Friday, 29 August 2014

Childish Things? by Anna Wilson

I have read a lot of teen fiction this summer because I like to keep up to date, and also so that I can recommend titles to my own teenage children.

Actually, who am I kidding? I read these books because they are so damn good! I would go so far as to say that often so-called “teen fiction” is better written and more original than that on offer for adults.

Of course I am not alone in thinking this. Gillian Tett, writing in the Financial Times earlier this week, discussed the fact that:

“Booksellers now estimate that almost half of young adult books are being read by people who are over the age of 18.”

She pondered on why this was, coming to the conclusion that:

“Teenagers now face a world where boundaries are becoming blurred on many fronts [. . .] the lines between childhood and adulthood, good and evil, friend and foe, male and female are no longer clear-cut. Once teenagers expected to know what “side” they were on (even if this was the anti-adult side); today, the world is no longer black and white. There is category collapse.”

“Category collapse” is exactly right if by that Tett means that we are reading back and forth across the age ranges. However, exactly the opposite has happened when it comes to how books are shelved. The boundaries that have been created to delineate adult novels from those considered to be for teens are surely artificial?

What makes, say, Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden an adult novel but puts E Lockhart’s We Were Liars squarely in the teen category? Morton’s book tells a story from the point of view of characters between the ages of ten and ninety, so it cannot be the age of the protagonists. The subject-matter in Morton’s novel would not be an issue for teens either, and as the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl I would almost prefer her to read Morton’s book for the content than some other teen titles which have much more troublesome subject matter. Equally I delighted in the writing in Lockhart’s novel and gasped aloud at the reveal and have been recommending it to adults and teens alike.

Why was Claire King’s The Night Rainbow published for adults but Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur for children? Both books tell a story about grief, loss and depression from the point of view of a young child and both have content that is perfectly suitable for young teens. There are many other examples I could give, some of which, such as Joanna Nadin’s Eden, have been promoted by publishers as a “cross-over” read, openly acknowledging that age-banding is a conceit, and at times a not very helpful one. And what about Plath’s The Bell Jar and du Maurier’s Rebecca . . .?

Is the answer that, actually, “category collapse” has happened in general, across the media and in our choice of leisure time activities? I am quite happy to sit and watch Friday Night Dinner or The Big Bang Theory with my kids, for example, and they will happily watch The Village or Downton Abbey with me. I will read a book and hand it on to them and they will do the same. We will go as a family to swing between the trees at Go Ape or take surfing lessons together. None of this was the case when I was growing up. Kids’ books were for kids and kids’ activities were for kids. Adults kept their lives quite separate.

Nowadays, though, we seem to actively turn away from the edict: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

I, for one, am happy with this “category collapse” as it gives me licence to stay in touch with my inner child and even (she says, hopefully) to be in with a chance of understanding my own children’s lives. I also feel that the calibre of writing in teen fiction is excellent and this is something that the world has woken up to.

We are giving the “adults” a run for their money, and this can only be a good thing.


Nick Green said...

I think categories were only ever artificial, imposed by sellers to make it easier for buyers to shop. I was thinking the other day about Watership Down, and that wonderful, terrible film adaptation of it. Wonderfully done, but terrible for young children to watch. Gas-crazed rabbits clawing each other's throats out as they struggle hopelessly for air in a semi-hallucinatory nightmare... Literal rivers of blood... No-holds-barred fights to the death, graphic violence, sorrow and loss... and Bright Eyes, oh God, BRIGHT EYES, you well up just thinking about it... How could any parent knowingly inflict such emotional torture on their kids?

But it worked. And it was a classic. Because it wasn't made 'for children'. It was made for the story, and everything else be damned.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Nick. Categories are there to help with the marketing and selling, but sadly (?) neither books nor people are very good at fitting in boxes.