What is this thing called Young Adult?

In publishing terms today, one global success is a blessing, two signal a trend and three count as a phenomenon if not a whole new genre. With the inexorable rise of Young Adult publishing in the nine years since the dawn of Twilight (so to speak), and the ever-growing range of one-word titles and bleached-palette covers with creeping black tendrils, you might well ask: where did that come from, and where do we start, and is it any good anyway?


I realise that I’m writing this week for the upper end of this blog’s age range; but we have a cohort of Y6s about to move up to secondary school – I have two myself – and suddenly reading horizons are opening up, and tastes are changing, and everyone you know has long since read all the Harry Potters and is ready to move on. Maybe our Y6s aren’t reading Twilight yet – I admit it’s one I skipped for this week, assuming sales are healthy enough without any assistance from this quarter – but film tie-ins have them picking up The Hunger Games, and curious about Divergent; and one of the joys of YA fiction is that it tends to come in fat volumes and trilogies or more… once hooked, you’ve the prospect of days or even weeks of absorbing reading. The Hunger Games has been on my must-find-time list for years now, and it lived up to the huge weight of expectation: a brutal yet horribly plausible premise, a gripping story, a tough and believable heroine with at least as many mistakes and failings as she has skills and resources. Suzanne Collins’ grim future is surely as compelling as it is because we can see it as a horrible projection of our present: the bored, shallow, pampered elite, the desperate hardscrabble underclass, the uniting power of reality TV which puts ordinary people into unimaginable situations in the name of mass entertainment. In Collins’ city of Panem, the reality stars aren’t volunteers but drawn by lot from the working districts – children, aged twelve to eighteen, put through costume and make-up and a little basic training, and then set loose in front of the cameras to go kill each other. Winning the Hunger Games is hard enough; winning without losing your soul ought to be impossible, and it’s clear that for all the brutality and anger in her life, Katniss Everdeen has a soul… so how can she achieve the victory that will save her and her family? Brilliantly imagined, vividly written and with the heft that comes from true knowledge, whether of families under pressure or what it means to live off the land for real, The Hunger Games is outstanding.


Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies has been almost as long on my must-find-time list, and was also worth the wait, with a very different believable future, and one that might at first sound more appealing: at sixteen, everyone routinely undergoes painless plastic surgery and emerges Pretty (that’s to say, irresistibly attractive), to a life of hedonism in glittering New Pretty Town. It’s understood that the under-sixteens, designated Uglies, will run a little wild in the frustrating months before their surgery is due; but Tally is wilder than most, and breaking into New Pretty Town to see her one-time best friend Peris could land her in unimaginable trouble. Instead, it brings her a new friend and fellow Ugly, Shay, and it’s through Shay that Tally hears the rumours of a distant community who refuse to be Pretty. Most shockingly of all, Shay proposes to join them and forgo her own operation; and then Tally’s operation is cancelled, and she is faced with a terrible choice. Can she follow the cryptic clues Shay left, and find her and the secret community? Is there a deeper reason for remaining Ugly than simple teenage defiance? Will Tally ever be Pretty, and just how much does it matter? It’s a body-image fable that could easily be worthy and obvious, but Uglies is far pacier and more subtle than that, with a bright, conflicted, naïve and stroppy heroine and the gradual discovery of a battle worth fighting. Shamefully, it’s an issue that’s not going to cool down any time soon; in the meantime,  my vote is for Uglies and its three sequels (Pretties, Specials, Extras) in every secondary school library as a cracking and thought-provoking read.


Perhaps Collins and Westerfeld set the bar high, but Divergent I found harder to love. In Veronica Roth’s just-recognisable Chicago, the population is divided into factions (effectively, castes) by birth, aptitude testing and free choice, each one of which is supposed to condition the other: Abnegation are born to grey selflessness and are, paradoxically, the governing class; Amity are nurturers and providers, Candor are lawyers, Dauntless warriors and Erudite the intellectuals (and schemers). Very rarely, a subject like Beatrice shows conflicting aptitudes and is identified as Divergent, a label so dangerous that her test results are faked and she is sworn to silence. The words simplistic, reductive and utterly implausible could not at this point be further from my mind… Beatrice causes a stir when she abandons her dryly loving Abnegation family for the Dauntless, takes the snappier name of Tris and embarks on a grisly and ruthless period of physical and psychological training: a mixture of blood, sweat, bone-crunch, sadism, mindgames, camaraderie and adrenaline junkiedom that would surely make any old-school sergeant-major proud. It’s compellingly written, but with at least one gut-churningly psychopathic incident that I’d be inclined to keep from the Y6s for a year or two yet. There’s something in me, too, that is uneasy at the clear-eyed reverence for pain and injury, and the setting-up of academics and scientists as arch-villains, especially given the author’s forthright declaration of faith in the acknowledgements: despite the Abnegation veneer, this is the God of “an eye for an eye” – or indeed an eye for a perceived threat.


So already we have three shades of dystopia, one of several rich seams in the YA world. As a wise book industry person observed (and I apologise for long since losing the reference and with it their name), teen readers do tend to relate to dystopia as they find themselves more and more at odds with their own world; it may not be full of mutants, zombies and toxic waste, but with a teen’s thin skin it’s already a hostile and vindictive enough environment. Dystopia also produce believable everyperson heroes and heroines with rages and flaws; besides the above, two of the most distinctive (and bleak) YA novels I have read are Sally Gardner’s Carnegie-winning Maggot Moon with dangerously imaginative, dyslexic Stanton Treadwell and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now with stroppy, anorexic Daisy and her beautiful, sardonic, sharply-focused descriptive voice.


