What is it about young adult fiction? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that YA is having an especially bright moment. The last few books I loved - Paper Towns by John Green, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours – all sit squarely in the YA category.
One of the things I love about YA is the gripping and revelatory storyline that so often characterise these works. Aspects of adolescence and coming-of-age allow for exciting journeys, character transformation and learning curves. Arguably more than any other category, YA often leans heavily on the myth template of the ‘hero’s journey’; a hero goes on an adventure and encounters challenges that bring about a personal transformation. The road trip of John Green’s Paper Towns is one such journey: a reckless traipse across several states in pursuit of a girl who may or may not care. It might seem pointless, but it’s not; the challenges and joys of the trip bring about fundamental change to the hero. Quentin changes his outlook and views of the world – and perhaps, so does the reader, being reminded that it is a “treacherous” thing “to think that a person is more than a person”.
YA fiction often offers fascinating insights into society as though seeing it anew. Dystopian and speculative fiction, in particular, re-models the real world into an intriguing parallel space. It’s been noted before that adolescence is a reflective time during which young people might begin to think for the first time about their own lives and their place within larger structures like politics, church and society. In this context, a startling apocalyptic world can offer insights into the institutions of the real world. In Louise O’ Neill’s Only Ever Yours, the world that enslaves women bears uncomfortable parallels to our own society. O’Neill offers a feminist critique of modern society by highlighting ordinary aspects of misogyny in an extraordinary context. Malorie Blackman’s classic speculative Noughts and Crosses series employed a similar tool to great effect; Blackman created a world of reverse racial groups to highlight the absurdities of racism and social class. Reading this as a young teenager, I was forced to take a critical look at inherent social assumptions about class, privilege and power.
As Young Adult fiction can be influential in forming teenage opinions and views of the world, it’s important that it should be unafraid to tackle big issues: racism, mental health, death, sex and consent. YA fiction is frequently more daring than general adult fiction when it comes to dealing with these kinds of themes. In particular, there is a willingness to address darker aspects of human experience. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places tackles mental illness and suicidal thoughts, while Gayle Forman’s If I Stay deals with death and near-death experience. There can still be reluctance among publishers, however. Louise O’Neill writes that when she tried to publish Only Ever Yours, “more than one editor expressed their concern that a book for this age category could not be so distressing… It was as if they assumed that all teenagers enjoyed lives free from sadness or worry or doubt, that teenagers would be unable to cope with a book that had slightly insidious undertones”. As O’Neill implies, YA can be dark and edgy because teenage lives often are dark and edgy – or have the potential to be. Teenagers meet challenges (big or small) and push boundaries in their everyday lives.
Regardless of your age, it’s a good time to pick up a Young Adult novel. You might just be challenged; you might learn something new about yourself and about society. Let’s hope that the YA category continues to produce works that are gripping, exciting, challenging and mind-opening.
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