Friday, 10 February 2012

Young Adult by Keren David

Recognise yourself, YA writer?
She’s juvenile, self-involved, utterly selfish and sociopathic, qualities which, according to one reviewer ‘serve her well in her career as a writer for the young adult market.’


Yes, it’s time for writers of teen fiction to have their Hollywood moment. I haven’t seen the movie Young Adult yet, but I’m looking forward to screenwriter Diablo Cody’s comically toxic take on my world, expecting that it’ll be more nuanced than a facile suggestion that people write for teens because they are emotionally trapped in a perpetual me-me-me adolescent state.

The movie also gives me an excuse to ask just what is Young Adult fiction and where does it fit in the children’s book world. Is it the same as teen fiction? Where are the upper and lower age ranges - for both readers and protagonists? And why do American books seem to dominate this category - sometimes at the expense of home-grown talent?  I proudly call myself a Young Adult writer (which is faintly comical as I race through my forties), but I'm not altogether sure what it means.

A conversation along these lines on Twitter recently grew and grew, until it acquired its own hashtag (or label, non-Twitterers) #UKYA. Some people argued that YA books are defined by the age of the protagonist - only to have titles such as Annabel Pitcher’s much-praised My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece (main character aged 10) and Mal Peet’s superb Penalty (main and indeed most characters are adults) suggested as YA titles. Look on the internet and you’ll find multiple definitions, covering an age range of 12-22 (sometimes 14-22, sometimes 12 to 18). Does it matter? For some writers, not at all. For others, struggling with gate-keeping editors and book-sellers’ perceptions, it matters very much indeed.

I think it's fair to say that Young Adult is dominated by American books.The market there is bigger, and YA fits well with the Middle School/High School divide, which isn’t an issue in the UK. Books for 14+, with more challenging content are generally seen as High School books in the US - in the UK they’ll be read by anyone in secondary school. Thus the teen market has traditionally been seen as tapering out in the UK by the age of about 15, as readers move on to adult books.In the US, they are just ready to be introduced to a new set of challenging books for their age group.

There’s also the huge success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, which unleashed a flock of similar titles to suck the blood out of the UK YA market. For many readers and book review bloggers YA is paranormal romance, and the more American the better. Of course UK publishers respond to this, buying and promoting books from America which are well-received by the post-Twilight audience. Although the Guardian claimed this week that gritty realism is taking over for teens (hurray!), a wander through a supermarket book department suggests otherwise. For British writers, YA can feel like an all-American dark romance party, at which we’re just serving the drinks.

That’s why the #UKYA chat on Twitter felt like a little bit of a break-through. Tesco Books noticed it, which gave me a chance to suggest that they have a ‘best of British’ promotion for teen books - if they can do it for sausages, why not literature? I also stumbled across a YA group on Goodreads, asking for recommendations of UK-based reads. It was interesting how few American readers were aware of British authors (suggesting instead US authors who set their books in Britain), but how much enthusiasm there was for the British books that they did know, in particular Louise Rennison and Philip Pullman.
So, a few of us are planning a new website to showcase UK YA. We’re going to make lists of the best of British teen fiction - old and new, share news about new releases and explain key British terms like ‘knackered’, ‘loo’ and ‘trousers’.
But are we wasting our time? The Times children’s book critic, Amanda Craig recently explained that (with cruelly limited space for any reviews) she was going to ignore most books for teens. ‘Books for teenagers are really distractions from the classics that, in my view, they ought to be tackling from 13+. … While I completely see the point in the case of authors as good as Meg Rosoff or Anthony McGowan, far too much YA stuff is just turkey Twizzlers for the brain.’
Well,  one person’s Turkey Twizzler, is another’s nutritious meal. Accessibility is important to me as a writer, and I don't think that I sacrifice quality to achieve it. If I'm writing about subjects like crime and identity, I think it's too important to limit to the ones who can cope with complex language and structure.I was recently thrilled to be told by a teenage boy on my Facebook page that my books were the first he had ever completed. I don’t think he’ll be reading too many classics. On the other hand, as a mother, there are occasions when I’d like to make a bonfire of all copies of Gossip Girl, and  force my own teens onto a strict regime of Dickens, Austen and George Orwell. Of course, we all need a mixed diet. And often  those twizzle-tastic covers don’t fully reflect what’s inside them.
US YA writer Maureen Johnson was asked to review the film Young Adult. ‘When you hear the phrase "young adult" maybe you expect something light and fluffy,’ she wrote. ‘And then you get hit between the eyes with something quite unexpected. Like this movie.’  Quite. I can't wait!

