I started writing YA for a group of grown-ups. Actually, that’s not 100% true but it’s at least half way to verifiable fact. The thing is that I wrote ‘We Can be Heroes’ for my pupils (when I’m not penning novels I moonlight as a secondary school English teacher) but I also wrote it for my lovely grown up book group who – like so many contemporary adult readers I know - quite simply prefer YA.
Perhaps it’s best if I go back to the beginning and explain. I’d been writing for ages. I’d even had an adult novel published but then I had babies (two of them in quick succession – with disastrous effects on literary output, I may add). But after I’d got over the ‘pram in the hallway’ syndrome (about which I could write a whole other blog – or four!) I joined a book group, had an epiphany and became a young adult writer. Paradox? Not in my book.
The thing is that my book group was made up of knackered, time-poor, nappy-brained mums and, apart from teenagers, there is no more discerning group of literary critics than sleep deprived women. Where once upon a time we were prepared to indulge writers in their literary pretensions, now we didn’t have the time or the patience. But neither did we want to settle for literary pulp. We spent our day times with the Telly tubbies and Thomas the Tank Engine in our reading we really, really wanted to reclaim our brain cells.
So we demanded fiction that was intellectually and emotionally fulfilling but which was also accessible. And by accessible I don’t mean easy reading – I mean that if a book stood any chance of being read it had to demand our attention more noisily than our offspring (or our beds!). To stake a claim upon a slice of our day more vociferously than all the many other clamorous demands upon our time it had to be really damned good!
So we read a lot of contemporary fiction – or we tried to – but many books were abandoned half-read, discarded, given up on in exasperation, boredom or sheer exhaustion. Some felt like an endurance experience, others like some kind of test.
And then we discovered YA. Meg Rosoff came first – then Mal Peet and Frank Cottrell Boyce (he counts as YA, right?) We even flirted with Twilight (but middle-aged women with embarrassing teen vampire fantasies is a topic for another blog altogether!) Then we whizzed back to old school YA – Salinger and Hines and du Maurier (because the term YA may be neologism but the concept dates back way longer than the phrase!). We were a group of thirty something women, highly educated, well read – and yet every single one of us loved YA. And that was when I had my epiphany – and when I started writing again.
What I admired in the YA novels we read was the fact that they achieved extraordinary emotional impact yet with an economy of style and language that made a lot of adult authors (myself very much included) look positively self indulgent. And it made me realise that as a writer I’d been aspiring towards something (literary heights, I suppose) which I thought were only to be achieved through dense clotted prose – through flights of anadiplosis, zeugma, chiasmus and pathetic fallacy (forgive me, I am an English teacher – I like all those long words, especially anadiplosis cos it sounds like a friendly dinosaur!). But reading YA made me realise that the same impact could also be achieved through an economy of style, through sparse prose, through distillation rather than elaboration. After all, great literature should not require a degree or a classical education to appreciate it; reading should not be a test of endurance or a proof of arcane knowledge; and a plot driven, character rich, page-turning novel can also be one which leaves you breathless and thinking about it for weeks.
I’m not dissing adult fiction. In fact, I’m not actually trying to differentiate between adult and YA novels here because great fiction has always put the reader first. It is just that some contemporary adult fiction seems to have lost its way. Meanwhile the YA audience increasingly forces a certain discipline upon writers which is, in my opinion, conducive to incredibly exciting prose.
I teach English Literature to secondary school students so I know that the teenagers are the most demanding readers in the world. For many teens to be persuaded to pick up a book it doesn’t just need to capture their imagination; it needs to hold it hostage, grab it by the balls and refuse to let go till the final sentence. Because why should they bother otherwise? Unlike certain adult readers of my acquaintance, they aren’t out to prove anything in their reading. So unless mean Mrs Bruton (or the pesky GCSE examiner people) insist on them reading a book, they aren’t going to drag their attention away from Twitter – or Call of Duty – or Glee – for anything that isn’t flipping awesome!
If novels are to compete with modern media then it must learn from it, and YA fiction has been quicker to do so than its adult counterpart. And contrary to what some critics may say, this does not mean books dumbing down – it means raising their game. Because advances in modern media mean that YA readers have higher – not lower – expectations from fiction. Accustomed to hi-tech modern medium story-telling, teen readers demand immediacy and pace (perhaps the reason why so much YA fiction uses the first person and often the present tense too); they want high impact visual imagery (hence the poetic distillation often found in contemporary YA); and they insist on emotional punch along with a ‘no holds barred’ engagement with both eternal themes and the most controversial and challenging topics of the day.
Which is why I don’t just love reading YA; I love writing it! I love the freedom it gives me to meld together disparate influences, to be playful and serious, combining literary with levity, old with new. Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for teen trash TV – old school 90210, Dawson’s Creek, Glee, Heathers, TOWIE – I even love High School Musical (should I be admitting this?) but I can also analyse the hell out of Shakespeare and if you want me to go Post-Structuralist on the Victorian novel or do a Post Colonial deconstruction of ‘The Wasteland’ I’ll be your A* student. And whilst I always felt my love of Hamlet was incompatible with my Hannah Montana habit, writing YA gave me the opportunity to fuse the two.
‘We Can be Heroes’ pays homage to both Hannah and Hamlet; it’s inspired by ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Northanger Abbey’ but also by ‘Veronica Mars’, ‘Alex Ryder’, ‘Son of Rambo’, ‘This is England’ ‘Ways to Live Forever’ and ‘Anita and Me’. I get to use Manga alongside the epistolary form (there’s even a Manga comic strip in the back); juxtapose Google with ‘Great Expectations’; and what’s more I get to engage with the biggest questions of the today: terrorism, religious extremism, Islamophobia, but also address timeless topics like bereavement, loss, families and friendships.
Personally, I think that YA has always existed. It’s just that some clever marketing bod decided to give it a new name, package it in a sparkly new genre and give it the bookshop shelf space that affords. But books beloved of young and old have been around as long as the novel has. Du Maurier, Salinger, Jean Rhys, Barry Hines ... can I go controversial here and suggest Jane Austen (apart from Persuasion) Emily Bronte and Dickens? Books that push the boundaries of the form, embrace the new along with the old, keep pace with the most demanding of readerships and simply insist on being read. That’s the YA formula so it’s not exactly a no brainer is it - that’s why so many grown-ups love YA!