There were no Young Adult books when I was a child. There were children’s books, some of which were marked ‘for older readers’, there were a few imprints which aimed their titles at these older readers, but these were still ‘children’s books’. It seemed to work OK. You read children’s books, then for a while you read both children’s and adult books and then you mostly read adult books (unless you were me).
When I was sixteen, I found Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen. Published in 1956, it’s a romance of such innocence that it would never make it in today’s YA market. It’s closer to that uncomfortable upper-middle-grade/teen area that has no name but ought to really. Which makes the blurb in my edition all the more ironic – suggesting, as it does that the things that happen to the protagonist Jane at fifteen happen because the setting is America, and that they would be unlikely to happen before a girl was sixteen in Britain. What are these events? Jane babysits, she goes to the movies, she goes out to dinner in a Chinese restaurant with a group of friends. The kids can drive, it’s true, but nothing else. Did someone copy the blurb wholesale from the 1950s edition? Surely no one can have thought fifteen-year-olds led such sheltered lives when I bought my edition in the 1980s?
Having said that, when I picked this book up, aged sixteen, I found it spoke to me. Jane is ordinary. No superpowers, no great obstacles to overcome. And nothing of any great note happens in Fifteen – Jane meets a boy, there are some setbacks and then… no, I won’t ruin it for you. The thing is though that we see everything from inside Jane’s head, her triumphs, her disasters, embarrassment, irritation, misunderstandings, indecision, every tiny turn of feeling. For me this close inner perspective is the dividing line between most middle grade children’s books and the step up that is YA. Jane’s feelings seemed to me utterly familiar. I had seen a reflection of myself in Holden Caulfield, but how much more did I see myself in Jane Purdy. The tiny dreams, the pushing herself to be brave, sometimes to be rewarded with success but often with disappointment. Comparing herself to people around her, disliking them but also critical of herself. It’s such a very quiet book, I can’t imagine it emerging from the slush pile in today’s market. But it was this book I had in mind when I wrote my first novel What they don’t tell you about love in the movies.
Beverly Cleary wrote a lot of books, but the other ones that I know best are the Ramona series for younger readers, about a girl at first preschool and gradually older as the series progresses, along with her family and friends and the small events and her life. They are funny and rather charming stories of ordinary events in a small child’s life. And they sit very well alongside the charming ordinariness of Fifteen. Of course not all books should be quiet, but there are quiet stories to tell that can be full of character and drama and tension, and sometimes these stories get buried in an avalanche of fantasy and issues and thrills. I’ll take all these things, but give me a character that springs to life off the page and makes me care first and foremost.