Sunday, 15 March 2015

What does YA mean?

This is actually the tidiest part of my desk.

Not so very many years ago, I didn’t know what YA meant.  I’d never even heard of it.  YA fiction was always there, of course; it’s just that I wasn’t reading it.  Or maybe I was but I didn’t think of it as YA.  I thought of it just as those books you picked up in the children’s section - or perhaps took off the teen shelf if there was one.  Or - and this is actually most likely seeing as I was an English teacher for years – I thought of YA as those dusty books in the school stock cupboard.*  But now, of course, I write YA books and I know what YA is.  
Young Adult fiction.  Obvs. 
It’s a label that covers every genre of book from fantasy to horror to romance to thrillers to chick-lit to historical to belly-laughs to tragedy.  It probably covers more than that too.  And it’s exciting that, these days, THERE ARE SO MANY YA BOOKS and it’s also great that, aged 403, I can make up for the chronic lack of suitable reading material on offer when I was a teenager and work my way through some of this tremendous YA stuff.  But I read other things too.  Not just YA.  And sometimes it strikes me that LABELS ON BOOKS DON’T ALWAYS MEAN MUCH.  As a guiding reference, they’re a massively useful starting point  and, also, they’re a really good way to enable younger readers to choose their own books; but for older readers, labels do actually get in the way sometimes.  I’ll give you an example:
Over Christmas, I read a YA book called We Were Liars by e.lockhart.  It wasn’t what I was expecting.  It was daft of me to prejudge, I know, but I think I'd packed it into my suitcase because I fancied a quick effortless holiday read and I suppose I was expecting to sit back with my brain switched to energy-saving-mode and just be entertained.  Actually, I had to sit up and concentrate.  It was a very stylish piece of fiction and, in places, the language was poetic.  And the narrator?   Well... let's just say... she was unreliable.  (Yes, I know the clue was in the title but I was on holiday.)  Anyway, it was a chilling book.  OK, so not necessarily a full-on fun read but it definitely made me think, ‘WOW,’ when I got to the end.  Three months on, I’m STILL thinking about it.  And I’m thinking ‘WOW’ even more loudly now.  Because it’s one of those books that just won't get out of my head.  I could read it all over again – which I shall at some point – and make connections and observations that I missed before. 
But here’s the thing.  
The other week, I read Jeffrey Eugenides much-hailed best-selling novel The Virgin Suicides.  This time, I wasn’t expecting a quick effortless read.  How dare I!  Because, after all, The Virgin Suicides is a prize-winning work of literary fiction which has been admired by everyone from the New York Times to The Paris Review and which crops up on university reading lists all over the world.  And rightly so because it’s brilliant.  It’s the kind of book to make me think, ‘WOW.’  I’ll be honest, though; it’s not a fun read and I had to concentrate.  But it's inarguably a very stylish piece of fiction and in places, the language is poetic - and as for the narrators – yes, there are several of them – they are... well... unreliable is the best word.  Anyway, the off-shot is that it’s the sort of book that stays with you and makes you think ‘WOW’ every time you think about it.
Now do you see what I’m getting at?
We Were Liars is – imho – a brilliant book.  So is The Virgin Suicides.  And in terms of target audience, I can’t really pinpoint why one is YA and the other is general adult fiction.  They both have a sophisticated and unusual narrative style, they both employ a similar range of vocabulary and they’re both about teenagers.
And that’s my point.  Readers who categorically ignore YA because it’s too young/ too simple/ not challenging enough/lesser/inferior/yadder yadder yadder/blah blah blah are missing out on some truly great books.
Likewise, readers who reach an age where they don’t really need the safety net of marketing labels but don't ever choose to spread their wings and explore the rest of the bookshop or library are missing out too.  Because books like The Virgin Suicides are waiting.
I love YA.  
I love books.  
Regardless of which shelf they’re on.
Before I go, here are a few more YA and literary fiction connections I’ve been struck by over the years.  I’ve listed the adult book first because unlike We Were Liars and The Virgin Suicides these pairings aren’t a match in terms of age-appropriate content - but it’s a nice way in for adults to find some great fiction that’s been tucked away in the corner of the shop :) 
And my very last word is a shout out to the AMAZINGLY LOVELY kids I met at Millfields Community School the other day :)
*Yep.  Those ones about pet kestrels or nuclear war.

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