Tuesday 10 March 2015

A foot in both camps

I have a head full of YA at the moment. That's Young Adult for the uninitiated who might stumble upon this blog. There's the YA novel I've just published, What they don't tell you about love in the movies (you can read a sample here), and the big wide world of YA on the internet that becomes your constant companion when you are looking for a YA readership, joyful, moaning, opinionated, passionate, open to new ideas, just like the houseful of teenage (and nearly teenage) daughters I have around me.

There's so much YA around now. There's plenty of its younger sibling, Teen, too. But there wasn't any such thing when I was a teenager. A couple of publishers brought out imprints for older readers, but nothing really stuck around for long, and booksellers and librarians mixed these books in with the children's books anyway. Penguin had Peacock; I know my Little Women and I Capture the Castle were Peacock. Then later on they had Puffin Plus. So I was wondering was what I read when I was a Young Adult. Some of it is, of course, lost to me. I used to read all the time. I read books I borrowed from the library. I reread books I already owned. I read other people's books. I didn't buy all that many books because I didn't have the money and, being in boarding school most of the time, I didn't have the opportunity. So all I've really got to go on is the handful of books still on my shelf that I've written the date in.

Step into 1979 with me. The year I was 14. Here we go.

Here are some of the books I bought that I suppose might be labelled YA these days.

Or maybe Teen because they’re less edgy than a lot of YA. There’s no sex here, no teen ‘issues’. What makes them YA is that they’re about people on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. Other books in these series are about adults. Thinking about it, publishers might struggle to place these books now. Today’s YA characters are pretty much always teens. You could think of these as crossover I suppose, because they start with teen characters and lead them into the adult world, like Little Women, like Jane Eyre, though no one classed those children’s books when they were published.

Interesting that so many of the books I’ve kept are series. Series fiction, ever a favourite with publishers, is the mainstay of YA. Catch your audience once, and you can sell them a whole lot more of the same. No, not necessarily the same, that’s not fair, but you know what I mean. The difference with Flambards and the Earthsea books and Barbara Willard’s Mantelmas books is that each book can stand alone. I’ve wittered on endlessly in my blogs about my feeling that books should have proper endings, but I’ll just say it again because I can’t help myself: books should have proper endings! You should be able to read them in any order!

But look! I was buying children’s books too!

And I was definitely rereading all the children’s books on my shelves already (not in public though, not at school). I would have bought The Growing Summer because I already loved Noel Stretfeild. I expect I bought The Didakoi because I saw it on TV. There was a lot of good children’s drama on TV in the 1970s.

And at the other end of the scale, I dabbled in adult books. I wasn’t buying many of them yet. There were too many adult books on the shelves in a bookshop. I didn’t know where to start. I read them at school because that’s all there were in our school library. And I edged my way into adult books, picking up things my mother had borrowed from the library, looking at other people’s shelves, searching for adult books by children’s authors I already knew, reading stuff that had been on TV. Funny though, I can’t imagine my 14-year old daughter finding The Happy Prisoner appealing.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the other hand, is your ultimate crossover novel. Me and one of my friends loved it so much that, when called upon to create a magazine to sell for charity at school, we put nothing on the front cover but the word ‘PANIC’ in large letters in homage to Douglas Adams’ genius.

What do I take from this survey of my 14-year old reading? That I’m glad there’s YA today for my kids because it’s much easier to find something you want to read when it’s out there with a label on it. But I wonder if today’s YA needs to burst out of its teen bubble and allow some of its characters to grow up. And if it did, maybe some of these books might reach a wider audience. I read that KM Peyton didn’t think Flambards was a children’s books when she wrote it. I’m sure the TV series, which was primetime rather than in a children’s spot (such things used to exist, dear younger readers…) enlarged her audience, but if not for that, would it ever have reached an adult readership? The trouble with labels is that although they make it easier to find things, they also restrict.

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