Sunday, 4 January 2015

What distinguishes books for adults from those for teenagers? - David Thorpe

What is it that distinguishes a book written for adults where children are the main characters and one written for children, where children are the main characters?

When I am writing for children or teenagers at the back of my mind is always this question of the difference between the two.

Here are the opening sentences of In The Country of Men by Hisham Matar, which was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. The narrator is recalling a time when he was nine years old:

"I recall now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979 and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and and went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of everything."

The novel describes the gradual discovery by the child of his father's involvement in anti-revolutionary activity and what this means, and his desperate love for his mother.

Here are the opening sentences of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks, which controversially won the Carnegie Medal in 2014:

"10.00 a.m."This is what I know. I'm in a low-ceilnged rectangular building made entirely of whitewashed concrete. It's about twelve metres wide and eighteen metres long. A corridor runs down the middle of the building, with a smaller corridor leading off to a lift shaft just over halfway down. There are six little rooms along the main corridor, three on either side."

Much has been written about Brooks' book and whether it is suitable for children, so I'm not going to stray into that territory. You might consider that I have chosen a non-typical example, but many children's books deal with uncomfortable themes and issues.

Both of these openings are physical descriptions which imply a sense of claustrophobia. They perfectly set the scene for what is to follow, which only gets worse.

The two books have several more things in common:

  • there is no happy ending in either of them; 
  • very unpleasant things happen along the way;
  • the main character is not conventionally likeable.

You can see other parallels from these extracts: the language in both is direct, the sentences straightforward. These stylistic points are undoubtedly a requirement for writing for children. But one can equally find instances of quite 'literary' writing in books for children, for example in the earlier novels of, say, Philip Pullman, such as A Ruby in the Smoke.

The Bunker Diary deals with important psychological and philosophical themes, that are uncomfortable to contemplate. So does Matar's book.

One aspect which perhaps distinguishes In The Country of Men (and other novels for adults) from most novels written for children is the retrospective angle: the narrator is now about 25 years old, and the narrative eventually catches up with him. This is less common in writing for children.

Another aspect that might signify a difference is non-linear storytelling, in which the narrative darts around in time. This is, again, less common in writing for children (however I did use this technique in my new novel Stormteller and, whilst I can't think of one at the moment, I'm sure I've read other children's books which do this).

The other observations to make about the difference between them are the setting (Gaddafi's Libya compared to contemporary London) and the degree of sophistication in the form of prior knowledge or experience that is assumed in the writing of Matar's book.

So to answer my original question, all other thngs being equal, the main aspect I am monitoring as I write for children rather than for adults is constantly gauging that level so it is pitched correctly.

I'd be very interested to know what you think about this topic?

David Thorpe is the author of Stormteller and Hybrids.


Heather Dyer said...

Interesting David - I'd have said optimism, admirable (if flawed) characters, a happy ending (or at least hopeful), subject matter and language that's accessible to and of interest to the target age group, and something a bit more subtle which might be described as the author's ability not to give 'too much gratuitous detail' that might be outside that readership's ability to stomach. But of course that measure varies with each individual (and the times, perhaps) so it's difficult to measure. I think that this 'protective' stance can be heard in the author's voice, too, and I know that as a child I didn't like too much violence or 'harsh reality' and I gauged this by (among other things) a certain measure of kindness in the author's voice.

C.J.Busby said...

I think you're right to identify the 'adult reflective voice' as making the first example more of an adult novel - for YA, you'd expect the protagonist to be in the middle of it and see things with a teenager's sensibility. But I also think there's a very blurry line now between top-end YA and adult. The kind of romance, for example, that you get in older YA is not so different from the Jilly Cooper and Mills and Boon that many teenagers read twenty years ago; nor is the historical genre for YA so easy to distinguish from, say, Philippa Gregory or (going back a bit) Jean Plaidy. Many of my contemporaries at school read Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, just as 20-30 somethings now read older YA. It's a marketing category rather than having anything to do with the actual writing, I think. But where there is a divide, and it's one I think sits well with the criteria Heather discusses, is the under-14 children's books that are now marketed as YA but aren't at all the same kind of thing as the top-end YA/adult books I'm talking about. These are more complex tales in terms of language and plot and subject matter, but they are still aimed at child readers. I think marketing has done a disservice to child readers and adults buying for children by lumping these in with YA.

Sue Bursztynski said...

As you say, it's blurred these days. And right now I'm reading for the children's section of the Aurealis Awards for speculative fiction and several of the entries we have are entered in both the children's and the YA categories, with good reason.

There are plenty of YA novels in which the ending is downright depressing. I can think of two off the top of my head in which someone commits suicide on the last page(in one case the heroine, in the other a girl the heroine has befriended). I can think of one in which you know through hints that the hero, who seems to be on a crazy and amusing road adventure is actually dreaming it all while in hospital dying of mad cow disease. There's Sonya Hartnett, whose depressing YA novels have won about a million awards.

My own feeling about this is that children's and YA novels are more likely than adult ones to be about something important - the battle between good and evil, for example. This is one of the reasons why you will rarely find me bothering with adult fiction. Genre fiction sometimes, yes SF, historical, crime fiction. But rarely with mainstream adult books. I'd much rather read YA or children's.

David Thorpe said...

It's interesting that you identify the marketing aspect, CJ Busby – that you distinguish between top-end YA and up to age 14, which I would describe as "older children" or "teen". And, Sue, that you think that YA novels are more likely to tackle the issues and in an imaginative way. I feel the same way, with the exception of speculative fiction. I didn't know about the Aurealis Awards; perhaps you would consider writing a post on this at some point?

Sue Bursztynski said...

David, are you saying that you don't think speculative fiction handles important issues? I hope not! 😉 I'm only reading for the Aurealis Awards for the first time this year, but email me if you wish to discuss a possible post. My edress is

Anonymous said...

Whoops, that's!

David Thorpe said...

No, on the contrary. Like good comics, SF/spec fic does deal with big themes. Too many especially British novels are about individuals and relationships and lack a big scope IMHO (even a big sociological scope, like Dickens/Balzac and a lot of US writing). Fine for some but not for me!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Fascinating post. Thank you David. I agree with Cecelia that the adult reflective voice is the first giveaway. You simply can't serve that up for YA. But also agree that the line between adult and YA is blurry. We all read books not suitable for our ages when we didn't have a YA fiction list. For me it was those heady (and for those days sexy) novels of 'Angelique and the King' or 'Angelique and the Sultan.'
But as I wrestle with a YA novel right now, I'm not immune to thinking... is this too strong, too violent, too suggestive... ? It's a fine line we walk and I think very personal... in that it depends on what you as an writer feel you could and would want to cope with as a reader of that age. It's not sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism.