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.

Comments

Greetings. Like many if not most of you, I have difficulties with most categorizations and in this case - who or what is supposed to be young, the reader or the fiction? According to the definitions in Alan's opening quotation at three quarters through my century I am still both a child and a young person - as well as being  some kind of adult. In the spirit of contributing to a discussion and seeking contradiction rather than agreement  I must say I'd rather start with finding our what a cross-section of young people actually read rather than speculate about what might suit them.   Osnacantab,  in First Life  Dennis Newson

.....and greetings to you, Dennis.Talk to any author who publishes anything that might be construed as 'literature for young people' and they will tell you how they tear their hair out at the categorisation that goes on (on their behalf, we presume) when placing books on the 'right' shelves in bookshops. Sad that we seem to live in an age when everything seems to need to be put into its place, even when it belongs to everyone at all times.  Alan talks about this in his reference to 'tacit rules that authors instinctively feel the need to adhere to' - the point being the huge question mark at the end of his sentence.Good point, Dennis.  What do young people actually read, want to read, aspire to read?  That, I suspect, is hardly a task undertaken by the faint-hearted, for how to disentangle what they actually read (if they read) from what they want to read from what they think others (teachers?) think they ought to be reading?  On the other hand it might be a simple matter of asking what narratives they enjoy - whether in literary, film or even musical form.

Sometimes they do not want to read, very frequently they do not aspire to read but they do if you give them something that interests them, that has the right tone and that is brought to them in a motivating way. I work a lot with poems, short stories, short extracts and I always feel rewarded when I see teens who claim not to read so involved in the stories I bring into class and asking for more. They usually like any topic that relates to their personal experience, their expectations and fears, they enjoy unexpected endings, characters they somehow identify with. However, no line can be drawn. Some of my girl students identify with Jane Austen's characters, others are more into Nick Hornby's characters. The reading experience is so personal...

Hello there,I was wondering if you could shre with us some of the short stories and poerty you are using with your students. thanks a lot, The Butterfly

Hi! I usually start with the late Louise Cooper's Short and scary and Short and spooky. 7th and 8th graders like those very short stories a lot. Some are only 4 lines long, others just one or two pages. Then I move on to Roald Dahl children's poetry, which they enjoy because there's always a twist. Sometimes you can use poems from David Patten as long as they're not too complicated and fit in the topic you're studying. The next step is Roald Dahl's short stories: Lamb to the slaughter amd Mrs. Bixby and the colonel's coat are always a hit. And from 10th grade onwards I try to use as many excerpts as possible from books realted to the issues we're studying: Levi Tafari has some interesting material, Junk and Sara's face by Melvin Burgess are good to talk about young people, plastic surgery, etc, the first chapter of Confessions of a shopaholic is great for Consumer society, High fidelity has some parts that are great for people's description, young people and relationships, music... Well, the list might go on and on. As I read a lot I'm always looking for something that may be relevant for classes. And if you give them a text they like, they're even bound to order the book in English and read the whole thing. Right now I have students reading David Nichols One day, Nick Hornby's Slam and The freedom writers' diaries. I hope my suggestions will be useful Luísa

Personally I don't think that age banding is that bad. Some people might remember a magazine called Just 17. How many Just-17 year olds read it? Probably not many. It was read largely by 14, 15, 16 year olds who wished they were 17. A nine year old who reads books that are aimed at 12-15 year olds will justifiably feel proud. True, that means that 15 year olds with a reading age of 9 could feel bad but there are a growing number of books to cater for this (sadly) growing market.   I'm interested in the crossover between books for language learners and those for reluctant readers. Would the books have to be adapted or can they be used immediately? I'd love to hear with anyone who has experience of this.Jeremywww.jeremytaylor.eu

I know there are all types of readers nowadays and big business involved, so maybe some will hate me for saying I don't really like them. I enjoy reading and giving my students the real thing. Of course it's hard work to find something that will meet their interests as well as their knowledge of the language, but the results are worth the trouble. And from what I see, once they read the simplified version, they never read the original, missing out, thus, on the writer's style and so many other interesting details. But, that's just my view. Luisa

