YA-what?

by Wardog

Wardog loses all her cynicism for Young Adult fiction
~
I may be showing my age a bit here but when I was growing up we didn't really have young adult fiction. You went from reading books about talking animals to reading Jane Eyre; it's no wonder I'm dysfunctional. Of course, Judy Blume was floating around apparently revolutionising both the young adult literary landscape and teenage sexlives but, bogged down in whining, menstruation-obsessed protagonists and a prose style that did nothing except make me feel like I was being patronisingly talked-down to by an adult I didn't even like, I missed out on the revelations. Aged about fourteen, I remember embarking on a scathing parody entitled: "Piss off Margaret, it's me God."

Then there were the Sweet Valley High books, tedious pap about two blonde twins who seemed to spend all their time attending Homecoming Games and squabbling over equally insipid boys. I think one of them was supposed to be slutty but she was about as wild as a chai latte. And the less said about the Babysitters Club the better, I had about as much interest in babysitting as I had in Margaret's periods. I think it's telling that I encountered my first sex scene in a series of books about talking moles. Duncton Wood, in case you're interested, and let me tell you those moles are into some pretty kinky shit. The first time a boy kissed me I spent the whole encounter wondering when I was supposed to seize him by the scruff of the neck. By the time Jacqueline Wilson burst onto the scene with her big knickers, I was too old and sexually confused to care.

I know several of my fellow ferretbrainers have dismissed young adult fiction as books for kids trying on grown up clothes or books for kids with ideas above their station but this couldn't be further from the truth. If the genre has its roots in the excruciatingly issue-conscious and patronising voice of Judy Blume, it has blossomed so comprehensively as to leave them far behind. I would hope we're not so focused on our forthcoming mortgages to forget the vast emotional and physical gulf between children and adolescents and, although we may applause Francis Hardinge for her unerring focus on her 8-12 year old audience, surely we owe similar appreciation to those concentrating on teenagers.

Bizarrely, I think it says something about the talent of the authors I've been reading that I experienced a certain degree of culture shock during the first book I read. I spent about a hundred pages thinking to myself "why don't you grow the hell up" before I got it. And, having got it, each of my excursions into the genre has been an absolute revelation. Perhaps I've been lucky with my choices but I believe young adult fiction might be one of the most exciting and inspiring genres out there. Damn my reasonably well-paid grown-up job, my long-term boyfriend and my mid-twenties cynicism. I feel young again!

Here, then, is my guide to the cream of my investigations:

Pop

I went for Pop because it looked both bubbly and moderately intelligent and I'm not sure I'll ever be ready to approach the wilful triviality of something like the Gossip Girls series. I also read somewhere that that it was controversial, although the controversy turned out to be of the storm in a teacup variety. Apparently, Borders decided not to carry the book and various people " not the author or anybody remotely approaching sanity " speculated wildly that this was due to the sexual content when actually it was probably because the cover is lurid (I know it's called Pop, but pink and yellow?) and would have clashed with their tasteful beige shelving.

Pop is basically about losing it, but it approaches the oft-approached issue with a surprising degree of sensitivity and pragmatism. Oh, where were you, Aury Wallington, when I was stuck with moles? Seventeen year old Marit is determined to lose her virginity except every time things get physical with a guy something goes wrong. Convinced that this is going to interfere with her ability to have a serious relationship " especially now that there's a sexy new boy called Noah in town " she decides to take control of the matter and sleep with her best friend Jamie, also a virgin. They do it several times and Marit learns that sex is rarely as simple as it seems and that physical entanglements come with emotional ones too.

I suppose the subject matter could be considered somewhat shocking, but the book handles it so well and without simplifying the issues or glossing over awkwardness that I was impressed at the author's courage and common sense. Marit clearly feels a tremendous amount of sexual pressure but the book concentrates on her attempt to deal with it without re-crossing the tired old ground of the coulds and shoulds of teenage sexuality, which I think is an entirely sensible approach. And as you might expect from someone who wrote for Sex and the City it's snappily and entertainingly written and doesn't feel the least bit condescending or like an adult is trying to cram a Serious Issue down your throat. Of course, possibly I'm only saying that because I'm an adult (wargh!) but I found it genuinely amusing.
"The rest of the cliques in school, who remained happily unmonikered, just referred to Juliet's crowd as "the popular kids" or, more frequently, "those bitches".