24 comments:

Anne Cassidy said...

Really thoughtful piece which sums up many of the problems faced by those of us in the field!

maryom said...

Read this while in our own little discussion about YA. I'd say anything mainly targeted at over 14s. I'm not putting an upper limit on it as I know of a lot of adults reading Twilight-type paranormal romance - perhaps it's the new Barbara Cartland!

Luisa Plaja said...

Wonderful post. I completely agree with your points and I'm really looking forward to a site showcasing UK YA fiction.

adele said...

Very interesting piece, Karen. I think it would be fascinating to have a group such as you suggest to discuss it. In my own experience, it's the READING STAMINA and not the age that determines what people like to read. Ie, you get kids of 10 who've read all of Tolkein and you geet adults who can't manage more than Dan Browne. Marketing depts, teachers, librarians etc like to know how to categorize stuff and that leads to divisions which don't necessarily need to be there. Mal Peet is a good case in point. ALL his books are adult books as far as I'm concerned but marketed for teens who also like them! Go figure...but I'd join a YA forum if one were set up.

Laure Eve said...

It's also worth saying that I've come across quite a few US based YA bloggers who are actively seeking out UK published books to promote, as they're interested in the ones they and their readers don't know about.

Awesome post, awesome idea. I'd love to see a site dedicated to UK YA.

Juliet said...

Great idea Keren. I look forward to the new site! I'll pass the word to colleagues in the teaching world.

Book Maven said...

Where do I sign up?

Elaine AM Smith said...

You make some great points.

I'm looking forward to a UK YA site. I write UK based YA. Here, the paranormal edge is much more desperate when the space to hide in in smaller.

Sue Purkiss said...

I agree with Adele about Mal Peet's books: I think they're wonderful - especially Penalty - but I think they are just for people, not for any particular group of people. I'm guessing they were published as YA because the company that publishes his children's books is Walker, and they were naturally keen to publish his books. (And they publish them very beautifully, too.)

I was a bit surprised at Amanda Craig's comment. Back in the day, you went on to adult books because there were very few books written for the teen age group. Now, they can select from either - adult or YA.

Having said that, there was certainly a point at which my daughter decided that anything that looked as if it was specially written for young adults was beyond the pale for her.

Penny Dolan said...

Really pleased to read your thoughts about the Young Adult film, Keren, as from what I'd read, this offers a version of the old "writing makes you go mad, especially if you are female" mindset.

Also agree with your thoughts on the current content of many "YA shelves"! Any promotion of UK YA sounds a positive and much needed idea.

Susie Day said...

Great post, Keren. There's such a wealth of amazing writing for teens/young adults/whoever coming out of the UK - we just need more people to talk about it!

Couldn't agree more re the utterly absurd 'Turkey Twizzlers' comment too. Variety: spice of life, so they tell me.

Sue Ransom said...

I'd love to see a YA forum and get involved. I only started writing because I wanted an alternative to the US diet my daughter was reading and ended up writing my own. As to age, I think a gritty subect matter is the main differentiator between Teen/YA - content that is only suitable for reading past 9pm!

Keren David said...

@Penny I haven't seen Young Adult yet - it might be dross! - I'm just hoping it will have more to offer.
When I was a teenager there weren't many teen or YA book, and we tended to go traight to adult books. It probably meant more classics were read, but how many people just stopped reading?