I'd certainly agree with Dennis & Fitch that the best way to find out about young readers' reading tastes is simply to ask them what they enjoy reading. In practice, of course, this kind of investigation may be skewed by the effects of publishers' promotional spending, movie tie-ins and the viral nature of the word-of-mouth buzz that surrounds publishing phenomena like Harry Potter & the Twilight tetralogy. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that once they get to an age where they are developing more discerning tastes in reading (and I’m not specifying the age as it will vary from child to child), they begin to know what they like rather than just like what they know. The most exciting kind of reader development is the one that takes a young reader from book to book because they read another book by that author and liked it, or because the title caught their imagination, or because a friend said “You’ve got to read this –  it’s brilliant, I couldn’t put it down”, or because they liked the picture on the cover, or because they’d seen the film and wanted to see what the book was like, or for any reason whatever, whether trivial or more considered, that isn’t because our teacher told us to. Teachers can offer guidance and information about books, but if young readers are going to continue reading as they get older, reading must be allowed to be something personal, something that isn’t touched by the apparatus of the classroom, something that belongs to the readers themselves. I think “limaluisa” (Luisa from Lima?) sums it up perfectly when she refers to “something that interests them, that has the right tone and that is brought to them in a motivating way” and “any topic that relates to their personal experience, their expectations and fears, […] unexpected endings, characters they somehow identify with”, and even more so when she reminds us that “the reading experience is so personal” and that “no line can be drawn”. The children’s fiction reviews in the quality press will give you some signposts as to what’s worth reading, but more reliable sources of reader-centred information about books can be found online, on one of the many websites where the reviews are writte by young readers themselves – just try searching for “children’s literature + young reviewers” and you’ll see what I mean. Jeremy makes a good point about age banding being justified by the way in which it is subverted by the desire of readers themselves to ‘punch above their weight’ and read at the next level. His query about the potential crossover between books written for language learners and those designed for so-called ‘reluctant’ readers (an unfortunate and I believe often inaccurate label) is an interesting one. I’d prefer to call the latter type books to motivate young readers, but they are certainly an under-used resource in ELT. An excellent example is the publisher Barrington Stoke (www.barringtonstoke.co.uk, who specialize in books for young readers with dyslexia and those who for one reason or another have difficulties with or blocks about reading. Their books are written by some of the leading writers for young readers (e.g. Malorie Blackman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Kevin Brooks, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Adèle Geras, Jan Mark, Michael Morpurgo, Bali Rai, Robert Swindells and many others) and they share a number of key characteristics with the ‘readers’ written for EFL / ESL learners, i.e. graphics and cover pictures that wouldn’t look out of place on an airport bookstand and a high level of restraint in terms of vocabulary, grammatical complexity and story structure. An additional feature is their visual appearance, as font sizes and line spacing are chosen for ease of reading by children with dyslexia. Many Barrington Stoke books would fit well in an EFL class library. But equally, some EFL ‘readers’ (graded originals rather than simplified classics) could find an audience outside of EFL if only the publishers could think outside the box. I agree with Luisa when she says she prefers ‘the real thing’, though she’s talking about simplified ‘readers’, but both Barrington Stoke books and graded original fiction for the EFL market occupy a peculiar space between the real thing and the artificially constructed thing that is the simplified version. (Orwell describes the streets of London in 1984 as ‘grimy’; a simplified version changed this to ‘dirty’; John McRae in Literature with a small l) suggests that literature is the difference between ‘grimy’ and ‘dirty’.) They are not quite ‘the real thing’, i.e. not written for the widest possible readership, but neither are they reduced to the lowest common denominator of the vocabulary list and the permitted set of structures. This discussion will remain open for another week, and I hope that some the many readers who are lurking out there will add their thoughts….

I don't know if the dearth of postings in this thread means I haven't been contentious enough, or if everyone out there is simply nodding silently in agreement, or if it has just been the wrong time of year for a discussion to take off, but I wanted to wind things up with a few final questions. No answers (there never are) but just a summary of questions that have arisen through the discussion…
1. Next time you pick up (and hopefully read) a book labelled 'young adult fiction', ask yourself if you can visualise its ideal reader. Male or female? Young teen, mid-teen or older teen? With any particular background and interests? Is it a book that you can enjoy yourself as a reader without feeling that you're a literary tourist, reading something that isn't actually written for you? Is it a book you could have read as a teenager, or does there seem to be a new profile of 'teen reader'? Or could the book have been published for an adult market?
2. When giving learners advice and guidance on extensive reading, do you encourage them to read at a level slightly beyond their current level of competence or to stay within their comfort zone? Should extensive reading be challenging or reassuring?
3. Is age banding a useful guide for parents, teachers and young readers themselves, or is it, as Fitch suggests, part of “an age when everything seems to need to be put into its place”?
4. Is there a role for simplified books? Or, like Luisa, do you believe in giving your students “the real thing”, and that the hard work involved in finding appropriate texts is always “worth the trouble”?

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