Best of Brits: Celebrating Our Young Adult Fiction – Rich and Diverse Fiction – 27th August 2015.
Young adult has been a revelation in the publishing industry, the notion that not only is there a gap between the children’s and adults market, but quite how big a crossover genre it can be, with readers of all ages delving in.
A fantastic panel came to Edinburgh Book Festival to discuss the genre: Elizabeth Laird (Jake’s Tower, Crusade), Tanya Landman (Buffalo Soldier), David Almond (Skellig), James Dawson (This Book Is Gay), Agnes Guyon (Chair of Judges, Carnegie Children’s Book Awards).
So let’s start with the basics: their own teen years.
“I was a teenager in the 1950s,” says Elizabeth. “To be perfectly honest there wasn’t much to read. You’d go from Wind and the Willows and Alice in Wonderland straight onto Agatha Christie.” David concurs: “There wasn’t much; there wasn’t young adult fiction.” One who stands out was someone who wrote about life in Tibet, but was actually a plumber from Essex.
“I read Youtube,” jokes James. “I was around just at the advent of young adult.” Tanya picks up, “When you’re asked that every book you’ve ever read drops out of your head.” But what they can all agree on, while stretching to think of what they themselves read, was that there was no in between. There was children, then adult.
“The book that changed it for me was Mallory Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses,” explains James. “It made you think. I thought if I was to write a novel, it would be about teens, at teens. I think the reason we’re all at here is J K Rowling. Everyone woke up to the millions available in kid’s publishing.” If he’d have written his book in the 90s, he thinks he’d be met with confusion; by waiting, there was an industry to publish for.
“I’d never heard the term until I went to the US and the book was published,” notes David. “What’s young adult fiction? I didn’t know what it was.”
“I think it’s a really different category,” adds Tanya. “It’s down to where you put books in the bookshop. The danger with it is then a lot of adults are put off reading it. I don’t like categorisations. To me a book is a book is a book.” People can think ‘Oh no, it’s for kids’.
“I find all this very confusing,” admits Elizabeth. “I start with a story. Sometimes I pull them from my own life, sometimes I have to abroad and find them. Is it for children? I don’t know. How to people read books? I don’t think teens have changed. The way people read books is very individual. With categories, it’s a bit like you can’t read that.” People can flit between books and genres as they please, and in that sense nothing will have changed for teen readers.
It’s noted that the Carnegie Prize has gone prominently to young adult fiction in the last few years – is this a symptom of good work? “It doesn’t exclude things for younger people,” reminds Anya; several younger books are shortlisted and all are in with a chance of winning. “We can only judge what’s published and nominated, and vast amounts of the nominations are young adult. A lot of children’s series can be more formulaic; young adult experiments a bit more. There’s more adventurous and groundbreaking stuff coming through.”
“The problem with diversity,” begins James, “is that there’s a wealth of characters who just haven’t become bestsellers.” It’s an issue for bookshops and publishers: How can young trans people, or young disabled people, for example, find books about them? In W H Smith there are three types of books: John Green, David Walliams, The Hunger Games. Diversity is not represented on the front line, and libraries, a place where they can be represented, are constantly being cut.
“This is why we need librarians!” says Tanya to applause. “We need them!”
“The range and quality of work for young people is sensationally better,” says David. “The work is really fantastic. Children’s publishing is really experimental and optimistic.” Adult publishing is more cautious and scared, he feels. “The writing and variety coming through is amazing. The change from literary culture will come from there, not from adult publishing.”
The tip of the iceberg in looking at the booming genre of the last decade, but one that shows both the growth of teen literature and the optimism for the industry in its experimentation, while considering some issues they face along the way.