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Briefing Notes: Young Adult Literature

  • By Sarah Odedina
  • 29th July 2015
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Following the huge success of the 2015 Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) in London, Sarah Odedina explores the importance of Young Adult (YA) fiction in young people's lives and considers why YA books aren't afraid to tackle heavy subjects.

Up and down the country, and around the world, young people are devouring novels by authors who have cult status for them. Authors whose books sell many millions of copies and are translated into dozens of languages. The imaginary worlds these writers create are read and enthusiastically discussed by young readers across the globe, an audience of readers more in touch with the creators of their favourite works than any audience before them – and yet for many people, all this frenzied and fevered activity is invisible, as if it were happening behind a closed door. 

Young Adult (YA) writing, along with the active and committed passions of its readers, is ghettoised, separate from the recognised and honoured mainstream; rarely are these books reviewed in the broadsheets or their authors featured in book or culture programmes. However, YA audiences don’t seem to mind the lack of mainstream recognition. It’s no barrier to their ability to find out about YA authors and their books: these readers have much more effective ways of communicating.

In the past, it would have been called ‘playground marketing’, but today it is social media marketing that allows readers to share their enthusiasms and even access the authors whose work they cherish. YA authors tend to make sure that they are available to their fans, and the most successful of them expend a lot of time and energy on being part of a wider conversation about books – their own, and other people’s.

This environment of discussion and promotion is not driven by publishers, but by the creators and audiences of YA fiction. The most successful publishers in this arena are those who manage to overcome the desire to reinforce their corporate brand and instead leave the stage open to the most important people in our industry – writers and readers.  

The Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) was held in London from 17-19 July 2015, and it is a perfect example of the grassroots movement emblematic of the passionate YA readership. Inaugurated last year as the brainchild of then-Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, this exceptional three-day event brings many thousands of young adult readers from all over the country to meet authors, listen to discussions about books and writing and, in my opinion most importantly, meet other like-minded readers to congregate around their love of reading.

The hashtag #YALC was used more than 20,000 times over the course of the weekend, ensuring that those who could not attend were still able to participate. The programme featured more than 70 authors, and included important sessions like Being a Girl: Feminism and YA literature, Mental Health in YA, Troubled Teens: dark subjects and LGBT in YA – each of which wonderfully illustrates the courageous investigation common in YA literature, and the sort of themes that make the genre so beloved of readers. 

The world of YA is fundamentally political: YA books take on big and challenging themes, and through exploring these themes they enable their young readers to develop as individuals, to practice and polish their beliefs, and ultimately prepare for entry into the adult world. It is this dual focus on the public and personal that makes the content and consumption of YA fiction so interesting.  The idea that ‘the personal is political’ underscores the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures and this is, I believe, the philosophical backbone to literature for YA readers. It is this that makes YA fiction so compelling and meaningful for its young readers.

The years in which young people navigate the gap between childhood and adulthood are wildly challenging on every level. YA fiction can be a road-map to navigate that journey, giving the reader the opportunity to experience vicariously, safely, all the complexities of life. Readers will frequently find their own situation reflected back at them, helping them to feel less alone – or alternately may encounter situations very far removed from their own experience, experiencing, for the first time, people and practices that they will have no first-hand experience of.

Gaining empowerment through reading is one of the most interesting roles YA fiction can play. Books like The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and Divergent by Veronica Roth show characters – in both of these cases, young women – taking the initiative, challenging the status quo, pitting themselves against injustice and social exclusion and ultimately triumphing. This dystopian genre may seem like straightforward ‘entertainment and action’ fiction, but is in fact heavily focused on themes of empowerment. These are books that show the worst possible scenario and in that scenario give the reader radical examples of how terrible things can become, allowing them to formulate their own reactions and opinions. In this way, though the reader will never be tested in the same way as Katniss Everdeen, they can learn about injustice with her – and use that experience to inform their own lives.

Even historical fiction can allow a young reader to formulate their political opinions.  Witch Child by Celia Rees deals with the theme of the persecution of women as witches, as well as racial prejudice through the portrayal of white settlers’ relationship with Native Americans in North America in the 1600s. The novel very subtly draws out the ways in which women who did not fit the ‘wife, mother, daughter’ ideal and who lived outside the protection of the male patriarchal society could be victimised, accused of witchcraft and killed. When Mary, the main protagonist, loses her grandmother to this tyranny, she runs away to North America, where the prejudice she has suffered at home in England continues – but in this foreign place is mirrored with the prejudice shown to Native Americans, into whose lives the settlers have moved. Young readers feel great sympathy for Mary and the choices she has to make, and when she finds refuge in the Native American community the reader is offered hope that there are alternatives to the dominant ideological practices. 

