YA: More than ‘Youth-Appropriate’
By Eugenia Alabasinis
‘Good girl meets bad boy’.
So. Much. Angst.
Love triangles, squares…circles?.
Cancer patients who make metaphors out of smoking.
And of course…
The ‘Young Adult’ book genre seems to be one which is easy to make something of a mockery of; however misconstrued such perceptions are. If you were to believe what the ‘Coop’ website has under its description, you may well be led to think that ‘Young adult novels used to be known for poorly written books with clumsy storylines.’ Granted, this statement is followed by a reassurance ‘Not anymore’; a repudiation that now things are so much different and ‘Young adult novels are bigger than ever’. Based on this premise, my question is when exactly did this chasm develop between the time when YA was a genre merely for teens that only cared about whether ‘Team Edward or Jacob’ was the penultimate love interest, to now when it has ‘evolved’ into so much more? To take it further, does the very categorisation of ‘Young adult’ mean that it is off-limits to anybody over 18?
Even the aforementioned ‘Twilight-centric’ argument would have its faults. It is true that when the teen-paranormal novels were hitting their peak, this was what people may have first thought of when they considered teen fiction. However, let’s face it: a piece on Twilight and its role in this misconception of the genre could be a whole other article (and a hotly contested one at that). I digress. YA novels may have their own specific target market of teenagers, but this is not to say that they are not ‘literary’ enough to be taken seriously in the wider scheme of fiction. Their stories may indeed feature protagonists in that age bracket, and in relative terms the subject matter doesn’t contain copious amounts of gratuitous sex or violence. Yet, the issues explored at their core; are real. Every YA novel, just as any book– is different. There are sub-genres which range from the most heartbreaking contemporaries, to high-octane space adventures, sweeping historical dramas and everything in between. Writing styles range from a casual stream-of-consciousness, to prose which is so beautifully expressed that you could tag quotes on every page. It will always stand apart from ‘adult’ fiction in terms of content and the personal situations of the characters, although I do believe that adults can find value in its diversity as well.
This idea of YA being accepted as ‘quality writing’ by the adult literati has been assailed with controversy. One of the most damning articles, published in the online Slate Book Review in 2014 by Ruth Graham entitled ‘Against YA’ held the headline: ‘Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children’. As expected, YA aficionados were left fuming. YA book bloggers who are adults themselves especially so. Was this to imply that adults should be ashamed of being seen reading ‘Harry Potter’ because it heralded from the ‘Children’s Fiction’ section? How about that middle-aged woman I saw on the train just this week, reading the newly released novel ‘The Call’ by Peadar Ó Guilín? She wasn’t furtively glancing around to see if anyone would be judging her book of choice. Neither are the people in their twenties and thirties who quite happily recommend books to their friends from the YA section at the bookshop I work at. To discount YA as entirely subordinate to other fiction out there (unless it is read by a teen themselves), in my opinion, can only be bred from a prejudice founded in ignorance. A person’s opinion of YA should not be unequivocally shaped from a narrow assessment of those ‘big hits’ in recent years, such as The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games for example. There is a plethora of YA available which falls into the realm of the unique, poignant and extraordinary.
In The Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker was one of the most provoking paperbacks I’ve ever experienced. It is a novel about a school shooting, with a surrealist edge that is equally ethereal and unsettling. Kirsty Eagar’s 2016 release Summer Skin is also a stand-out, pushing the boundaries in the portrayal of sexist subcultures in the university milieu. YA sci-fi novels such as Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman feature not only ingenious formatting, but a plot which questions the limits of artificial intelligence and moral ambiguity. Spark by Rachael Craw epitomises the dichotomy between humanity and a futile struggle against science. These few examples are only scratching the surface at the what lies beneath the fallacy of superficiality when it comes to oeuvres in the young-adult sphere. The rendering of these thematic threads, although through the lens of individuals on the cusp of adulthood, have the potential to be realised by adults themselves. If adult authors who write these novels can empathise with the teen persona, then surely it is feasible that older readers can do the same.
Admittedly, these days I don’t read YA exclusively, as I did my younger years. I do find that adult books have a wholly separate appeal which as a reader I also crave. Overall however, I feel comfortable saying that I’ve loved Emma Cline’s The Girls just as much as The Yearbook Committee by Sarah Ayoub. Both are engrossing page-turners, despite a divergence in subject matter and ‘intended’ audience.
I see the concept of an insurmountable divide between adults who read YA and those who don’t counterintuitive to what the whole joy of reading is in the first place. Indulging in young-adult novels as a ‘grown up’ should not be shunned as a ‘dirty little secret’ to be concealed. Instead, why not embrace it as just another manifestation of the art of reading itself? To close, I’ll leave you with a quote by renowned author Neil Gaiman: “Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.”