After writing recently about dystopic fiction and its similarities to real life events, I began thinking about the large amount of Young Adult fiction that falls into this category. There really is a lot. I thought about the types of books I read when I was younger, and don’t recall anything like The Hunger Games or Divergent or The Maze Runner being particularly prevalent. I read a lot of Point Horror, Christopher Pike in particular, and then probably jumped straight from there on to more “grown up” books by Koontz and King and Grisham and the like. The YA trend as we know it today was a long way off. But that doesn’t mean those books have passed me by. In fact my reading habits have kind of come full circle, and I have now read a lot of YA books, which I feel bridge the gap between early teen reads and grown up novels – something that was perhaps missing when I was a Young Adult in the 1990s.
It’s nice in some ways that the lines between this genre and others are so blurred, and that there is a broad appeal to both adults and young adults alike. For me it started with Harry Potter – to me the first four books in the series are definitely children’s books, and at the time it was seen to be a bit embarrassing to be reading them. I was around 22 when I first picked up The Philosophers Stone, which had been published a few years before, when I was in that period in between Child and Adult that seemed a bit empty in terms of books aimed at that age group at the time. The final three books in the series are distinctly more YA, growing in darker and more complex content as the audience grew in age. By then I think most people had stopped caring about being seen reading a YA book. I know I had. (Though perhaps that’s just me. There may be a stigma attached to it that I’m not aware of).
But the blurring of this line can also lead to more adult themes being explored in these young adult books. I remember reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and thinking, “This is for kids?” (the series was marketed at young adults but Pullman himself wanted it to speak to children and adults as well). And similarly now, topics covered in the novels I listed above seem a bit heavy for a younger audience. Many of them are set in worlds where there is little to be happy about, including political subtexts, deaths of family members and friends, the threat of death or disease to themselves, and young people struggling to come to terms with committing acts that they were forced into in the name of self preservation. They include the kinds of peril that most teenagers thankfully won’t ever come across (though I don’t doubt that there are some out there in certain parts of the world who have come across life threatening peril in recent times).
But do YA novels have to be completely relatable? I don’t think I’ve read more than half a dozen books (possibly not even that many) that I could say I really identified with in terms of the lives of the characters being similar to my own. Quite frankly my motivation to read doesn’t come from being interested in stories similar to my own life. I want something completely different. Why should young people be any different? If you enjoy a story and the characters it depicts, and it encourages you to read, it shouldn’t matter that the subject matter is at times a little difficult, or considered too “adult.” There are many books out there that tackle difficult subjects for young people, particularly ones about discovering your identity and your place in the world, but not all of them have to be realistic. Even the ones that are realistic don’t need to be mirror experiences of your own life in order to find meaning in them. I read Goggle Eyes by Anne Fine several times when I was younger – I had no personal experience of the difficulties Kitty was going through in her family, but I knew it was real, and I identified with her struggle to assert herself and make her voice heard.
And in essence most of these political/dystopic YA novels have that at their heart – the young protagonists need to make their voices heard in the worlds in which they live. If the situations faced by these characters are well thought out and thought provoking enough, they will encourage a fan base who question things and take an interest in the world around them, perhaps becoming passionate about making it better. Put it this way, I would rather see a teenager reading The Hunger Games than Twilight, which couldn’t be any less well thought out or thought provoking if it tried.
This article from The Reading Room includes interesting thoughts on whether YA novels have simply become too political, and subsequently, too boring. What do you think?