When most people choose a beach book, they look for something heavily plot-driven, easy to follow, and fun to read. Even the snobbiest bibliophiles will occasionally fall prey to the temptations of escapist reading and reach for the latest John Grisham or Tom Clancy. But before sitting down with the newest formula fiction by Nicholas Sparks, consider a possible alternative to these NYT Bestsellers: young-adult fiction.
Young-adult fiction provides the readability of big-name writers like Michael Crichton while exhibiting a level of literary merit well above these authors. Before voicing your objections, let me be the first to say that when you set J.K. Rowling next to W.G. Sebald, the former seems simplistic in comparison. However, it's fairly clear that Phillip Pullman's novels are more akin to literature than are Danielle Steel's books.
In recent history there has been a growing trend to recognize the literary qualities of young-adult fiction. Universities have begun dedicating more time to the genre with Harvard, Brown, Occidental, and several others offering classes that explore Twilight. There are multiple books that offer literary criticism and interpretation of the Harry Potter series. The New York Times Book Review has been dedicating a section to children's books for quite some time, recognizing the likes of Suzanne Collins and M.T. Anderson for their quality. In recent history, there has been a proliferation of awards recognizing excellence in young-adult fiction. One of the more established of these, the Margaret A. Edwards Award has been given to some of the best authors in the genre including Terry Pratchett, Orson Scott Card, Lois Lowry, Paul Zindel, Madeleine L'Engle, Gary Paulsen, and S.E. Hinton.
These authors are all fairly contemporary, but to say that young-adult fiction is something new would be a grievous mistake. Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, C.S. Lewis, William Golding, Stephen Crane, and Sylvia Plath (just to name a few) have all published works that fall within the genre, even if the authors themselves were writing well before "young-adult fiction" was recognized as such. The fact that these authors are among the greatest in the Western canon should dispel any lingering objections to the genre's literary merits.
Certainly I'm not suggesting that we abandon novels that aren't children's books, or that adult literature is an impossible summer read. I'm not equating the quality of youth literature to its mature adult counterpart, and I'm not saying that all young-adult fiction has literary merit. However, I am calling attention to the fact that young-adult fiction has an established and important place within the canon. Aside from that, I'm simply asking that if pulp or genre fiction is a vice that you enjoy indulging, the next time temptation manifests itself in a Patricia Cornwell book, you take a second and consider the more intelligent, youthful alternatives.
If you're having trouble finding a place to start, the Harry Potter series is certainly the most popular in the genre, science-fiction fans will enjoy Ender's Game, and complicated character interactions will absorb readers in A Wrinkle in Time and The Hunger Games.