I am a member of two adult book groups and also, as a member of CBCA, I read widely from so called ‘children’s’ literature and most specifically a lot of young adult and older reader fiction, perhaps a hangover from my years as a senior secondary teacher.
As a CBCA judge I experienced the conundrums of trying to separate young adult literature from teenage literature (older reader as outlined in the CBCA guidelines) and YA (young adult) from adult literature. Just where does the line come and does it really exist? And should it exist? After reading several really good YA books and some really boring ‘adult’ books, I’m wondering how the publishers distinguish between the two. I also wondered how many really outstanding young adult books are neglected by adult readers just because they are marketed as young adult material. Cases in point include Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, Stephanie Myer’s The Host, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I must admit that this last one did get shifted from YA to adult once the publishers and book sellers discovered its wider potential.
However the point is that some adults appear to dismiss YA literature out of hand just because it is labelled YA. I have managed to persuade one of my adult book groups and some mature friends to read Jasper Jones and Kill the Possum by James Maloney and these books have been greatly enjoyed, but one of my YA favourites, The Host, suffers from its connection to The Twilight series. It is a real pity in my opinion that this imaginary line between YA and adult fiction is guiding adult readers away from some of the best literature being published.
Yes, the line is an artificial conceit dreamed up to ‘protect’ children from reading unsuitable material and to avoid irate parents objecting to materials set as texts in schools but as CBCA is an organisation to whom parents refer for guidance about suitable books, we need to know what we are talking about. As far as early readers, babies and toddlers, and younger readers from five up to 12 are concerned, the lines of suitability are quite easily drawn, although Morris Gleitzman has pushed this boundary with his series Then, Now, After and Once. But at the other end of the scale things are far more problematic.
Obviously by the time readers reach 18, they are mature readers in terms of vocabulary and intellectual capacity and perhaps only life experience separates young adult from adults. However even this is a great generalisation when one thinks about the young people in war zones with the army, or those students who spend their holidays building schools and clinics in Cambodia or, even more pertinent, those refugee teenagers who have fled from war torn countries and witnessed and lived events most Australian adults only understand through explicit news bulletins.
So what are the differences? Well, sex and violence is generally less explicit, more subdued and less gratuitous in YA but that probably adds to the literary quality of YA rather than detract from it. The text is usually more succinct in YA but that is also a positive for me. My last several ‘adult’ books have taken almost a third of the book before really grabbing my attention. ‘More grown up’ doesn’t necessarily mean the writing has to be verbose and as for lyrical prose, that is certainly present in YA literature. Try Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley. So if I contend that the quality of writing is at least equal if not better in YA literature, what does set these categories apart?
It comes down to themes, plots and genre. Apart from the perpetual murder mysteries, forensic investigations, historical, travelogues and biographical varieties, the imagination and scope of adult literature seems to pale into insignificance next to YA - or is that just a product of my choices? Granted, real life and politics feature highly and successfully in the adult category. You can’t get more relevant than Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes (about a high school massacre) or Anna Funder’s All that I Am (about Nazi activities outside of Germany before and during World War II). Why was this not part of my history lessons?
But by choosing YA I can not only read about real life as in The Convent by Maureen McCarthy but I also have access to the far more interesting and gripping post apocalyptic, dystopian, steam punk, fantasy and hybrids of all of the above that are being published now. Try Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy (steam punk) or S.D Crockett’s After the Snow, set in a world where climate change has not only changed the environment but the whole social order, or, I say it again, Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy, (dystopian) which has quite deep and sobering allegories of current western civilization where the rich and powerful rule and the under classes are pushed to revolution. I must say that the best reading I have done in the past year has been produced by YA writers.
So what is my point in writing this blog? I want to establish that a true reader must not become enmeshed in those artificial descriptions employed by publishers, which segregate books into age categories; that there is a huge amount of wonderful literature out there under the heading of YA that adults should be reading; and that for rewarding reading one needs to keep an eye on material published for all age groups.