Young Adult fiction: An unnecessary box?

Cait Findlay 2 May 2017
Image Credit: ALEXANDRE BOUE

There’s a book of essays by Michael Chabon called Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands. In this book, Chabon pays homage to genre fiction, and states that the divisions imposed on fiction, particularly by critics, that would separate ‘literary’ from ‘genre’ fiction (for example, science fiction or fantasy) are purely arbitrary and convenient. When a ‘genre’ book is good enough it ceases to be genre and it passes to the realm of ‘fiction’, both in the collective cultural mind and, more palpably, in bookshops.

Without a doubt, this same phenomenon can be said to occur in what we nowadays call ‘Young Adult’ fiction, whatever that means. Now, I should point out that Young Adult sections in bookshops have appeared relatively recently. When I was a child, and even a teenager (I left that state about 6 years ago), there might be a children’s section that covered everything from colouring books to what is now considered Young Adult. This section has since become more and more divided, indicating what age the people reading specific books should be, or, potentially more accurately, indicating what books should be bought for people of a certain age by adults who don’t really enjoy reading.

I have perused Young Adult sections many times, as a guilty pleasure, because I cannot completely ignore the temptation of teenage angst and plot-driven writing that usually populates these shelves. But it has been a long time since I bought a book from a YA section. And yet, I have not stopped buying books for younger friends and relatives. But I don’t pick them up from the YA section. The reason is pretty simple: good books for young people are not in the YA section. They populate the bookshelves on the children’s section – in the case of Harry Potter, for example – or, more commonly, they sit comfortably alongside the rest of what is considered literary fiction. I’m speaking, of course, of books such as Midnight Children, or The Catcher in the Rye, or To Kill a Mockingbird, to mention just a few well known books that I read as a young adult.

The Young Adult section, in fact, coalesces two ideas that I despise: the first, that if a book is good enough, it’s a classic and becomes ‘real’ fiction. The second one, which hurts me personally, is the idea that children, teenagers, and young adults cannot appreciate good literature. That good literature is for adults, or that it’s ‘too hard’ for younger people. I especially hate this idea when a lot of what is written for ‘young adults’ is not just bad literature but often carries stereotypes, depicts awful relationships, and shows worlds where people are quite simply not good.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things individually when they are depicted knowingly, but most of the time these books aren’t critical, but glorifying. How many young adult books are about mean teenage girls? How many about boys becoming warriors or heroes and getting the girl at the end? How many, being about these topics, have no depth, no originality, no point? How many have driven ‘Young Adults’ away from reading?

It may sound like I hate YA fiction. I don’t. Some of my favourite books are coming of age stories. Some of my favourite books are about children or teenagers, and I admire any writer who can make a child seem real on the page. But these books more often than not end up out of the YA section, because they are good books – not just for children, but for anyone. Young adults, just like anyone else, deserve brilliant books.