I’ve written a lot of YAF. I’ve visited a lot of schools and chatted to people about what YAF is.
‘Children’s books’ have always been seen, I think, as a kind of treasure chest. Adults view the books nostalgically. If you ask adults about what they remember about their reading as a child they’ll become dreamy and smile because the things that they read encapsulate what ‘childhood’ should be: going on Bear Hunts, cavorting with the Wild Things, boating up the river, camping with the Secret Seven. It has its dangers and perils but it will end well and children will be better for their fictional experiences. I think Harry Potter was so attractive to adult readers for this reason. Sucked into a good story they were able to relive many of their own childish pleasures.
Young Adult Fiction doesn’t bring about quite so much of a glow when you talk to people about it. YA fiction is viewed, I think, as something teenagers have to get through in order to get to real books, grown-up books. I used to feel grumpy about this but I don’t now because I’ve realised that it’s not just books that have to be ‘got through’ it’s adolescence itself.
When people think of the golden days of their childhood it’s usually with pleasure and a sense of some perfect land where they once lived. I’m reminded of Houseman’s poem.
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content……
When people think of their teen years it’s often a mix of memories; embarrassment, injustice, desire, confusion. Adolescence is a battle. A bigger body with a more grown-up mind is trying to struggle out of a twelve year old. It’s hard work, it’s painful sometimes, it’s a metamorphosis. The memories, concertinaed as they are, are often negative.
(How I remember with shame the love affairs that never happened, the work I let slip, the money I spent on cigarettes even though I couldn’t inhale without coughing; then there were the friends I dropped for boys, the hot pants, the false eyelashes top and bottom, the lies to my parents, the lies to my teacher, the lies to myself.)
I think most adults tuck those five or so years away in the ‘to be forgotten’ drawer. They see it as a time that had to be ‘got through’ to get to the point of being an adult. That’s how they view young adult fiction. Teens have to ‘get through it’ until they get to proper grown-up books.
I think this is a shame on both counts. How I wish I could go back and tell my twelve year self to take it easy, enjoy the growing up, the sense of being on the edge of a big experience. I can’t do that but I can write about it in books. The best young adult books do this, examine the teen experience as it is being lived, not as if it was a tube stop on a journey somewhere else. The best teen fiction celebrates being a teenager with all its difficulties and joys.