Do exams – and in particular exam success – feature more in YA fiction than in real life? I’ve been pondering this recently. Is YA fiction some middle-class enclave where for the most part exams matter and, for the most part, the leading characters do well in them?
Examples of exam success in books are numerous – Hermione in the Harry Potter series is brilliant (and although Harry and Ron don’t do as well as her, they still do pretty well). Cath in Rainbow Rowell’s Fan Girl is also outstanding. Mollie in fellow-Piranha Claire Watt’s How Do You Say Gooseberry In French is equally bright. Kat in Vikki Gemmell’s Follow Me has done well enough in Fifth Year not to need to continue to Sixth. Even Finn in my own #George-and-Finn series is disappointed (or his aunt is) that although he gets an A in everything else, he doesn’t get one in his maths. You really have to be in fantasy or dystopian literature to get away from this exam bias.
Of course, every teenager in the western world now has to deal with exams. Even home-educated students are usually enrolled for them. But the level of exam success seen in books is definitely not typical of the real world. In Scotland only 10% of pupils get 5 Highers at C or above in the first sitting. So are we YA authors – who by definition are a fairly literate bunch – writing for and about our younger selves? And if so, should we stop doing this right now?
This plethora of brilliant students wasn’t always the found in YA literature. Mary Yellan in Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn had very little schooling, likewise the brilliant heroine Cassandra in Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle. Perhaps the obsession with exams is a reflection of our modern lives, where the world really is structured around how people do in their exams.
As writers we are encouraged to be more diverse in our work, including characters of different classes, religions and colours. But are all these characters going to be top exam students? And if so, do you think it matters? I do, and am going to examine this aspect of my own characters more carefully from now on :).
Gill-Marie writes YA mystery/romances as Gill-Marie Stewart. As Gilly Stewart she also writes women’s contemporary fiction. The first book in her YA series about George and Finn is Music and Lies (try out the first chapter here).
Want reviews and fab YA stuff? Sign up for Book Bites . Victoria Gemmell is interviewed in the current edition.