YA fiction: the best of 2020
Claire Hennessy breaks down the best young adult fiction of the year by theme and trope
Young adult fiction is always a strange category to consider: like children’s fiction, it is placed in bookshops according to the intended age of its audience, and yet its readers are often over the age of 18.
Like genre fiction, it can be described with reference to its contents – YA as the 21st-century label for the Bildungsroman – and yet its shelves are a strange mix of the typical genres, where cowboys, aliens, detectives, demons, suffragettes and angst-ridden teenagers all co-exist. There’s prose that ranges from the mediocre to the hauntingly brilliant; like any field much of the work is conventional but there is space for experimentation here too.
It’s a sector of literature that’s more complicated than many might imagine, is what I’m saying, and I say it to explain how I’ve arranged this look back at the best YA fiction of 2020 – by categories that have suggested themselves from the recurring themes and tropes of this year’s most interesting titles.
The unnecessary companion title in a bestselling franchise
At the dawn of the 21st century, writing for teenagers was a niche occupation, and the average reader didn’t have a clue what YA might be. The increased visibility of the field owes much to the “big” franchises of the past 15 years, including The Hunger Games and Twilight. Suzanne Collins’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Scholastic, £18.99) and Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun (Atom, £14.99) offered few new insights into their respective worlds, but were nevertheless the bestselling YA titles of the year. This is fiction publishing in a nutshell: what is artistically unnecessary is often what is most valuable commercially.
The queer love story
YA has often been preoccupied with romance and identity, and the queer love story allows exploration of both while also satisfying another passion of current YA writing: representation of typically-neglected voices. (Sexuality is an “otherness” that YA is strong on; there are certainly many other areas where it falters or falls down entirely.) Jacqueline Wilson’s Love Frankie (Puffin, £12.99) is a pitch-perfect first-crush tale and the only Wilson title I’ve ever shrieked in delight at. Irish debuts included two superb lesbian romances – a wonderful rom-com from Ciara Smyth, The Falling in Love Montage (Andersen Press, £7.99), and a fantasy political intrigue tale from Helen Corcoran, Queen of Coin and Whispers (O’Brien Press, €12.99).
For boys-loving-boys, Phil Stamper added astronauts in The Gravity of Us (Bloomsbury, £7.99) while Darren Charlton threw zombies into the mix in Wranglestone (Stripes, £7.99) – giving us titles that excel at the kissing bits as well as a whole lot more.
The roads less travelled
“What if” is the standard question fiction writers ask, but sometimes it is posed within the text. 2020 has seen a number of intriguing “multiverse” novels which draw – loosely – on theoretical physics to explore parallel universes which mirror yet differ from ours, often prompted into existence by a small decision made.
(To a lesser extent, the trope has popped up in “grown-up” fiction this year too, with Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Jodi Picoult’s The Book of Two Ways, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham.)
On the more literary side, E Lockhart’s Again Again (Hot Key Books, £7.99) delves into multiple takes on a summer romance, while Patrick Ness adds dragons and Cold-War-era suspicions to Burn (Walker Books, £12.99). The possibilities of this form to explore grief and pain are explored in Patrick Neate’s Small Town Hero (Andersen Press, £7.99) and Bill Konigsberg’s The Bridge (Scholastic, £7.99), both of which offer hope of the realistic, non-saccharine kind by their ends.
The verse novel
While the verse novel for adults exists (see Sarah Crossan’s Here Is The Beehive) it is at this time still a form most visible in YA fiction. It’s a little more disjointed than an old epic and a little more coherent than a poetry collection; it’s a novel told in poems and it’s a wildly intriguing form. The top contenders this year are Lucy Cuthew’s social-shaming investigation Blood Moon (Walker Books, £7.99) and Nikita Gill’s deity-inspired The Girl and the Goddess (Ebury, £12.99).
The feminist historical novel
YA fiction is similar to both children’s fiction and many adult genres in that while women write – and read – many of the titles, the critical attention tends to disproportionately focus on the male authors.
It also reflects on the tendency of the wider publishing world to zoom in on a “brave” tackling of a topic, rather than the quality of that handling. We see this most in historical fiction for teen readers, which tends to come with an explicit agenda to educate and/or to inspire.
