Young adult fiction. Where do we draw the line?

…we shall take the liberty of adopting the idea of our forefathers, by supposing all young gentlemen and ladies to be Children, till they are fourteen, and young persons till they are at least twenty-one; and shall class the books we examine as they shall appear to us to be suitable to these different stages of human life.    
Sarah Trimmer Guardian of Education (1802)

Look at the lists of publishers of contemporary fiction for young readers and on the children’s literature shelves in your local bookstore, and you might conclude that little has changed in the past two hundred years. Books continue to be classed ‘as they appear to be suitable to these different stages of life’. Baby’s first book, books for toddlers, books for under-5s, books for 6 to 9-year-olds, for 10 to 13-year-olds, and then… what used to be routinely referred to as teen fiction, but is now mostly known as Young Adult Fiction. Sounding very much like Sarah Trimmer’s ‘young persons’, this label seems to suggest that authors and publishers have collaborated in identifying and producing books for readers approaching adulthood, but who are not quite there yet. Philip Pullman and other writers and educators have been highly critical of the practice of banding books according to age. It seems to be based on the questionable assumption that young readers and the books they read can be neatly classified in fixed age groupings, ignoring individual differences in linguistic, cognitive and emotional development.

With young readers whose first language is not English, the arguments about age banding are further complicated by the additional demands of reading in a second or foreign language. (Indeed, the proposal that a colleague and I had rejected for the Hildesheim conference foundered on just such an issue – the feasibility of using the nonsense poetry of Lewis Carroll with a YL reading group.) But after the age of 14, strict age banding fades into the baggy category of Young Adult Fiction. And the books written for these ‘mini-adults’ begin to resemble adult fiction in a number of challenging ways. I read a great deal of young adult fiction, partly to inform work I do with teachers of teenage students but also because it’s simply ‘unputdownable’. But my inner teacher is never off duty for long, and in reading some of the most adventurous young adult fiction, I find myself puzzling over the question of what differentiates young adult fiction from fiction written for adult readers. Is it possible to identify distinctive characteristics of young adult fiction? Or even some general tendencies? Is there some kind of implicit consensus among writers, publishers, teachers, parents, and readers themselves, as to what constitutes a young adult novel? Are there tacit ‘rules’ that writers instinctively feel the need to adhere to? Where do we draw the line? Is it possible to draw a line?

Surely…

  • in terms of content, that there would naturally be some subjects that would be considered taboo, or at least beyond the experience, and therefore beyond the interest and understanding, of young adult readers;
  • in terms of style and structure, that writers would keep the organisation of their stories simple and straightforward, without excessive complication, and that they would use a single narrative voice;
  • in terms of language and voice, that language, apart from the direct speech of some characters, would be neutral and well-behaved, giving teenage readers a good model for their own writing, and that it would be fairly restrained when it came to ‘bad’ language;
  • in terms of narrative resolution, that at the end of a novel, even one with an unhappy outcome, some kind of order would be restored, a lesson would have been learned or there would at least be a sense of an ending, the satisfaction of closure;
  • in terms of morality, that bad deeds would not go unpunished, that even though characters might suffer hardships and setbacks, or behave badly, by the end of the book, we could expect some kind of redemption, or at least a hint that redemption was possible.


In fact, to my surprise and delight, the answer has been ‘none of the above’.

Content is perhaps the most obvious area where young adult fiction seems more ‘adult’ than ‘young’. There are young adult novels that deal with subjects such as child abuse (Melvin Burgess Nicholas Dane), hell and damnation (Anthony McGowan Hell Bent), drug addiction (Melvin Burgess Junk), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Elizabeth Laird A Little Piece of Ground), religious intolerance (Philip Pullman His Dark Materials), teenage sexuality (Melvin Burgess Doing It), teenage pregnancy (Malorie Blackman Noughts and Crosses), the Holocaust (John Boyne The Boy in Striped Pyjamas), rape, murder and revenge (Kevin Brooks The Road of the Dead) – in other words, pretty well anything an adult novel might deal with. This is not to suggest that all young adult fiction is issue-led, but there don’t seem to be any issues that good writers are afraid to tackle.

