Why young-adult fiction is a dangerous fantasy

19th August 2016 at 01:00
Total eclipse of the smart: young-adult fiction is often no better than celebrity gossip magazines
It’s time to acknowledge that publishers have systematically deprived generations from becoming literate adults by favouring gossip over real culture, argues Joe Nutt

I’ve drafted an outline for a bestselling young adult novel. It features a transgender school dropout with autism who meets a self-harming vampire with a heart of gold, hell bent on bringing peace to the world. Together they embark on a magical quest to find an ancient crystal with the power to render all weapons useless. Oh, and the protagonist’s mother makes a living selling legal highs to illegal immigrants.

For almost 20 years I taught English to teenagers and spent a lot of that time experimenting with classics and new books, always looking to find writing that would excite their interest and nudge them that little bit closer to becoming genuinely literate adults. I somehow managed to do this without ever being aware that there was some quasi-psychological state which I was entirely ignorant of – and which I had somehow managed to skip myself – called young adulthood. In that time, I learned a significant lesson. Nothing is more guaranteed to turn a teenager off a book than sensing the writer is proselytising.

So why are the young adult shelves in bookshops and the noticeboards in school libraries crammed full of invitations to read books spluttering and gagging on the foul-tasting medicine of their own good intentions?

Several generations of teenagers, especially boys, have been effectively prevented from ever becoming literate adults by a publishing industry that has decided young adult readers have an insatiable appetite for what amounts to nothing more than gossip fodder, the endless recycling of petty anxieties and celebrity confessions that choke the pages of magazines placed strategically at the supermarket checkout. So much young adult fiction is little more than a florid expansion of those headlines about the new love in Jennifer Aniston’s life, Taylor Swift’s dietary obsessions or Kim Kardashian’s latest sex tape.

Connecting young minds

I recently met a sales director for a major UK educational bookseller who was in despair at the way school libraries no longer held any of those crucially exciting, factual books, and were emptying shelves of those oddly shaped volumes packed with superb illustrations and fascinating facts so often responsible for connecting children’s minds to the real world and the privileges of a civilised culture. She also told me how there was a complete absence of non-fiction being published for schools or for teenagers today. It seems as though we have communally decided these young adults are either too stupid to be addressed respectfully, or too obsessed with their own anxieties and bodies to engage with the far more demanding world of ideas.

It’s time we took a frank, retrospective look at the past few decades and acknowledged that we have systematically deprived thousands of children of their literary inheritance

It’s time we took a frank, retrospective look at the past few decades and acknowledged that we have systematically deprived thousands of children of their literary inheritance, of a timely and natural introduction to the concept that you can engage with the minds of some of the most intelligent adults in the world through the books that they write and have written. This isn’t about education ministers asserting their youthful passions for Shakespeare. It’s a far more sweeping cultural challenge than anything that emerges blinking into the sunlight after a hasty cabinet reshuffle. It’s about a whole range of responsible adults recognising that learning to read doesn’t stop the moment a child enters the gates of a secondary school. There is a world of difference between being able to decode symbols on a page and engaging with the thoughts and ideas of intelligent men and women who have important things to say, things which may even make that adult life, still some years off, a richer and a happier experience.

A publisher’s responsibility

It’s not about impoverished vocabularies or communities, it’s about how we have sliced through the umbilical connection between generations that all civilised cultures have valued since they first grasped what writing could achieve. If you don’t encourage and enable teenagers to exploit that connection to their advantage in adult life, you condemn many to frustration, disenfranchisement and failure.

If I were a publisher I would be asking some serious questions about the cultural value and validity of the young adult fiction agents are peddling. I would be asking them where are those vital books for teenagers that introduce them to the real, adult world? Books through which someone on the cusp of growing up gradually comes to appreciate what that means in terms of roles and responsibilities? For far too long publishers and others have patronised or turned teenagers off reading entirely with books they think are good for them, instead of helping them seek out and enjoy books that matter.

No surprise, then, to witness the cringingly adolescent belligerence of many party activists embroiled in the current political machinations notably failing to grace our TV screens; angry, thwarted young men and women who probably think that Voltaire is a budget airline.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

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