Article published on July 23, 2015.
It seems these days, you are never more than six feet away from YA fiction. And I for one am delighted. Little more than a decade ago, I myself was a teen reader and it may just be my ageing memory, but I can’t remember there being YA literature in the way there is today. Of course, there were books for teens – Sweet Valley High? Or Goosebumps perhaps (I wonder what today’s teens would make of these!) – but YA certainly didn’t have the backing, significance, visibility or range that it does now. Most booksellers now have dedicated YA sections and YA books continue to be published in their droves, with emerging talents appearing all the time and adding to the strength of an already impressive billing. Whilst the current YA renaissance may have started off with wizards and vampires, one of its strengths is its diversity. (And to clear up a common misconception at this point, YA is not a genre, it is a categorisation of the ‘supposed’ demographic.)
The inaugural UK YA book prize which was awarded earlier this year showcased the extraordinary strength and depth of the field, which included amongst others, a novel about teen pregnancy (Trouble), a quintessential horror story (Say her Name), a literary re-imagining of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the modern-day Northeast (A Song for Ella Grey) and a novel that explores both physical and mental health (Finding a Voice). The winning title, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, was an incredibly realised piece of feminist dystopian speculative fiction. And this is only a snapshot of a wider picture. Indeed, this year has already seen YA books that focus on transgender issues, bullying, suicide, mental health, terrorism and cults. We’ve certainly come a long way and today’s teens are benefitting from this greater emphasis and significance on YA literature as well as the broader scope and themes that are now deemed relevant and acceptable ground for YA fiction and of course the authors who are constantly reimagining what YA can be. Generically and thematically, there seem to be few constraints on what YA can do, and even in terms of violence and sexual content boundaries continue to be stretched. But whilst writers try not to dumb down or patronise teen experience, and look to explore all aspects of life, there are naturally limits and distinctions between YA and adult fiction.
Whilst some critics condemn YA literature for shifting the emphasis away from the classics and other so-called literary fictions, YA fills an important gap and also offers a much more inclusive and accessible reading experience than would be possible without it. And anything that encourages teens and young adults to engage with books and enjoy them – especially in an era where their interests are constantly being diverted elsewhere, and given that reading doesn’t always have the most positive or attractive associations within their age group – is surely a good thing. If teens want to read so-called adult fiction or the classics, great, but many of them don’t, and that’s perfectly reasonable, not least because these books often seem so divorced from teens’ own experiences. The issue then should not be what teens read but just the fact that they do and YA has been instrumental in helping achieve this. Young adult readers now have a greater choice and flexibility in what they read.
An interesting development has seen authors who have traditionally dominated the adult market catering for this emergent YA readership, notably John Grisham, Harlan Coben, Kathy Reichs and James Patterson and recently Paige Toon and Sophie Kinsella. It would be great to see other authors from across the literary world joining in, that’s not to say writing down but simply shifting their emphasis from adults to teen protagonists and experiences. Let’s watch this space.
There also seems to be a growing sense of identity and camaraderie amongst YA readers, facilitated by the internet and social media, that gives teens a platform for expressing their opinions, sharing their views with others and participating in discussions about books, that allows readers to feel part of a wider community of like-minded readers. Teen-led blogs and review websites also speak to the way in which this younger readership can discover their next reads and keep informed of new releases. The reading groups of the twenty-first century, you might say.
Yet whilst it’s great there is so much fiction centred on, inspired by and aimed at teens, it’s not only teens who are enjoying the fruits of YA authors’ labour. Indeed, it’s a badly kept secret that a large percentage of YA fiction’s readership is in fact made up of adults. And it’s not even a case of parents engaging with the fiction of their children, but simply adults choosing to read it for their own pleasure. There is unfortunately some snobbery about this and, of course, whilst not all adults will want to read YA, just as not all readers like sci-fi or non-fiction etc., non-teens do enjoy YA fiction. And why begrudge that? Reading YA as an adult can be a nostalgic, inspiring, fun experience.
At their heart many of these books are great stories, just with teen characters. Admittedly this means teens speaking, behaving and reacting in ways that only teens can, but with the buffer of age and with the wisdom of hindsight, this can make for quite an affecting read. Not only that but YA also expresses the challenges that teens today face and it can be quite an eye-opening experience. There’s also the huge emotions that are quintessential to young adulthood but that speak to us all – first love, loss, loneliness and joy.
So yes there’s a lot of angst and idealism in equal measure, and teens being teens, but there are also wonderful cross-generational stories and experiences, characters who are going through some of the same coming-of-age experiences as older reads before them or equally challenging yet different experiences that encapsulate what it is to be a teen today. There’s also plenty for adults to discuss about these books in reading groups and as with any book they’re sure to divide opinion. And whilst it would be great to have adult readers on board, the greatest power of YA is to show teens the magic of books and to establish in them a love of reading that will last them a lifetime. Here’s to YA and the reading groups of the future.
Jade Craddock, May 2015
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