So perhaps it’s style and structure? Or language and voice? Melvin Burgess employs a dozen different voices to narrate Junk. Kevin Brooks uses fractured interior monologues in Kissing the Rain and Being to represent his narrators’ disturbed states of mind. The narrative of Anna Pereira’s Guantanamo Boy almost disappears entirely when its young narrator is subjected to sensory deprivation, with white pages containing just a phrase or two and then text that is defaced so that it becomes unreadable. The final chapter of Anthony McGowan’s Henry Tumour abandons prose altogether and concludes the narrative in the form of a graphic novel. Young adult authors do not always provide neat introduction, exposition, descriptions of locations and characters. Readers can be dropped into the middle of a dramatic situation like this without any support – they have to work out who’s speaking and what’s happening form the evidence they are given. This is the opening of Kevin Brooks’s Kissing the Rain:

You wanna know the TRUTH? I’ll tell you the TRUTH – I’m sick of it. Sick of all the FAT stuff and Callan and Vine and the bridge and the road and the cars and the eyes and the words and the lies…

  GOD.
  I wish I’d never been there…never got INVOLVED…
  Yeh, THAT’S what I wish. Din’t see nothing, dunno nothing. Me?
  I shoulda kept my big mouth shut. I DIN’T SEE NOTHING. ALL RIGHT?

(The use of capital letters continues throughout the novel, causing one reviewer to call it “the loudest book ever written”) The voice is real, or at least a convincing impersonation of a real voice, with all its phonetic spelling and non-standard grammar. And young adult fiction, like TV, film and other forms of literature, no longer avoids ‘bad’ language – characters swear much as they would in real life. Again, with much young adult fiction, the reader doesn’t feel that anything is being held back – writers like Burgess and Brooks allow their characters to speak and act naturally, without any sense that young readers are being protected from stories or language they will be aware of in the world if they read the newspapers or watch TV. As Burgess puts it: “Teenagers are able to contextualise themes in fiction in general more ably than their seniors and the business of making fiction out of the dramas of growing up has finally come in contact with what actually happens.” Melvin Burgess, Introduction to T-Books (2004)

So, is it resolution and redemption? Surely teenage readers require the reassurance that chaos is overcome and things are somehow put in order. But young adult fiction doesn’t always provide this narrative comfort. Here’s the end of Kissing the Rain:

I’m gonna stay here for ever, stuck in this hole, and NOTHING’S GONNA 
  HAPPEN…
  Nothing but time.
  Tick…tock…
  The Day’s gonna end…
  Tick…tock…
  Tomorrow’s gonna come…
  Tick…tock…
  And what happens then?
  Tick…
  Tock.
  GOD knows…
  WHAT YOU GONNA DO?

The reader is left not just with an open ending, but with an unresolved crisis. (Does the narrator risk his life by telling the police about the murder he has witnessed, or risk prosecution for not giving evidence?) The end of Brooks’s Being is similarly unresolved, with the narrator, evidently some kind of android, on the run from the secret service, but with no resolution offered. (While writing this piece, I asked a nine-year-old girl how she felt about unhappy endings. She said they made her cry sometimes, but so many stories have happy endings that a story that ends unhappily really makes you sit up and take notice…)

So, if young adult fiction is capable of telling the same stories as adult fiction, in the same voices, with the same level of linguistic and narrative experiment and the same degree of open-endedness, how do we know when we’re reading a work of young adult fiction? Perhaps its one defining characteristic is its use of first person narrators the same age as, or just a few years older than its intended readership. Aidan Chambers sums it up as a kind of literary alchemy “based on the elements of tone, content, point of view, thematic concerns, language and textual reference points” (Booktalk 1985). All of these elements are combined in the best young adult fiction and are subtly calibrated to match the sensibilities, intelligence and awareness of today’s teen readers.

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