First, to clarify; I’m not that old.
Instead of a rocking chair, shawl and knitting, think professional, competent and cool—and ignore my family laughing in the background. A few years ago, the birth of my first grandchild brought home that I was approaching my mature years, but I didn’t see any reason why that should change my reading habits.
Since my age first hit double figures I’ve been reading books aimed at a wide variety of audiences, whether children, teenagers, adults, female and/or male. There were a few ‘adult’ novels I probably read a bit too early, but that’s what happens when books like that are left around the house and a voracious reader doesn’t have access to enough appropriate literature.
Since I was a kid, I never stopped reading books aimed at kids or teenagers.
I read all sorts of other things as well, but I don’t see any reason to give myself an arbitrary limit on reading material based on what publishers decide is their target readership. When I write I don’t stop writing a story because the protagonist is a particular age. I should probably re-evaluate if it’s a crap story, and that’s the same issue when I’m reading, but protagonist age, viewpoint or intended target audience don’t have anything to do with whether it’s a good story, reading or writing.
Sometimes I read a YA book simply because it’s great entertainment, like much-lauded and much-maligned The Hunger Games. Other times they’re brilliant in every sense of the word, like Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. There are so many excellent YA books, including a huge and growing list of Australian titles, that there’s no way I can keep up with all I’d like to read. If I’d had these sorts of books around when I was a teenager I would have read a lot less inappropriate stuff.
Books with rich subtext and emotional truth abound on YA shelves.
Melina Marchetta’s novels Looking for Alibrandi, Saving Francesca and On the Jellicoe Road are three excellent examples, as are Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy. The stark realism of A.J. Betts’ Zack and Mia, or the ambiguity of Garth Nix’s Clariel give a lot of food for thought and discussion.
Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae, written as found documents in a format which encourages reluctant readers, is a space science fiction epic which encompasses the ethical dilemmas of corporate greed, epidemics, quarrantine, and the lengths we will go to survive. Tristan Banks’ novel aimed at the younger end of YA, Two Wolves follows a boy on the run with his family and how he comes to terms with his origins.
Guilt and grief are themes in Trinity Doyle’s Pieces of Sky, and it would be difficult to surpass the honesty and depth of David Burton’s memoir How to be Happy. Fleur Ferris’s Risk has authenticity and psychological sophistication far in excess of most adult novels of crime and loss I’ve ever read. There are so many more I could fill up pages, and already have.
The oldest of these books was published when I was more than a decade past the target audience, and several have been published in the past year or two, now that—let’s just say—I’m a long way past the target audience. Does that mean I should forgo the pleasure of such excellent reads?
Besides, how else is a bookaholic, pop-culture loving grandmother going to keep in touch with what it’s like to be a teenager today? I have no illusions of fitting in to the teenage scene, or that the reading sub-culture represents all teenagers. On the other hand, no sub-culture represents all of them and diversity is improving.
Diversity in Australian YA books is emerging
It’s also the most accessible to me, except for Youtube and blogs, which I use but find a huge time sinkhole. The experience of reading, of seeing through a modern protagonists eyes, or even knowing what teenagers around you are talking about, helps keep perspective when the inevitable ‘this-generation-doesn’t-do-X-like-we-did’ discussions arise.
But I’ve also found that sometimes I can bring another perspective to YA books. Teenagers, naturally, read YA from the perspective of the teenage protagonists. Those of us who are older—much, much older—read with the protagonist’s perspective, but also with more life experience. One blogger I read recently talked about how her parental impulses when reading some YA books now are making her feel old, and at the time of writing she was the grand age of twenty-one (here). It’s true, though, that sometimes there are things in YA novels that are easier to see from an older, more experienced perspective.
While some teenagers may see things I don’t because they’re immersed in teen culture, sometimes I see things they miss.
I’ve come across quite a few articles disparaging adults who read YA novels. It’s strange. The arguments just seem silly. It’s like telling me I should watch Downton Abbey and trying to shame me for watching Tomorrow, When the War Began. They’re both excellent programs, so why shouldn’t I watch and enjoy both?
Sure, I read other types of books and enjoy them. As time goes on though, I’m finding that I’m getting impatient with some adult books. Not all, just some.
You see, YA novel authors have to be good these days—very good. Why?
- Competition to be published is, as in all publishing, fierce.
- There’s generally a limit of around 70-80,000 words, on the higher side for science-fiction or fantasy to account for the needs of world-building.
- Stories tend to be complex (contrary to the belief of some) so there’s a lot to pack in. YA authors have to write tight.
- Teenagers have highly tuned crap detectors. If a novel starts getting airy fairy with language that doesn’t convey a clear meaning, teenagers will call it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t beautiful writing—there is—but it also has to be rich in meaning. There’s no reading a line or paragraph three or four times to work out what it’s saying.
So, when I start a huge Booker-nominated door-stopper, and in sixty pages there’s been some lovely airy descriptions and a lot of musing, but I still haven’t reached the premise of the book… I might just use it as a door-stopper.
Once upon a time I would have ploughed on. Someone who’s supposed to know about literature thought this was a great book, so I should finish it and find out why.
Not anymore. I look ahead and realise that I have a finite number of books I can read in my life.
A boring Booker-nominated door-stopper will take up the time which could be devoted to two or three other books I could enjoy and learn from. One of them might be a different Booker-nominated novel that I love. Another will probably be a Young Adult novel.