|Recognise yourself, YA writer?|
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!