The book is never explicit and it succeeds in presenting sex in quite an honest and balanced way, neither glamorising nor demonising it. And Marit is an interesting heroine, a little bit immature, a little bit klutzy and a little bit too self-absorbed to notice what's going on around her (specifically the fact that Jamie has a crush on her) but there's definitely something admirable in her willingness to take control of her sexuality and her sexual experiences. Her solution is certainly not presented as an easy answer to an age-old problem but nor does the book condemn her or judge her for the choices she makes. Altogether it's a subtle and delicate exploration of a complex and awkward issue.

The book's only flaw, as far as I'm concerned, lay with its portrayal of the secondary characters. Caroline fills the obligatory best friend role but she seemed like a pushy bitch to me. And, perhaps it's because I'm not seventeen, but Noah did absolutely nothing for me. He comes with all the standard hero attributes, charm, wit, cute little brother ("I'm a bionicle, d'uh!") and good looks out the wazoo. But he just rings hollow, especially compared to insecure, mischievous, arty Jamie.
My world was literally rocked, and then it was over and I was lying in Jamie's arms. I just lay there, breathing hard, completely overwhelmed by what had just happened. Jamie was watching me with a funny smile on his face. If anything, I'd say he looked proud.

Altogether now: awwww. Don't you just want to take him home in a box? Ack, that's a middle aged woman speaking.

How to Get Suspended and Influence People

Another book that tackles some complex and difficult issues, while also managing to be just about the funniest thing I think I've ever read. Fourteen year old smart ass, Leon Harris, is part of his school's gifted and talented programme. The project for the term involves making a health-related video for the years below:
When Mr. Streich passed around the list of possible subjects, I looked them over and was a bit surprised to see that sex ed was on the list. They were actually going to trust an eighth-grader to make a sex-ed video? Were they drunk when they wrote out the list of topics? It was like being handed a live grenade and being invited to lob it at one of the teachers.

Leon decides to make an avant-garde sex-ed film inspired by Fellini's La Dolce Vita ("I could tell it was good, because half the time I had no idea what was going on") called La Dolce Pubert. He begins the project inspired mainly by the opportunity for nudity but eventually becomes consumed with the idea of creating Great Art That Might Help Kids Understand Themselves. Needless to say, some of the other teachers and parents aren't quite ready to accept the artistic merit in his project and he finds himself at the centre of a huge debate about censorship.

The book deftly tackles its heavy-weight themes of censorship, betrayal by the institutions of the adult world (and the more comforting message that confusion and excessive masturbation are pretty much normal responses to puberty) and remains an absolute joy to read from cover to cover. Leon is, indeed, a smart-mouthed smart-ass but he never feels unrealistic. His attitude to his parents, for example, is particularly well handled, in that his impatience for what he perceives as their lame eccentricities co-exists with his obvious affection for them:
I do a lot of groaning around the house, and I knew my father was about to start in on the lecture I always get when I bring up the middle name ... "Noside," he began solemnly, "is Edison spelling backwards. You were given the name as an insult to the late Thomas Edison who was a jerk who took credit for other people's work. You middle name carries on our responsibility as decent people to expose him as a fraud." My father is practically obsessed with hating Thomas Edison ... I'm convinced Thomas Edison himself doesn't feel the least bit insulted by my middle name, what with being dead and all.

The supporting cast are all splendid foils and complements to Leon. As well as his fabulous Edison-hating, fifties cookery book loving parents and the evil Mrs Smollet, project leader for the gifted programme, there's Anna, the girl he's too chicken to make a move on, the pot-smoking, French-speaking James Colem Dustin Eddlebeck "who had graduated from writing naughty limericks on the bathroom walls to writing naughty sonnets which were much longer," Edie Scaduto, the school communist, and her boyfriend, Brian Carlson "who was really into fire."

It's a delightful, brilliant, hilarious book. And if you're not still not convinced I shall leave you with a taste of the sonnet-based voice-over from La Dolce Pubert:

But all was normal, everything, every change,
every thought that kept us up, feeling like hell,
and even though at first it felt strange
all of the whacking was normal as well.

The Year of Secret Assignments

I'm running out of praise.

