What kind of teenager were you? They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are charming, some less than charming, many are a combination of the two. I think I was of the combination variety (not that I’m likening teenage-hood to a choice on a Chinese menu). My charming side took the form of a certain bounciness and energy, not unlike a chubby, freckled Tigger (I’ll leave it to those who knew me as to how often the charming factor kicked in – not too often, I suspect). The not so charming side was monosyllabic and sullen – a phase I grew out of, to my family’s eternal gratitude.
But there are many types of teen, from the zombie kids; you know, the ones that walk around eyes down, hair in their face, with that shambolic gait that just looks like they haven’t grown into their limbs yet; all the way to those kids that have energy seeping from their pores, they’re constantly moving, constantly scoping for the next distraction.
Which brings me to my main point: for every type of teenager there is an equal and compelling range of teenage fiction. I wish this stuff had been around when I was that age. The best we got were the Sweet Valley High books or the Flowers in the Attic series – neither of which I read. Well, all right, maybe a couple of Sweet Valley Highs, but I’m not a natural romance reader, and that applied even at that hormone-addled age.
Today, the breadth of YA fiction is huge. There are whole blogs, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds devoted to it. And the thing I realised soon after I started reading it was how very smart and emotionally switched on it is.
Take the John Marsden series Tomorrow When the War Began. This could have been just a rollicking adventure series about a bunch of Australian kids who form a guerilla fighting group when the country is invaded by some foreign enemy. But Marsden really gets into their heads and helps us to understand them. After all, these are 16- and 17-year-old high school kids who’ve lost everything and have been forced into a situation where they’re taking the lives of others in order to save their own.
Charlie Higson’s The Enemy books is set in a world in which everyone over the age of 16 has fallen victim to a virus that renders them undead. All right, I know it’s a zombie story, but bear with me here, this is good zombie fiction. The kids left alive in London form themselves into a series of tribes and so not only do they have to manage the fact that Mum and Dad have become flesh-eating monsters, they also must negotiate the different tribal groups. Each group is governed by a very different set of rules that evolved from the strongest personalities involved.
In Michael Grant’s Gone books everyone in the world over 14 has disappeared. Just poof, up and gone one day. (Funny thing is, the fact that I’m old enough to be one of the people who has been are zombified or vanished doesn’t come into it. I’m happy to delude myself enough that in my head I’m one of the kids – there’s a little bit of teenager left in all of us, I suspect.) The plot device means the kids in this series are thrust very suddenly into adult roles – after all there’s no-one else left to do it. Good way to help kids contemplate the fact that this will happen to them one day (and maybe even appreciate Mum and Dad a bit more when they put the book down – nice).
YA novels are heavy on the moral dilemma stakes. Whether the protagonists are demolishing a bridge to keep an invasion at bay, or slipping on the entrails of nice Mr McCleary from next door who now just wants to eat your left calf muscle for lunch, the teenage characters have to make choices. Often they’re based on fear and self-interest, but there’s always some selflessness and heroism thrown in there as well. The dilemmas are stark and in that regard I find young adult fiction very honest because the trauma, self-reproach, doubt and fear the teenage characters feel would really be the same for us mangy old gown-ups. Only, we don’t tend to be as forthcoming about it.
The one thing that YA novels can’t be is boring. There will always be teenagers and pre-teens who are natural readers, but you also want to capture the ones who would rather chew off their own leg then sit down with a book. So these novels have to grab a reader’s imagination quickly and hold it. I imagine one of the trickiest aspects of putting a YA novel together would be the editing. Keeping the prose tight and making sure the pace doesn’t lag would be fine arts in themselves.
My reading list is wide and varied, and I always intersperse my YA reading with plenty of fiction for those of us who are more chronologically advanced (after all, there’s only so much teenage angst even I can handle), but there’s such an abundance of good stuff out there in this genre that I think it’s going to be occupying my reading shelf for a while to come.
YA books I’m looking forward to reading:
- Hollow City by Ransom Riggs. This is the follow-up to his book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children which was utterly fab.
- Riders by Veronica Rossi. A boy who dreams of being a US. Army Ranger wakes from a nightmare to find he’s become one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – dilemmas galore.
- The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Alice Oseman. A book about growing up in Alaska in the 1970s – that’s all I need to know.
Has anyone else got some good YA recommendations?