So I was talking with a group of writers and I commented that a historical piece someone else is working on would make a really good subject for a YA novel. From right beside me, I heard one of the other writers say something to the effect of, “And then they can go on and start reading *proper* books”. She may not have said ‘proper’; she may have said ‘adult’ or ‘real’, but whatever she said, the implication was clear: YA books are lesser than ‘adult’ books; they’re a stage you have to go through on the path to reading ‘proper’ books. She must have meant me to hear it; I can only assume she intended to be funny.
I just left it – we weren’t talking about the merits of YA after all – but it sticks in my mind.
Yes, YA books could be said to have a narrow focus, but only as regards the fact that they generally concern people at a particular stage in their lives. The same accusation could be levelled at crime fiction: isn’t it always focused on crime? And romance: that’s just love stories, isn’t it? But in just the same way as everything on those shelves is not the same, on a YA shelf you’ll find crime and romance, speculative fiction, horror, sci fi, historical fiction, tragedy, comedy, thriller… Narrow? I don’t think so.
So what other fingers can we point at YA?
Are these books less complex than ‘adult’ novels? Possibly, in some cases, but a lot of adult literature isn’t particularly complex. And anyway, who said stories had to be complex to be entertaining and meaningful and well-written.
Are they inferior in some literary sense? Nope. Pick up Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree or Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here and you’ll find pitch-perfect prose to rival anything on the ‘adult’ shelves. It’s not all like that, of course not, but, hey, there’s an awful lot of really ropey ‘adult’ writing out there too.
Let me tell you what I love about YA.
I find that part of human life between childhood and adulthood completely fascinating. It’s the beginning of finding your place in the world and working out what kind of person you are. Everything is a challenge, from dealing with the peculiar way your body is morphing to trying to work out why your best friend has stopped speaking to you. Take those personal confusions and ambitions and hopes and set them into a fiction of any kind and, for me, you’ve got story dynamite.
That cusp of my own life is so vivid in my memory that I can slip it on with ease when I read YA and when I write it too. And many, many other people must feel that too, judging by the popularity of YA fiction amongst people who are older than the intended readership.
There’s nothing new in books about young people. There are a whole lot of cross-generational books that have generally been accepted as adult books but which, if published today, would certainly have been marketed as YA: The Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Jamaica Inn… and some books usually thought of as children’s books that would have been YA if the term had existed when they were published: What Katy Did, Little Women, Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books, lots of KM Peyton (if you haven’t read the Flambards books, read them AT ONCE, and follow them up with the Pennington series). The ‘Young Adult’ category is a simply a marketing tool, so that people can easily find books that might interest them, just like the ‘crime’ and ‘romance’ categories.
The trouble, of course, is that marketing categories, while they do make it easier to find things you like, can also make it harder to see the wood for the trees. I don’t like crime particularly; I would never go to the ‘crime’ shelf of a bookshop or a library. But I’ve read some crime and enjoyed it when an author or a book was recommended to me by some other means. People will read The Lie Tree because it has won the overall Costa Prize, people who wouldn’t have picked it up if it had only won the children’s category and who would never dream of looking for reading matter on the YA shelves.
So, this has been a bit of a rant, but it’s helped clarify in my head the way to react to someone who belittles YA. If you know the person well enough to be able to judge what they would like to read, recommend a specific YA author or book that’ll be right up their street. If you know them less well, ask them about some of those classic books they must have read – Jane Eyre, The Catcher in the Rye, that sort of thing –and point out that the only thing that’s making those books not YA is marketing.
Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.
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