Young Adult Fiction – some thoughts.

56. Young Adult Fiction

I recently bought and read a book called The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I had previously read The Shadow of the Wind by the same author and had enjoyed it immensely. This book advertised itself as ‘young adult’, which was quite a change of genre, but as I’m interested in books for younger readers I thought I’d try it. It’s a kind of thriller and a kind of ghost story, but I found it very disappointing. Neither the location nor the characters were sufficiently developed to enable me to get thoroughly into the book and the parts that some reviewers thought scary seemed overdone and ridiculous to me. However, it did leave me with some questions about young adult books in general that I want to discuss.

First of all, the genre is somewhat nebulous. Some authors and publishers seem to mean ‘teenage’ by the term – perhaps trying to lure teenage readers by calling them young adults. Some seem to mean they want to target readers between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and specialise in ‘coming of age’ stories. Yet others seem to apply the term to anything that is ‘lighter’ reading, stories that are shorter or less complex than what are presumably ‘fully adult’ books. Zafón says he wrote the kind of story he would have liked to read as a teenager but hoped it would appeal to all ages. I find all this confusing. The only conclusion I can tentatively come to is that publishers regard the term as a marketing tool.

Secondly, even if the target audience is young, I am not at all convinced that the readers deserve some of the stories handed out to them. Personally, I was reading ‘fully adult’ books at quite a young age, particularly the classics, and was perfectly capable of coping with quite complex plots, language and structure. I also had sufficient general knowledge to handle references to well known historical, geographical or scientific facts, etc.  However, younger readers do not always have the experience to empathise with older characters and might prefer  heroes, heroines, and even villains to reflect their own lives and emotions. This would be true, I suppose, of films and shows, too, so a middle aged detective (for example Poirot, or Morse) might appeal to fewer young readers or viewers, though I admit I enjoyed Poirot when I was a teenager. The main protagonists in Zafón’s story were teenagers, which actually made them less interesting to even the youngest of adult readers, particularly because the average adult would know quite well that most teenagers would be physically incapable of the heroic feats they were portrayed as engaging in. (A group of teenagers must confront a ghostly monster and try to defeat it.) I suspect most teenagers would know that, too. I accept that a lighter kind of novel is probably better without too many sub-plots or a cast of hundreds, and that a short novel can do without an overabundance of descriptive detail or philosophical meanderings, but I do think that plenty of people, both teen and adult, want light reading that still respects their intelligence. And I do think that teenage heroic figures need to be realistic, even within a fantasy or paranormal tale.

Thirdly, I was annoyed, in The Prince of Mist, and in some other YA books, by the over-simplification of the language. It is not necessary to avoid complex sentences or ‘difficult’ vocabulary even with older primary age students so they certainly shouldn’t be dismissed from YA novels. I am not sure whether Zafón or his translator was at fault but I found the results irritating and staccato. I have, however, found the same level of simple sentences in some books directed at an adult audience (including the Swedish Wallander detective series), so maybe it’s just a style I dislike. If a series of books are actually intended for people whose reading skills are limited, I suppose some publishers might advertise them as YA to avoid stigmatising readers. But that leaves other young readers short-changed. And I’m pretty certain the Zafón book was never intended for this category.

So these were some of my thoughts: I did, as a teenager, want stories with comparatively fast-paced action, but when I read Les Miserables (I was about twelve) I just skimmed the philosophical asides and carried on with the story. Zafón’s story had such fast-paced action I was unable to suspend disbelief. The only time I have ever needed a dictionary by my side (for fiction) was when I read (as an adult) Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and that was because I didn’t know, and wanted to know, some of the mediaeval architectural terms used. I think we cheat young readers if we don’t give them the chance to come across unusual words. There are stories, such as retellings of fairy tales, that demand spare language and simple sentences, but modern thrillers, in my opinion, do not.

I then began to wonder whether my own fantasy detective series is a YA series and whether I should, when I eventually publish, market it as such. It deals with coming of age, with starting a career and learning new skills, and with the beginnings of romance. In that sense, it’s about young people and likely to appeal to them.  The individual novels aren’t long epics – they average about seventy thousand words. They aren’t particularly complex, because each deals with one specific crime or series of crimes. There is, admittedly, a teenage dragon. But should I be concerned about what age group I am writing for? I started writing the series for myself, not for anyone else. And should I worry about the language?  It isn’t especially difficult but I haven’t tried to keep it simple. Something I have tried to do is to keep sex out of the stories, other than by implication, because I am not personally fond of finding explicit sex in what starts out as a lightweight detective novel. That’s really where the series differs a lot from some of my other work. It’s the only way in which I think I have leaned towards a YA series, apart from the subject matter.

I have enjoyed some YA books enormously. Others leave me less than impressed. This, I think, has been true ever since I was a teenager myself. What I don’t know is whether I should be using the term to describe what I have written – for marketing purposes – or whether I should simply ignore the entire issue. I certainly would not like to think my books were directed solely at teenagers, though I am fairly sure they would appeal to older teens and younger adult readers.

I’d love to have your views on the subject and I know some of you have written in the YA field. Can we define it? Should we? And is it a minefield or is it somewhere stories can find a comfortable home?

Meanwhile, to anyone who loved The Shadow of the Wind for its convoluted plot, detailed locations, three dimensional characters and beautiful language, be warned – The Prince of Mist is probably not for you!!

4 thoughts on “Young Adult Fiction – some thoughts.