Race as a theme has been successfully explored in books by Malorie Blackman:  Noughts and Crosses sets two racial groups in stark and often violent confrontation to one another, and small details point out very powerfully what it is to live in a world where your skin colour is never seen as normal. The plasters that people wear on their cuts are brown not pink; white skinned characters are marginalised and fearful of retribution for being outspoken or too opinionated. Their children are tokenistically allowed to attend the elite schools, but then barred from the best jobs.  It is a fantasy novel – but only because the skin colour hierarchy is reversed. The contents of the book, its themes and examples and message, are far from fabricated.  The effect of this on a teenage reader, either black or white, is to see a mirror held up to the world they know – and in seeing its reflection, the reader can question it, form judgements upon it and determine to make changes.

There has been much debate about diversity in YA fiction, and there is a flourishing of books in which characters of all sexual orientation are portrayed. LGBQ+ and trans characters now populate the pages of YA literature in a natural and normal way: they are the central characters, the motivators of change and the heroes of their own stories. No longer is it enough to have the ‘gay best friend’ as a tick in the character list, with all action and motivation in the book carried out by white, middle class, heterosexual characters. James Dawson, David Levithan, Liz Kessler, Lisa Williamson and so many more have all contributed to the current landscape in which difference is not abnormal or questionable.  And these are not simply ‘issue’ books as in the past: they are ghost stories, fantasies, psychological dramas and romances.  They are great stories with a truly diverse range of characters.

School settings are powerful arenas for the exploration of the personal and political themes that so intrigue and fascinate YA readers. It is here, in a world that so closely resembles their own, that young readers can gain insight, support and understanding of the issues that preoccupy most teenagers. Here we see the effects of bullying, the realities of being the new pupil, the issues of trying to fit in and yet remaining true to yourself. Creating tribal groups offers the writer and reader both the opportunity to explore ideas about exclusion and isolation – of course, ultimately finding a place, a voice and a way to be true to yourself.

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner explores the way in which a boy finds that he can stand up against the forces of oppression because of the strength he gains from a friendship that literally changes his life. In Non Pratt’s Trouble, characters are brought together because of their outsider status and in their union are able to face the parts of their past that have ensured their alienation from the group. They also find that those things are the essential bricks and mortar of their lives, learning pride and self-belief and acceptance. Qualities we all need in our lives. By sharing in the characters’ transformations, the reader is given the opportunity to reflect on their own social status and hopefully will find ways to be kinder and more accepting of themselves.

What better way to be empowered than to vicariously live the process of empowerment? What better way to fine-tune opinions than to see the possibilities injustice presents? What better way to experience life’s traumas than through the safety and security of fiction?

From a review on Goodreads for Heart Shaped Bruise by Sahina Bibi: ‘Something that touched me with the author’s writing style, was how you could feel the despair, and the anguish and even share the same emotions Emily shares. Though we may not have tread the same path as Emily, yet somehow, these emotions can still feature in our everyday life – and this touches us. It’s brutally honest.’

While the experiences and examples of the fictional world may be exaggerated and set in fantastical worlds, the sentiments and practice of questioning and positive action are ones the reader will need in their own life when considering who to vote for, how to respond to prejudice, where to stand on the social and cultural issues in their lives.

Literature for young people is the world in the pages of a book. Teen pregnancy, eating disorders, family issues, friendship stresses, international politics, first love, terminal illness: it is all here, waiting to be read and waiting to be learnt from.  Waiting to be used as the blueprints for a lifetime of opinion. YA fiction is more than a story. It is the opportunity to find out who you are and what you believe in from the safety and security of a book. It is a dummy run. It is a political environment.  Reading is a private experience which allows us to share worlds, a portal through which the private individual can enter a political environment and come back a changed being.  For caring, principled and passionate young adult readers, this is perhaps one of the things that makes reading such a compelling and meaningful experience.

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  • Tamara Laurel

    I recommend a book by Jim West called Libellus de Numeros (The Book of Math) that my 11-year-old daughter just

    finished reading. The story is about Alex, a young precocious girl, who mysteriously gets transported to a strange

    world where Latin and Math combine in formulas and equations with magical effects. With a cruel council leading

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    as it is the target for two evil wizards who seek to destroy the city and its ruling council. To help the city and

    also get back home, she will need the help of the greatest mathematician of all time, Archimedes. In a world where

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    A Goodread 5-star review said:

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    Libellus de Numeros means “Book of Numbers” and it’s a magical textbook in the story. Math and science are

    wonderfully incorporated into a captivating plot: Latin and math are presented as exciting tools to make ‘magic’

    and while Latin is often used as a language of magic the addition of math is definitely a fresh approach.

    “The main heroine Alex is a very relatable character for young people, especially girls. I love that she has her

    flaws and goes through struggles all too familiar to a lot of young people. Alex is an authentic female role model

    – a very courageous girl, who is not afraid to stand up for herself and others and who is able to learn fast how

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    “She can definitely do everything that boys can and I find this to be a very powerful message that is needed in

    our modern society. Furthermore, it was a pleasure to read through the pages of a well-formatted eBook. Highly

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