An article was recently published in The Guardian written by a young reader, Hawwa, titled Falling Out of Love with YA, in which Hawwa talks about how she feels that new YA being published is failing where it should excel: in challenging its readers. Is this true? Here are some of my thoughts…
It is terrible that Hawwa is feeling disappointed in YA fiction today, that she is being let down. As a children’s and YA bookseller, reading her article really made me sit up and think – and, mostly, disagree. She raises a number of relevant points about the hype surrounding some YA novels, and the fact that there are a good number of fantasy/dystopian books being written and published that jump off the back of this hype. BUT. But, but, but: if this is all that teenage readers can see on the YA shelves then I honestly believe they are only skimming the surface of a hugely rich and varied selection of books that are available and just begging to be read. Perhaps the question is: why and how are these books being missed?
It’s true that there are YA books that are driven purely by a romance plot. It’s true that there are dystopian genres conforming to popular film ideals (though many of these ideals, I think, have themselves been driven by the books that the first films of this genre were inspired by). It’s true that there are books that skimp on their language. And it’s true that there are books being driven by hype.
Sometimes it’s nice to have a book that is just pure romance – fortunately, there are plenty that aren’t just this, for those times when that’s not what you want. Sometimes it’s nice to have a book that emulates a bestselling novel you’ve enjoyed – fortunately, again, there are plenty that aren’t just this, especially as they’re not always as good as the original. And some of the books that skimp on their language tend to be written for younger teens or ‘tweens’, those eleven and twelve year olds who want to upgrade to the YA section – the teen section, after all, by definition should cater for those aged 13 to 19, and all the different levels of interest and capabilities that a gap this large entails.
As for the books whose sales are driven by hype: in my ten years’ experience as a bookseller, where YA is concerned, this hype is generated by the readers themselves, and by the movies that the popularity of the book subsequently generates – it’s a word of mouth thing, not a publisher pushing the book thing. The flip side of this is, of course, that not everyone likes the same things (thank goodness – wouldn’t it be boring if we did?), so on occasion, just because five million other people have loved the book isn’t a guarantee that you or I will do too – I really didn’t get on with Michael Grant’s Gone series, for instance, but most readers absolutely rave about it.
Perhaps Hawwa’s argument is that those books that are just jumping on the bandwagon shouldn’t be getting published. And in many ways I’d be inclined to agree with her: books should push boundaries, especially those that are specifically aimed at the new and upcoming generation. They should push all sorts of boundaries: language, plotting, content, characters, diversity, style, approach, the whole shebang. Fortunately, there are plenty of authors writing YA that do just this – and there are plenty of YA books that have been around for a few years that are still doing this. The other side of the coin, though, is that there are readers who want nice, safe, and secure books where they know what to expect – i.e. the bandwagon books. The key to getting it right in any bookshop or library is to have a healthy balance of the two options.
Perhaps where the real problem lies is that some bookshops and/or libraries aren’t making it easy for readers to find those interesting, boundary-pushing books. Perhaps the bookshop where Hawwa likes to browse has only the latest Hunger Games derivative stacked up on their tables. This is where booksellers and librarians need to step in, where they need to create interesting and varied displays, be open and approachable to the teens (and adults) who are visiting their house of words, and recommend, recommend, recommend.
Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk, Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me, anything by David Levithan, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, Ryan Graudin’s The Walled City, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, anything by Patrick Ness, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Alice Oseman’s Solitaire, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus Sedgewick’s She Is Not Invisible, Ruta Sepetys’s Out of the Easy, Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone, Louis Sachar’s Holes, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, Garth Nix’s Sabriel, Laura Dockrill's Lorali. Look at any Carnegie Medal shortlist and you will find something that challenges and surprises you.
And one final thought: teens absolutely should peruse the adult section. ‘YA’ is simply a label, a categorisation. What goes in it and what doesn’t is largely determined by publishers – talk to any ‘YA’ author and eighty per cent of them will tell you they write the book they want to write, the story they want to tell; that they don’t set out to write YA or adult, sci-fi or romance, that those categorisations are applied afterwards – the publisher reads the book and says, yes, I reckon I can best sell this to such-and-such a group of people.
If The Catcher in the Rye was published for the first time today it would probably be called YA, and there are plenty of books in the adult sections that could easily be displayed in YA and not feel out of place: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps this comes back to booksellers and librarians: that is up to them to make sure these books also make it into YA sections. Or perhaps I am making your point for you: that publishers chose to call books with more sophisticated language adult and less sophisticated ones YA – but while that might be true in some cases, I really don’t believe it is a hard and fast rule and it certainly isn’t true in the majority of cases – there is more to determining what is and isn’t YA than just the language, after all. Otherwise how would a book like I’ll Give You the Sun have made it into the YA section?
To any reader who feels they’re not being represented in the books they’re reading, speak up, like Hawwa has done. Only this way will we – authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians – know what is missing, what you want and what you need. But don’t forget to look a little deeper on the shelves as well, to ask the bookseller, to ask family and friends – or even the internet – because there are all sorts of gems hiding behind the hype.