  1. Admit it, it must be you who recommended The Shadow of the Wind to Offski. 🙂 She thanks me, and I haven’t even read it! Just in case I’m redirecting her thanks to you. *hands over*

    Coming to think of that, looks like the all children’s/teenage/YA thing bothers authors/publishers/booksellers more than kids themselves… Now, the easiest criterion I use is the age of characters – are they fifteen? So readers should be. But of course it’s a very crude way, and often inadequate. In childhood I didn’t see it that way. I loved Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, and Karl May, and Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and it didn’t flit through my mind at all – is it all actually for kids or not? OK, I was rather sure about Lofting, but I didn’t really think about it. Character’s age or ‘adult’ writing style, it just didn’t matter.

    I often find it half puzzling, half amusing, that classics – once written definitely for adult, like Defoe or The Book of Thousand and One Nights – sort of slide down to children audience with time. One can conclude perhaps it shows that all literature grows up in the course of history, but personally I like also how it reminds us that childhood is a sort of social idea more than reality, and certainly that kids often aren’t really so infantile as we use to think of them. We weren’t too, we just forgot it, all adults.

    When I was child, encyclopaedias were expensive and anyway rare to get (and I weren’t born in a big metropolis), we bought our first when I was nine or ten. That’s why I didn’t have the habit of reading with a dictionary at hand. It didn’t bother me in the least, though. I didn’t feel it as a lack. I was just used to learning words from the context. Admittedly I was sure for long time that ‘laconic’ means the same as ‘ironic’, but in general it worked OK. *g* In fact, I think that larding novels with rare words (not too much at once, of course) is the best way to teach them. One has to see them alive, in their natural environment, not only dead and dry on a dictionary’s page like butterflies in a glass-case.

    • It was definitely me. I recommended Shadow of the Wind to Offski and already know she enjoyed it! But as I also introduced you to her – or at least you met on my other blog – confusion is not surprising!

      There are books about teenagers that are surely for adults, or for all ages – and yes, books about adults that appeal to teenagers! For the pre-teens, I think it depends on their reading ability more than the subject matter. And yes, I also gained a lot of my vocabulary from reading. When words are ‘alive’ and in context, it is much easier to grasp them and make them your own! I like your comparison with butterflies!

      I think I will stop calling my own series YA even in my head. It didn’t start out with any age attached, and I was just swayed by some chat about ‘coming of age’ novels and marketing. I have now talked myself out of it…

  2. Interesting post. I would imagine it’s a fairly new thing and just marketing hype; perhaps it helps to fill genre quotas on the seller lists? In which case no need for it in e-pub…

    Certainly as I was growing up, although I had your influence as guidance and perhaps was less deterred from adult books than some kids might be, happily raiding all your bookshelves, it never once occurred to me to care about the age of the characters! I read and thoroughly enjoyed plenty of very ‘adult’ books along with the more obvious ‘younger reader’ novels. I hold very strongly to the belief that you can only learn by experience, and the best way to a wide vocabulary is not to stint on reading material. After all it’s how I was raised, and how we are raising my little boy, and look at the results! If we had only read baby books to Bean he might not be where he is now.

    One thing that must be remembered is that teenagers are growing up and looking towards older role models – perhaps they don’t always want to read about other silly teenagers! They get enough of that from their peers, after all. My main criteria in any book have never changed, and include a reasonable pace (I don’t mind slow bits but War & Peace just drags however you look at it), good, well rounded character development, and above all interesting things happening. Age, gender, culture, religion, sexuality, species — even whether they are the hero or villain of the piece! — do not matter in the slightest, providing the characters are interesting, believable and taking part in a good story.

    I think sometimes books can be over-compartmentalised – for instance you get ‘black fiction’ which I know serves the purpose to ensure black authors are recognised in a predominantly white market, but that surely doesn’t mean their work should only be enjoyed by black people, or only concern themes special to ethnic interests? The same with gay fiction – which admittedly, in romance or literotica HAS to be labelled so that you know which angle the love interest and sex is coming from! – but then as gay relationships are increasingly (openly) adopted in non-romance genres, the lines are blurred. Does a book move from horror scifi to gay fiction just because the main protagonists are a gay couple? I doubt it. Make them young and black too and you are really putting the list watchers in a quandary *g* Yet it’s exactly what is going on all over British TV – Dr Who for example, or the popular soaps – without a shadow of classification. It’s just put onto our screens as normal to modern society. And well done to the TV makers for doing it!

    I would hope people would never be put off trying something because of its classification (or lack thereof) but I am sure this happens; equally, I suspect that some authors who don’t really deserve to be in print manage to slip through the critical net due to writing in a niche market. Crap author? Oh but s/he’s writing for young gay blacks, there aren’t NEARLY enough of them, we must highlight this book! This only lets the entire side down, in retrospect. So it’s a difficult balancing act.

    In the end, I would say that if you are not deliberately setting out to create a story to appeal to a certain niche, then don’t market it as such. You can only be narrowing its horizons, at best. Stick to the classic genre labels – sci fi, fantasy, detective-thriller, horror, romance – and the best books in any case cross the lines of several, if not all, of those boundaries! Why add age discrimination to the mix?

    (Comments notifs enabled!)

    • A very interesting comment – thanks! I shall be re-reading this and considering it at length.

      Whilst there isn’t the same pressure in self-publishing, or even perhaps in e-publishing, to look at niches and genres, there are tag systems on e.g. Amazon and Smashwords which are intended to help readers find your book, and it can be difficult to decide how to define a book the best way.

      I’m thinking I shall avoid the more limiting descriptions where possible, and if I lose a few readers as a result, it doesn’t matter.

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