Monday, August 13, 2012

In defence of YA

You might have listened into the Radio National Books and Arts Daily program a couple of weeks ago when Andrew McDonald, Bec Kavanagh and I were there to champion our Kill Your Darlings YA Championship choices. Such a great chance to promote the championship and, though it was a very terrifying experience, it was great and scary and fun to be on the radio. I was very brave the other day and listened back to some of the program. Michael Cathcart asked us a question that I really wish I had heard properly, and responded better to, on the day. So here goes:

"Young adult fiction is sometimes seen as the poor cousin to adult fiction. Some authors I know get really frustrated when their publishers market them as young adult writers. What's it stand for?"

The idea that a YA novel is somehow inherently less worthy than a novel for adults is a really terrible and annoying belief, and one that has always driven me absolutely bananas. Worse, it ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the question does highlight what is unfortunately a quite common misconception about young adult literature and hopefully the Kill Your Darlings championship will go some way to enlightening the wider literary world. Let's call this open for discussion.

What does a young adult book stand for? As I said on the show, a YA book is about the teenage experience. The best YA books strive for - and achieve - a strong and accurate reflection of the experience of young adults. A common trait of a YA novel is a conclusion that gives the reader a sense of hope about the future, or at least a clue about how to best tackle life after childhood, after the teenage years. An adult book does the same thing, it's just that the protagonists are older.

Literary young adult novels are sophisticated, clever, philosophical. Their prose is complex, Carver-esque simple, florid, fast-paced, slow and sexy. Some YA is delightful and trashy. Some of it is awful. YA is not a genre, so all young adults novels aren't equal or comparable. A YA novel - and here I'm speaking generally - maybe doesn’t spend quite as long navel-gazing as some adult novels. Maybe. But the navel-gazing is definitely still there, picking at the fluff and feeling sorry for itself. A YA novel will probably have a strong focus on characterisation, because if you don’t get the character right a teenager is going to see right through you. Because a YA reader is discerning and intelligent.

Isn't it a remarkable talent to be able to tap into the unknowable, the complicated, the contradictory mind of a teenager? To understand them, and to create stories about them? And for them? Offer some kind of blueprint for life - without being patronising or didactic? All the best YA books do this, and they do it beautifully. I hate to think people feel frustrated by this label, because
writing for young adults requires something pretty special.

So let's have some celebrations and cake for the amazing YA writers, whose characters might not have yet turned twenty! Here's to more beautifully written YA books! Let's see more reviews of YA books in our newspapers! Let's have three cheers for the vibrant international YA community!

My ideas and theories and perspectives on young adult fiction are not all my own. I've been taught and inspired by a brilliant bunch of YA enthusiasts over the years. If you're reading this and thinking it sounds familiar, you can be pretty sure I've been listening to you, and I think you are the bees knees. You might be a YA specialist like Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, Lili Wilkinson, or Cordelia Rice, who are never afraid to say what they think, and who think some pretty amazing things. You might be John motherfuckin' Green, who has a win of Nerdfighters from all over the world never forgetting to be awesome, and who writes books about kids smarter than I'll ever be. Or my mama bear: YA lover and specialist herself, who gave me the best things to read when I was a teen.


  1. Yes! I really hope people stop looking down on YA and referring to YA books as children's books. Great post!

  2. Hallelujah!

    Kate, I want to bottle your above response and pour it out whenever someone asks me why I review so many 'children's books' or rolls their eyes when I recommend a YA novel to them.

    It's quite funny though, because if you ask any adult to list five of their all-time favourite books, chances are there will be a YA or middle-grade title in there somewhere. Whether it be 'A Wrinkle in Time', 'Where the Wild Things Are', anything by Enid Blyton, 'To Kill a Mockingbird', 'Catcher in the Rye'... those books, and our first reading of them, imprint on us. They stick with us and we end up passing the love of them on to our own kids.

    1. Thanks Danielle! Feel free to hose them down with it. Preferably from a high-pressure hose, such as one from a firetruck or hydrant.

  3. ...' a poor cousin of adult fiction...' I suppose I've assimilated this concept into my world view, dismissed it as paltry and wrong, and soldiered on, quite happy that I have colleagues and readers who don't think so. I wonder how long YA people will have to keep answering this dumb question? I think I'd just like to say 'YA exists. Get over it.' But good on you Kate for explaining yet again that it is not a genre, etc. You will get a gold medal in YA heaven for yr patience and fortitude.

    1. Thanks Jo. I think "YA exists. Get over it." is a pretty bloody great response. I shall use it from now on! x

  4. Hear, hear! The next time I'm asked whether I'll ever write a 'real' book one day I'll try to respond as eloquently.

  5. Oh, yes, "when are you going to write an adult book?" I.e. a "real" book. I always say,"Never." I write and read YA genre fiction because it's the last bastion of STORY as opposed to "beautiful language" which is what people say when you ask them what an adult book is actually about. But at the same time, YA is the only area in which I will read mainstream fiction. And as you say, kids can see right through you and they won''t bother with a book that doesn't grab them from the very beginning.


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