On a recent trip to Macedonia I was asked, by a fellow Australian traveller: is there really a need for Young Adult (YA) fiction or is it just a marketing gimmick?
As a fifteen-year-old and a compulsive reader I consume a lot of novels tagged ‘YA’, but when confronted with this question I was stumped (and, I admit, a little defensive). This was not the first time I had heard YA described or dismissed as no more than a publishing ploy to access a new market. Which I guess, it is.
The YA tag does encourage teenagers to buy and read books. The novels contain themes, character types, and problems, which do not exist—at least not in quite the same way—in the worlds of traditional children’s and adult fiction. Where could you find a high-school tale as real as Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower or as funny as Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging apart from the YA section of your local library or bookstore? Can a sixteen-year-old girl find someone to identify with in a book aimed at twenty-pluses, at least in the way she might with Alba in Melissa Keil’s The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl? Would a children’s novel deal with grief and chronic stress as heart-wrenchingly as E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars?
I first read Kim Kane and Marion Roberts’ Cry Blue Murder as a judge for the 2013 Inky Awards. Since then, five of my friends, my twelve-year-old sister and my grandmother have read my battered copy of this wonderful and disturbing novel. It explores, on a pretty creepy level, the dangers of the internet. We all read my copy in quick succession and it is now one of our literary touchstones. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read and I would not have discovered it without YA. The characters are so teenaged with their emails about annoying parents, dumb teachers and sibling rivalry. The crime that makes this a crime novel is hard-hitting for the iGeneration. It offers a cautionary tale about making friends with people you’ve never met over the internet. But the best part of this YA novel is that the narrators aren’t clichés: they are into sewing and poetry and photos; they read the same magazines as me; and come up with fake underwear businesses. I want to meet both of the protagonists, go to vintage clothing markets with them and brainstorm poetry and novel ideas. This book broke me because it was so convincing. It presented a utopian friendship and I fell under its spell (then it took a sledgehammer to my soul). Cry Blue Murder debunks teenage myths. It is bleak, dark, twisted, thrilling. The ending and message were just as hard-hitting for my friends. I remember one girl gasping and grabbing my arm at school one morning in an ‘omigod’ moment after finishing it.
Most of the time the books written for us don’t go full-adult. They push boundaries without destroying them (with a few exceptions) thus catering to the halfway stage between twelve and eighteen. We want to grow up but, I think, we also want to stay young. Jaclyn Moriarty recognises this in Dreaming of Amelia. When a Year Twelve student, Emily, is accused of being childish by her principal, Emily realizes that the graduating class is one of the most childish in the school. They even have a birthday party complete with balloons and fairy bread. They long for childishness; it is why they invent ghost stories, why they stubbornly refuse to grow up.
YA gives us more than great characters and themes. I love some YA for its writing. When I am reading I often stop to plague whoever is nearest, friend or family, with an excerpt that is funny, smart or just plain beautiful: ‘I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once’ (The Fault in Our Stars, John Green); ‘Her veins were never open. Her heart never leapt out to flop helplessly on the lawn. She was normal, always, at any cost’ (We Were Liars); ‘We both knew that what I said was the truth, as well as being a lie. The pure and honest answer was pinging between us, hovering above the weeds’ (Surrender, Sonya Hartnett). It is rare that I will read a novel without wanting to write something down, or highlight it on my Kindle, or read it to those around me. The quotes I adore and share are not always thoughtful and depressing; they can be funny, pop culture references that make me want to put the book down and scream ‘it understands me!’ YA is real, beautiful, it answers questions, and it understands.
Teenagers need YA because we want to read about people like us, who act like us, face the same problems as us. But also because we want to see more, learn more, be more: we want to grow up, we want to stay young.
Lily Stojcevski is a fifteen year-old bookaholic and blogger living in Tasmania. She won the 2014 Young Tasmanian Writers’ Prize (Senior Section), was a judge for the 2013 Inky Awards, and runs a small business providing target audience feedback on YA manuscripts at LilyReadsBooks.