When Peter Pan Gets His Learner’s Permit: What To Do With Young Adult Fiction

Last week I talked about what makes a children’s book good.  Unlike Peter Pan, good books have to grow up.  They cannot remain juvenile if they want to be considered truly well developed and rereadable books.  So where does that leave young adult fiction?

Once kids leave the children’s fiction behind (because, of course, they are far too old for it now), they start exploring the young adult fiction.  This section comes with pretty much the same grocery list of problems.  Mass produced young adult fiction written for a crowd of young people with attention spans that have been taught to respond to fast paced tv shows and video games does not tend to be terribly deep.  Like their neighbors, the children’s literature, these books can have shallow themes, very basic vocabularies, and absolutely no value for a maturing reader.

Added to these wonderful qualities, young adult fiction has a new, more dangerous failing: it feels the need to cater to the teenage crowd’s love of rebellion, exploration of sexuality, and fascination with extreme behaviors.  In order to “relate” to the young adult, authors of this fiction often do the same “dumbing down” process as children’s book authors, only with these unsavory additions.

Of course, I would choose young adult fiction as my focus for writing.

I suppose I’ve portrayed young adult fiction in a very bleak light, and it is not entirely deserving of the description.  A large amount of my fun reading is young adult fiction and fantasy because I truly enjoy the tone of the genre.  These are the things I think young adult fiction has going for it:

  • It tends to be lighter, especially the fantasy, than adult fiction (the exception being the goth/vampire themed stuff which can be light, but is usually overloaded with angst)
  • The plots feel less need to be as convoluted, which is more enjoyable for a light read
  • Despite the mature themes that do work their way in, young adult writing is in much less danger of having the graphic material that adult books so often contain
  • The stories often have a more humorous voice than a lot of adult books allow themselves

Simply put, you just have to sift through them to find the good ones.  I refuse to go into a discussion of Twilight or Harry Potter here, though both series fall under this category, because I think both have been over discussed these past few years and they need a little time on the shelf.  Okay, a lot of time on the shelf.  I just want to make some general points about the genre.

In the young adult fiction world, you will find yourself stumbling across a few of the same general plots:

  • High School Girl Likes Boy (they end up together)
  • High School Girl Hates Boy (they end up together)
  • Paranormal Girl (think vampire/werewolf) Meets Normal Boy (they end up together)
  • Normal Girl meets Paranormal Boy (they end up together)
  • Girl/Boy Must Defeat Epic Enemy (insert romantic interest somewhere because they have to end up together)

Case in point. No, I have not read it, so I cannot tell you if this happens to be one of the good ones.

Yes, the stories are fluffy, but they can be quite fun.  Meg Cabot’s Mediator series features a very sarcastic heroine who can see dead people (and mock them and punch them in the face if necessary).  A good writer can take the genre and play with it, using the typical teenage drama for his or her own clever ends.  Good young adult literature will keep the teen reader interested despite himself/herself.  It can tell just as good a story as adult fiction even with a lighter tone and theme.  Its characters are invariably the same age as its readers, but if those characters are done well, they will show teens a better version of themselves that they will still want to emulate.

Teens like reading even less than children.  They have “better” things to do (as if there is anything better than reading).  Writing books that will keep them interested and even turn them into readers is a Herculean task in and of itself.  Writing a good book that does all that, a book an adult might pick up and enjoy as well, seems impossible.

So, why did I pick this genre again?

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on August 23, 2011, in Books, Children's Literature, Fantasy, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Literary Criticism, Melissa Rogers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great title! Good thoughts too.

  2. Lol. Your summary of YA plots is terrifyingly accurate!

    Though, I think it’s important to remember that modern YA fiction generally follow those plots more than the older YA books.
    It could have something to do with the current Paranormal Romance and Dystopian phase that YA literature (sadly) appears to be going through.

    There a few positive exceptions, such as “TimeRiders” by Alex Scarrow (one of my favourites) and “The Tiffany Aching Tales” by Terry Pratchett.

    The bad thing about YA, is that it makes it extremely difficult for those of us who don’t particularly enjoy Paranormal Romance to find some good Fantasy/Science Fiction.

    • I’m not quite sure what you mean by a “Dystopian phase” in YA, but what immediately came to mind was The Hunger Games (which I reviewed a few weeks ago). Unlike Melissa, I do not ever read young adult books, yet I was pleasantly surprised by Suzanne Collin’s world building and well-written characters. Another probably isn’t actually YA, but there’s always Ender’s Game.

  3. Wayne the Shrink

    Every so often an older author gets re-published in new editions. I have no idea how this process proceeds, but if anyone does let me recommend Andre Norton’s stuff. Really the first blending of fantasy and science fiction and a lot of it written for the YA audience.

  4. This seems a bit harsh, both to teens (I suspect a lot more would be readers if they didn’t tire of finding books they like) and to the YA genre, which, like any fiction, I don’t think should necessarily be didactic.

    “Its characters are invariably the same age as its readers, but if those characters are done well, they will show teens a better version of themselves that they will still want to emulate.”

    I’d really disagree as well with the notion that well-written books necessarily show better versions of of teens. I doubt you’d say that Macbeth isn’t well done…

    “Added to these wonderful qualities, young adult fiction has a new, more dangerous failing: it feels the need to cater to the teenage crowd’s love of rebellion, exploration of sexuality, and fascination with extreme behaviors. ”

    I don’t think it’s a failing that some teen lit deals with those issues. One can disagree with how a particular book addresses an issue, but I’d guess most teens are dealing with at least one of those, and isn’t one of the functions of literature to explore human motivations, choices, consequences, etc?

    • It is harsh mostly because I did not have the time or space to give it the treatise it probably could use, but I don’t think I’m entirely wrong about some of the generalities I was bringing up. Macbeth wasn’t written for teens and, exceptions duly acknowledged, most teen books do focus on characters that are teens and are meant to be characters admired or at least identified with by the readers. If those characters are distinctly bad character-wise, but teens are drawn to them anyway, it seems like something is wrong. Just my opinion. They don’t have to be Elsie Dinsmore, of course (gag gag vomit), but they should be people that admiring or emulating or at least liking isn’t a bad thing.

      I complete agree with your comment that literature is meant to explore humanity and what we do and think and believe and that if we ignore what teens are dealing with, we are probably not going to connect with them much. By “cater to” what I guess I meant, but was NOT saying is “glorifies” or “represents as okay that which is not”. A lot of teen books now want to make sure teens know that everything they do and think and know is okay because everything is okay. Again, teens will immediately notice and avoid moralizing literature, but I think that literature that deliberately indulges in these things just to “connect” with what teens like isn’t the greatest stuff out there either.

      I didn’t put a lot of work into this post, so it definitely doesn’t say everything I meant it to. My apologies.

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