay.

    Two suggestions for further thought:
    1. learning to see adults as people, rather than gods, demons, inexplicable forces of nature, or The Omnipresent State, is yet another thing that people struggle with in their teen years, and in some very good teen books (ANYWHERE BUT HERE and WINTERGIRLS come to mind for me), that struggle is part of what’s going on in the book. (But it shouldn’t be the focus of every or even most books!)
    2. I’m wondering if part of the problem isn’t just the old one that Goodman pointed to in GROWING UP ABSURD so many years ago: In a society that doesn’t really value or have a place for people who don’t act like teenagers, fewer and fewer people ever grow up. So the result is that we have a glut of coming-of-age stories but not nearly so many stories of the adult transitions (or failed transitions) as we once did. Holden Caulfield, Huck Finn, and even Jay Gatsby have plenty of literary descendants but there are fewer and fewer for George Babbitt, Jake Barnes, Dick Diver, or Paul Montaigne. Perhaps the next step for the New Adults is the book that’s not about dancing all night, but about dealing with an ethical dilemma at work or the friend who married too young and is now looking for a way out?

    • Elizabeth Burns says

      A terrific point that part of growing up is beginning to see the “grown ups” as people; and people independent of who they are as “parents.” That’s a whole other essay — and a possible booklist.

      And wow, your second point has also given me a lot to think about. What really is “growing up”? I think DAIRY QUEEN said being a grown up isn’t having a car or driving, but rather paying for your own insurance. But it’s also more than that: all the decisions, big and small, that have to made. Much as I love the HBO show GIRLS, part of what annoys is that it seems that some of the real growing up that needs to be done by those characters is dismissed within the show as “selling out” etc. It’s not selling out to have insurance, or to be able to pay your rent.

      I know sometimes people link GIRLS and New Adult, but most New Adult I’ve read so far is college setting — the GIRLS, post-college setting is, I think, much more intriguing (and in some ways subtle) in terms of choices and growing. What about the marrying too young? Or not being sure what one wants to do — but having to work? Or not having that job? etc. etc.

  5. I agree with you that adults who are wondering why a bunch of teens are leading the fight in a war are missing the point of teen fiction. I still find the way adults are often portrayed in YA fiction troubling though. For starters unrealistic adult characters are often the result of bad writing. Additionally I do think that it is important for teens to know that even if some adults are cruel or incompetent there are others that can help them. I know that this is not a main concern for teen readers, but I consider many factors that teens would not in my reviews and purchasing decisions such as the representation of women. I have a longer response up on my own blog to avoid leaving too long a response in the comment section here.

    • Elizabeth Burns says

      Erica, one thing I like about YA books is there is such a diversity within it. Not just genre, but also things like how parents (and other adults) are or are not depicted. I think there’s a good mix out there, for teens, for them to both see the adults they know and those they don’t. No one book can have it “all”, so it’s good there is a variety.

      And thanks for the link to your response!

      • Elizabeth Burns says

        Oh, and I think one thing about teen readers — while they may not be concerned about the adults — not in the way I am (I can’t help it!) — I do think they pick up on it. They react to it, just not in the same way we do — more in the over all thinking, oh, this is a good book, these are believable characters.


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