Young adult fiction: a waste of time or an invaluable way to engage readers? Fans and critics have their say
Is young adult fiction a force for good that helps to engage young people in reading? Or is it a waste of time that is turning readers away from more serious literature?
When education consultant Joe Nutt wrote a highly critical piece highly about young adult fiction, he accused publishers of depriving readers of the chance to become literate adults. Not surprisingly, it provoked a storm of reaction from supporters of the genre, with author Juno Dawdon accusing Nutt of being “deeply offensive”.
It’s time to acknowledge that publishers have systematically deprived generations from becoming literate adults by favoring 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.
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.
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
An author responds ... 'Modern YA provides a link from the safety of children's fiction to the unpredictable content of adult novels'
I wouldn't usually enter into internet debates, because they're usually just a case of rudeness versus reason, but I didn't want to let Joe Nutt's earlier piece go unchallenged for a number of reasons.
Let's first tackle the deeply offensive first paragraph in which he suggests modern young adult fiction is a mealy-mouthed liberal cardigan made up of transgender and autistic wool. Firstly, I read a lot of YA, and I can assure him the vast, vast majority of characters are still white, heterosexual and cisgender. This is something I've been campaigning against my whole career.
Moreover, don't minority characters belong in fiction? Is that really what he wants to be saying? Real life features both transgender and autistic characters – so should books. Also, he does rather seem to be suggesting that readers (particularly young men) wouldn't be interested in exploring characters dissimilar to them. I think that's utter garbage. What is reading for if not to walk around in someone else's shoes for a few days?
As is so often the case with our twice-yearly attacks on YA fiction, I find it hard to believe that Mr Nutt has actually read any. In his assertion that young adulthood isn't a distinct developmental stage, he forgets that being "teenage" is a relatively new chapter.
In the early twentieth century, teenagers were working or fighting from early adolescence. Fiction of the time often skipped over this unfortunate truth. It's logical that late twentieth-century and modern fiction would expand to include readers who were educated for longer and provide them with stories relevant to the time they inhabit.
I can't even get into the "boys' books" argument, because it assumes there is one way to be a boy. There is not. Boys like all kinds of books, featuring all kinds of characters. Some boys, unfortunately, hate reading. Some girls hate reading too. At school, I hated football. I still hate football. There isn't a football, or indeed footballer, out there that would get me into football. Such is life.
There is some lovely non-fiction out there too. In fact, my own This Book is Gay has been translated into fifteen languages. Those Minecraft books didn't do too badly either. In the internet age, non-fiction has to stand out (although I note much non-fiction at present is, in fact, YouTuber content).
Modern YA fiction doesn't need me defending it. Look at Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree winning the overall Costa book of the year award in 2015. Look at Patrick Ness' A Monster Calls, the adaptation of which is coming to cinemas this autumn. Look at John Green, Holly Smale and Zoella (and her book club picks) dominating bestseller lists.
YA is in fine health, inspiring readers to pick up a book. To suggest a book written for young adults has any less merit than the classics is sheer snobbery, often with hints of misogyny as the interests and pursuits of teenage girls are deemed inferior.
When I was 13, and part of the last generation to be without an abundance of young-adult fiction, I went straight from Nancy Drew to Stephen King. Hardly ideal. Modern YA provides a link from the safety of children's fiction to the unpredictable content of adult novels. Sure, authors like Melvin Burgess, Kevin Brooks and Louise O' Neill have explored some very adult issues, but the key word is "explored". Younger readers are introduced to how awful it can be to be human within parameters.
Any YA author is quite used to being patronised, but we sleep comfortably knowing we're writing some of the most compelling, relevant, inventive, inspiring novels on the market at the moment.
Why not try one? You never know: you might like it.
Juno Dawson is a writer and award-winning author of young adult fiction.