If you hadn’t realized already, Young Adult fiction (YA) is kind of a Thing, with several well-known authors dipping in to write books for younger readers. We can blame Harry Potter for the uptick, I suppose. Twilight and The Hunger Games have also cemented that new section’s place in the bookstore.
We’ve had novels aimed specifically at younger readers since the nineteenth century, with boys’ adventure stories and the like. This is where we got Treasure Island, Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, Around the World in Eighty Days (although Jules Verne’s scientific romances weren’t specifically meant for young boys, it was a natural fit). Then there was the era when the Newbery Award reigned supreme—the 50s to the 70s, when Lloyd Alexander, Rosemary Sutcliff and Ursula K. Le Guin wrote classic works for younger readers. To tell the truth, my interest in YA lies mostly with works from before YA was a Thing, with those boys’ adventure novels and the “Newbery Era.” Yet those both had younger readers in mind than YA supposedly aims for.
Despite the popularity, I can’t help but think YA is a strange phenomenon. Adults writing for a very narrow age-set. The approach is also a bit different; while the older “for younger readers” books didn’t really skimp on style all that much (The Earthsea books are beautifully written, for instance, the Dr. Dolittle books specifically tried to expand your vocabulary), YA books tend to emulate Isaac Asimov with their simple style and comparatively low word count. That approach doesn’t really gel with my own experience; those of us who were already big readers by age 12 were more than ready to handle more complex language and longer novels. We’d read The Three Musketeers and The Lord of the Rings and supposed “adult” books. I was already off reading mightily thick books from the dark ages of historical fiction, which I’ve talked about before. So I’m not sure why the simple language and, frankly, often simplistic characters carry over from children’s fiction into YA; by that age you should be able to handle more complex content. Not the simplicity and brevity is a bad thing—Lloyd Alexander was the prime example of a writer who could tell you everything in the least amount of space possible, but even his style had an admirable compactness to it and a vigour to the dialogue. I’ve found both lacking in most YA; even some that I’ve enjoyed for the content, like Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan, contained dumbed-down and repetitive prose, as well as the usual generic young man + young woman self-insert characters that just aren’t too interesting to read about.
The argument goes that YA acts as a “stepping stone” for new readers of that age to the world of books. While that might seem admirable, it also seems insulting to the authors. “They’ll read this and then they’ll move on to better books” isn’t exactly flattering. And really, the books I most enjoyed growing up are books I still enjoy, just in different ways. I appreciate The Tombs of Atuan even more now than when I read it the first time, I still read Lloyd Alexander’s books and find them just as clever and full of great characters as ever. Tastes might mature but good writing and a good story are recognizable at any age. I read some terrible books back in the day but they’ve almost completely faded from memory. That kind of stuff just doesn’t stick with you, y’know?
I’ve seen some posts floating around the internet that outright attack YA. Namely, that simply getting teenagers to read isn’t laudable if what they read is simplistic, repetitive crap, and that the “stepping stone” argument is false because they’ll just reach for more of the same. Surely not all YA is terrible, and the category itself isn’t necessarily a place mediocre authors retreat to in the hopes of getting published. As above, I think most of us had our binges of bad books when we were young. I also think that writing for younger readers can be a wonderful thing: there’s a greater personal connection when the main characters are your age; kids like reading about other kids going on adventures. Adolescents do too. But even as a ten year old, I hated the sort of books that talked down to me. From the YA novels I’ve perused, far too many do.
Cathrynne Valente wrote a wonderful post a month ago where she discussed how some adults complained that The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making was too complex for younger readers. She rejected that notion; children are smarter than you think, and she promised, “now and forever, to write stories that are smart enough for your kids”, to treat children with respect, to write something complex and wonderful and let them understand in time. While The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland falls more under the age group of the Newbery Era novels, I hope Valente’s philosophy will become dominant in YA as well. At least it would improve my own rather lukewarm attitude towards the YA Thing.