Told entirely through letters, emails, diary entries and the like, this book is simply delightful. Cassie, Emily and Lydia, best friends and students at the exclusive Ashbury High, are forced into correspondence with the students at the rather less exclusive Brookfield High as part of an over-enthusiastic English teacher's pen pal project. "It's probably against our constitutional rights to make us associate with drug dealers and murderers," complains Emily but, despite prophecies of disaster, the letters they receive from two of the three correspondents turn out to be very charming indeed. Unfortunately Cassie's penpal, Matthew, is a very different matter.

The epistolary style is utterly compelling and, if the letters are just a little too witty and insightful to be the product of a bunch of teenagers, it didn't detract from the power and charm of the story. The multiple viewpoint narration can occasionally feels like a gimmick since the reader is always kept at a frustrating remove from events but complicated plot never loses its coherence or tension, and the voices of the main characters are sufficiently differentiated that that the various letters never blur into each other. The burgeoning romance between Emily and Matthew is particularly amusing to watch unfolding:
...I just had this great idea, the greatest idea. It is this: We should go out together! DON'T GET EXCITED. IT WOULD NOT BE REAL. It would be a TRAINING SESSION to prepare you ... it would be a kind of practice run of Going on a Date with a Girl, and I could be the Girl. Then I can give you my degradation [sic " Emily is susceptible to malapropisms] and also make suggestions for improvements. Also you can pay me for it if you like.
Yours sincerely, Emily.

Dear Emily.
That is so generous and you continue to strike me as the best thing of humanity. What about this Friday night?
Charlie
PS Do you realise that if I pay you to go on a date that makes you a prostitute.

Despite its overall playfulness, the book also explores Cassie's attempts to deal with the death of her father in a deft and subtle way. The Cassie/Matthew arc is genuinely shocking and he thoroughly deserves his revenge at the hands of the trio and their new found Brookfield allies.

It's an enchanting book, effortlessly weaving comedy, tragedy and romance, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's not just some of the best adult fiction I've ever read, it's one of the best books full stop.

Keturah and Lord Death

I don't know why this was specifically classified as teen fiction because it's basically a dark fairytale that wouldn't be out of place on any fantasy or romance lovers bookshelf.

Keturah, beautiful village story-teller, follows a legendary hart deep into the King's forest where she becomes hopelessly lost. Her strength wanes until she realises that death can't be faraway. But Death, when he comes for her, is a melancholy, lonely young man with whom she manages she manages to strike a desperate bargin. In return for the end of the story she tells him, he will allow her to live one more day. If, in that time, she finds her true love he will let her live. If not, she will become his queen.

It's an old story " with echoes of A Hundred and One Night and the Persephone myth " but it's so beautifully told and reaches such a bittersweet conclusion that I actually cried. The prose is lush and lyrical and the story, embedded in myth and folklore as it is, carries with an irresistible resonance.
"His secret was ... that thought he was Death, and beyond all wanting, yet he wanted something, yearning and mourned and raged in his heart for something as only an immortal being can."
Lord Death had become very still. The trees around him were utterly silent, and even the air seemed to hold its breath. I, too, was silent for a moment, frightened, awed, to discover that this story was as true as the last.
"And what was it that Lord Death wanted and wept in his heart for?" I continued. "A love of his own, a consort to adorn his endless and hallowed halls, a companion who would comfort his heart when it broke from the sadness of his errands..."
"Hush. You try my patience," he said, coldly.


It's a breathtakingly beautiful book, romantic and heartbreaking all at once, again I can't recommend it highly enough.
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
Sonia Mitchell at 01:25 on 2009-06-19
I very much like the genre too, and I'm quite tempted to pick up one or two of these books at some point. I kind of like the way that after the clear segregation (by cover design and content, I mean, not physically) of a lot of boys' and girls' books in the 8-12 range the teen section is a lot more unified. It's as if publishers actually credit teenagers of being aware that the opposite sex don't have germs (which is arguably something a lot of publishers for adults don't do).


And actually, YA books have made me cry on more than one occasion as well. I keep meaning to reread Theresa Breslin's Remembrance so I can review it here, but haven't quite got round to it. It bruises my heart every time, though.

And yeah, I know this article's two years old :-) I'm in love with the Random button.
Robinson L at 22:36 on 2009-06-24
And yeah, I know this article's two years old :-) I'm in love with the Random button.
I'm glad you are. This is great. I really need to check all of these out sometime.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in May 2007