Books: Can Young Adult fiction go too far?

Experts discuss the YA fiction scene – the ‘John Green effect’, the ‘Katniss effect’ and unhappy endings

 

Having been called a "swot" by certain fellow Young Adult writers for scribbling notes throughout the Going Too Far? YA discussion panel at the ever-lovely Mountains to Sea festival in Dún Laoghaire, I figured I might as well put together a little recap for bloggish purposes.

The panel was chaired by Elaina Ryan, Children’s Books Ireland director and former editor at Little Island, and included David O’Callaghan (Children’s/YA buyer at Eason’s), Louise O’Neill (YA author of Only Ever Yours), Sheena Wilkinson (YA author of Taking Flight and Grounded), and Aaron Williams (“actual teenager” and a former teen curator for Mountains to Sea).

O’Callaghan noted that YA books have existed for a long time, but it’s really only since he’s been kidlit/YA buyer for Eason’s (last 14 years) that the media has been so aware of it. Also, there is edgier content now. He pointed to the relatively recent separation of “teen” and “YA” in Eason’s to allow for the more grown-up books to fit in there. Williams added that he’s been reading the Cherub series since age 12, and noted a particularly graphic drug-taking sequence: “it was grand!” he said.

Ryan pointed out that banned books have been there for ages too – citing in particular Go Ask Alice, the allegedly anonymous diary about a teenage drug user. O’Neill said that she had read Flowers in the Attic when she was younger and that titles of that kind were available to teens even if they weren’t marketed as YA. She also made the point that teens often do view the world as a dark place, and rightly so – they see what’s actually going on in the world.

Wilkinson noted that “dark” content can be found in places other than books, for example TV soaps. Her reading as a teenager included Judy Blume’s Forever, and she wasn’t fazed by the sex, but did note that Ralph was her grandfather’s name.

In terms of writing for teenagers, Wilkinson’s ideal and imagined reader is 14+, even though 12-year-olds may be reading. O’Neill didn’t specifically set out to write YA and didn’t censor herself, but also found she remembered very clearly what it’s like to be a teenager. She tried to strike the balance between not being triggering – especially as part of her book deals with eating disorders (she cited Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls as a triggering eating disorder book) – and being honest. She also pointed out that simply being out in the world can be triggering – but with a book you can put it down, and it’s a safe way of dealing with issues.

O’Callaghan hasn’t been shocked by anything that has come across his desk, but had a rant about New Adult fiction – “sexytimes books for young adults” – which seems very similar and predictable and not that great. Williams spoke about growing up with a series, like Skulduggery Pleasant, and finding that it gets darker as it goes on – but it’s less shocking because you’re growing into it. He also made the point that “issues” in a book can be a great thing – even if you disagree with it. The presence of something in a book doesn’t imply author endorsement.

Wilkinson noted that now readers in their mid/late teens are finding YA books, rather than viewing these titles as too childish and not for them. The “John Green effect” means that books are more likely to get into the hands of the age group the author hopes for. O’Neill added that while readers as young as 11 have read her book, they tend to focus on the romance elements and not pick up on the more disturbing implications that concern older readers. She feels that YA authors don’t set out to glorify an issue.

Wilkinson suggested gatekeepers in teen fiction can be a positive thing, making it a safe space rather than a place where there’s titillation around certain things. When she was researching suicide online, the uncurated information available was very graphic and shocking. On the issue of gatekeepers, O’Callaghan sees himself more as an advocate for the books, and noted that there are too many people with opinions on YA who haven’t read the books. O’Neill made the distinction between parents saying their child isn’t allowed to read a particular book versus saying no one should read the book – even if it’s not ideal, it’s a parenting thing as opposed to censorship.

In terms of editing to suit a YA audience, O’Neill was asked by a number of editors to change the ending of her dystopian novel and to make her main character “spunkier” (“the Katniss effect”), but she was firm on both these things (it’s an abusive environment, after all). She did tone down certain scenes which were a little too graphic but found that the pared-down versions were actually more powerful, implying more rather than stating outright.

Wilkinson spoke about the issues with language (cursing from a west Belfast lad, heavens!) in Taking Flight, which despite being an award-winner was disapproved of in some schools – Ryan, her then editor, noted that it hadn’t struck her, and Williams pointed out that bad language is usually there for a reason and makes a world more authentic, that if it’s not there it’s more problematic. For her second book, Wilkinson said, “I decided I was allowed two fucks”.

Next up for discussion was hopeful vs hopeless endings – often the definition of YA is that there must be some hope in the ending. Ryan pointed to recent Carnegie Medal winner The Bunker Diaries by Kevin Brooks and asked the panel if hopeless endings fit within YA. Williams said absolutely yes – and when you’re young sometimes things do feel like the end of the world, so hopeless endings can echo back to you and feel very real. O’Callaghan said there were other things worse than bleak endings – ones where the author pulls back from letting anything too bad happen (Harry Potter, Twilight). Wilkinson spoke about how the rules of the world affect how you view hopeless endings – with O’Neill’s book a dark ending fit the world, but with Brooks’ work there is still some uncertainty about the rules of the world.

Do Irish books go far enough? Getting better but not there yet, seemed to be the consensus. Over to questions, and kidlit critic Robert Dunbar noted that a lot of the books referenced had been recent and overhyped ones (which can be less interesting, he feels, than others – citing in particular Aidan Chambers). He also raised the issue of content that’s not necessarily taboo but might go over a young reader’s head, citing the level of knowledge of myth etc needed to fully get David Almond’s latest. Wilkinson pointed out that many adult readers wouldn’t “get” that stuff.

Finally, why do some books get categorised as YA? O’Neill felt hers was put into YA because the characters were young but also because it’s a healthy market; O’Callaghan noted the danger of books that don’t quite fit into kidlit/YA making their way into that category because it’s doing well.

The ultimate consensus was: we’re not particularly worried about YA fiction being too dark or scarring teenagers for life, and view books as a safe space to address difficult and potentially upsetting issues. There was a tiny bit of preaching-to-the-choir, I think, but not having to constantly deal with the “won’t somebody please think of the children?” angle did mean that the discussion was allowed move on to a more reasoned analysis of particular texts.

Personally, I would have loved to have heard more about older edgy YA (Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Aidan Chambers, Norma Fox Mazer, even 80s Jacqueline Wilson, etc) for context purposes, and also perhaps to discuss the narrowing gap between the UK and US YA markets. Then again, I would have gladly sat there for twice the length of time discussing these things. Finally, YA people are lovely – there were many familiar faces there and it was marvellous to catch up. Next Mountains to Sea takes place March 2015, if you’re planning ahead!

Claire Hennessy (clairehennessy.com) is the author of several YA novels. She teaches creative writing workshops to all ages and is the new children’s/YA editor at Penguin Ireland (submissions guidelines here)

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