Plausibility is sometimes sacrificed in favour of making a vital political point, and while anachronisms can be delightful, they can also steal some of what fiction offers at its very best: the invitation to understand other people, from other places, who view the world differently from us.
The best historical fiction reminds us that we all exist within our time and culture and society, doing our best with the limitations we inevitably have. Tackling feminist themes, alongside other injustices, within the framework offered by the particular society, is explored beautifully in this trio of tales set in the early 20th century: Anna Carey’s The Boldness of Betty (O’Brien, €9.99), Sheena Wilkinson’s Hope Against Hope (Little Island, £6.99), snd Sally Nicholls’s The Silent Stars Go By (Andersen Press, £12.99).
Both children’s and YA fiction are more subject to the retelling of the “classic” than most adult genres, often with the explicit goal of directing readers towards the “original”. (This is evident in films aimed at this audience, also – The Lion King as animal-centric retelling of Hamlet, Clueless as modern update of Emma.)
Retellings of Irish myth have proved harder to pull off without it getting a bit too painful and for-the-Yank-tourists, but this year offers up two skilful examples of how to do it well, in very different ways. Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick’s On Midnight Beach (Faber & Faber, £7.99) transplants Cú Chulain and his associated myths to 1970s Ireland with extraordinary success, while Deirdre Sullivan’s Savage Her Reply (Little Island, €17) delicately creeps inside the head of the wicked stepmother from the Children of Lir tale.
The ‘problem novel’
In decades gone by, YA was derided for the “problem novel” – titles which were intended to explore one particular social issue and set out for the reader what they should think or do in a certain situation. It is fair to say that many of these were painfully didactic; it’s also fair to say many were more nuanced than that.
This year, the titles that are issue-heavy but also damn good reads include: Rob Harrell’s tale of cancer, Wink (Hot Key Books, £7.99); Neal Shusterman’s mental-illness exploration, Challenger Deep (Walker, £7.99); Danielle Jawando’s look at bullying, And The Stars Were Burning Brightly (Simon & Schuster, £7.99); Amy Beashel delving into domestic abuse in The Sky Is Mine (Rock the Boat, £7.99); and Christina Hammonds Reed’s sharp take on racism in America in The Black Kids (Simon & Schuster, £7.99).
The ‘literary novel’
Every year in YA-land there are books that could easily have been pitched as “grown-up” literary texts; increasingly this speaks to not just the commercial potential of labelling a title as YA but the growing respect for a field that recognises and celebrates both the literary and commercial. Top contenders here for 2020 include Meg Rosoff for The Great Godden (Bloomsbury. £12.99) and Helena Close for The Gone Book (Little Island, £7.99), both summer tales which go darker and deeper than you might expect (along with sentences to adore).
The funny book
The issue-heavy focus of YA at present makes it tricky for funny books – alongside the ongoing, incorrect sense in literary culture at large that comedy is somehow easier to write than misery. It’s vital for the work seeking laughs to still engage with YA’s larger concerns, as we see with Kate Weston’s mental-health-inspired Diary of a Confused Feminist (Hodder, £7.99) or Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan’s abortion-road-trip novel Unpregnant (Chicken House, £7.99).
The satisfying sequel to an already-successful crime novel
Crime fiction has always been a solid field and although its role in YA has been influenced by the recent success of domestic suspense, the books working best here are indebted to more traditional murder narratives, like Karen McManus’s One of Us Is Next (Penguin, £7.99) and The Cousins (Penguin, £7.99) and Holly Jackson’s Good Girl, Bad Blood (Egmont, £7.99). That two of these three are sequels is telling; YA may not be ready for the long-running crime series model that works for genre fiction but some shorter-term continuity is certainly welcome.
The ones that have been omitted…
… are many. This is a necessarily subjective, albeit highly informed, list. It unapologetically prioritises quality over ideology, or tries to – anyone in this field should be finding it tricky to balance the competing, messy demands of a kind of writing that seeks to both enlighten and entertain, to both reassure and disturb the universe. (This goes for all “best of” lists, of course, but a particular feature of YA-land at present is its expectation for its writers to explicitly state such things.) This is always a competitive field; take nothing personally. But keep writing.
For f**k’s sake –and this is for everyone reading – keep writing.