It isn’t all dystopia, by any means. A good deal of YA, especially the more heavily black-tendrilled, settles firmly in the fantasy camp, and anyone who has read this blog more than a few times will realise that’s fine by me. Neil Gaiman, Sally Gardner (again), Philip Reeve and Marcus Sedgwick are all welcomed into the YA fold, and it’s particularly heartening to see Diana Wynne Jones represented with some of her richest and funniest books for older readers, The Dark Lord of Derkholm, The Year of the Griffin, The Merlin Conspiracy and Deep Secret. Cornelia Funke has the bleak, haunting, grimmer-than-Grimm Reckless (sequel Fearless is now in my must-find-time stack), and Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell the richly unsettling Wyrmweald trilogy… and if you care for dragons, Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer is clever, funny and contrary. Beyond Twilight’s vampires and werewolves, a whole host of fantasy creatures are waiting: fallen angels, faerie folk, demons, vampire hunters, all lurking beneath the rain-slick of modern everyday life. I’ve done little more than scratch the surface, but some of the names to conjure with are Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, hush and Lauren Kate’s Fallen – not recommended for those offput by lush prose (I found it hard to get past Kate’s young Victorian heroine picking wild peonies in west Cornwall and wandering a country house unchaperoned at midnight, but once we were back amongst the kudzu in present-day Georgia, things picked up somewhat).


I don’t know if you’re picking up another YA trend yet, but you may be starting to notice the abundance of feisty heroines (at last!) and wondering how many teenage boys will really be picking up books about faeries and angels, however broody or malevolent. I spoke this week to Anne Finnis who, as senior fiction editor at Usborne and mother of three Young Adults herself, knows more about YA fiction than I can begin to, and she agreed that the genre is very much skewed towards girls.  Perhaps it’s because children’s publishing is largely staffed by women, who pick and promote titles they can relate to; perhaps girls are especially drawn to the more character-led stories; perhaps “Twilight for boys” is out there and simply haven’t been discovered it yet (after all, Diary of a Wimpy Kid proves that boys certainly will read if all their friends are reading and full of enthusiasm for an author or a series). It’s the nature of publishing to be surprised by a success out of leftfield (and then try to find the essence of that success while resisting an inevitable onslaught of me-too submissions). Anne points out that teen boys are beginning to cut their teeth on genre fiction of a different sort, the thrillers prefigured by Anthony Horowitz’ Alex Rider, or by Robert Muchamore’s smart, gritty Cherub series (set in the present day) or Henderson’s Boys (World War II).


And then there’s Michael Grant’s Gone and sequels – a dystopia of a sort, in which an ordinary school day sees all adults and teens over fifteen years old vanish in an instant, and the shell-shocked children slowly discover that they are confined within a mysterious barrier exactly twenty miles across. Grant assumes neither the best nor the worst: bullies see their opportunity, and ordinary kids gorge on looted candy and soda, but others reluctantly step up to responsibility and even the potential for heroism. Tension is cranked up with the arrival of a detachment from the exclusive Coates Academy, the school of last resort for well-off parents with some very troubled children, including the persuasive Caine and his psychopathic sidekick Drake; meanwhile, it emerges that some of the children are developing uncanny powers, and something freakish is happening to the wild animals, too… The movie pitch would undoubtedly have it as Lord of the Flies meets X-Men, but there’s more to it than that – just as there’s more to The Hunger Games than Theseus and the Minotaur meets Battle Royale – and three cheers for a decent hero whose love interest is a gifted student who also  happens to be pretty, rather than a decorative cypher.


Do YA readers move seamlessly on to adult fiction, and are Twilight readers drawn in droves to Wuthering Heights? Perhaps it’s too early to say, although I found it telling that Anne’s eldest daughter found herself returning to YA reading in her twenties as being better written than many adult books. I was also intrigued to see a highly literary Notting Hill bookshop making space on its well-stocked YA shelves for Game of Thrones (although not I think for the Y6s). The strain of YA which leads most obviously to adult fiction is perhaps the longest-established, the one I’m inclined to call “real life, only messier”, and which Anne suggests has its roots in the “issues” books that were once a staple of the library market when it existed. I posted last year on contemporary “issues” books and the prime example, John Green’s The Faults in our Stars, as well as in the autumn on Natasha Farrant’s bittersweet family comedy, After Iris, now joined by Flora in Love (also on the must-find-time pile, but in my defence it was only published last week and the ink on my copy is barely dry). Cat Clarke is another author with a fine eye and ear for the intensity and excruciating rawness of teen friendships, relationships and emotional blundering: her debut, Entangled, brought back the horrors of my Higher and A-Level years in Edinburgh as no other book has (as well as, to my amusement, a string of Amazon recommendations for other titles in no obvious way related apart from the baleful redheads on the cover). Another recent read was Emma Haughton’s high-tensile  Now You See Me, based on a true story of a missing teen who reappears two years later, apparently ready to settle right back into his old life… or is it?


Of course it would be reductive to suggest that all YA fiction fits into categories; what could the category be for a post-Haitian-earthquake gangster-survival-thriller spliced with a reimagining of the life of liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture, such as Nick Lake’s extraordinary In Darkness? I’ve barely touched upon a number of successful authors with different styles, and I’m more than happy to be given instances, although I think the trends above are some of the more significant. I think it’s also fair to say that the genre has only enjoyed this level of recognition and success for a very few years, and if it continues to, it will certainly diversify as it grows; although I hope without losing the strong characters, stroppy heroines, imaginative reach and emotional depth that make the best YA titles – as Anne’s daughter found – just as worthwhile and satisfying as any number of “proper” adult books.


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