Rachel Ward said...

V. interesting post. I hadn't fully appreciated the age split in US schools - explains a lot.

Not sure I agree with Amanda Craig's view. When I was a teenager there wasn't much teen or young adult literature (but there were plenty of classics). I just stopped reading for fun until I was in my twenties.

I think YA books are a useful bridge between children's books and adult books, plus alot of adults enjoy their directness, excitement, compelling plots and quirky characters.

Tam said...

Fab post, Keren. There are so many ace UK YA writers around, we need a forum to highlight them. I can't say any of the YA books I've read have been Turkey Twizzlers - but then I tend to only read those by British authors :)

Savita Kalhan said...

An excellent piece, Keren, and so true. I would definitely support a website promoting UK YA authors.

Rosalie Warren said...

Very intersting post. I'm looking forward to the film... and to the UK YA website even more!

Julianne said...

A new website to showcase British YA sounds like a brilliant idea. I disagree completely with the idea that YA/teen is just brain fluff and teenagers should be reading classics. When I was in secondary school I read a mix of teen fic, sci-fi/fantasy and classics. When I was at university I read teen fic (and Buffy tie-in novels!) in between the classics I had to read for my courses, and I think that's why I didn't need a holiday from reading like so many other English lit students do when they graduate. I know people who haven't picked up a book since they finished university, whereas I haven't stopped. A mixed diet, as you put it, is important!

Colin M said...

One of the first, and best, YA novels I ever read was American - "Fat Kid Rules The World" by K.L. Going. I can't seem to find it in UK shops anymore for the plethora of Twilight clones choking the shelves.

BOOKSELLERS - THERE IS MORE TO YA FICTION THAN HAVING A BOYFRIEND!

I've nothing against romance, or vampire romance, gothic slush, "issue" books and relationship crisis, but personally, I like to read something with an edge, and that's how I like to write. I also like to promote books to difficult and reluctant teen readers. For that, I need to recommend something that they can relate to: Melvin Burgess, Anthony McGowan, Kevin Brooks (and yeah, me - why not!) I'd love to recommend "The Six" by Janet Green, but it's been out of print for years, yet it's a brilliant YA novel (at least that's how I remember it). But, as difficult readers don't knock up huge sales figures, I guess they're easily put aside. Shame. Actually, it's worse than that - it's plain shit. Any chance a UK publisher can pick up the rights and get things back on track?

And that short rant is pretty much why I totally support a UKYA site. Let's hope it helps bookshops promote UK talent.

Best Wishes with it,
Colin Mulhern

sophs said...

Really great post; I've been thinking a lot about some of these things, so it's great to see them all voiced by someone else! And the website sounds a great idea. Writing YA fiction myself I have certainly noticed this US/UK divide, and found it very interesting. Anyway, brilliant.

Keren David said...

Writers: if you'd like your book included on the new site, it'd be very useful if you could drop me an email telling me the name of the book, main setting, genre. Eg When I Was Joe, London and home counties, crime thriller. My email is almosttrue@hotmail.co.uk.

Linda Strachan said...

Excellent post, Keren. Great idea for a YA/UK website, count me in!
SO many good points here. I agree with several comments here.
Whether you are teenage or adult most people want a wide variety of reading material.

Ali said...

I'm 43. As a teenager, I shuttled between "classics" forced on us by school, horror, fantasy and bodice rippers, and "young adult" books such as Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle. After a degree in English Lit and MA in Victorian Studies, I still prefer what is sniffily called "genre fiction"- and of course, much of what is now considered "classic" was the genre fiction of its day! I'll be excitedly following these developments, Keren.

Stroppy Author said...

Keren, the UK YA site is a brilliant idea. And I hope it can have space for books intended for young adults who find reading a challenge. As Colin says, these readers are often overlooked as the market is less lucrative than the mainstream. But it's so important to build readers amongst that group.