Musings of a Reader: The Wonderful World of YA Fiction

Honestly, I thought this column would be a breeze to write. Like I mentioned the last time, talking about books is one of my top favorite things to do. But it’s turning out to be surprisingly difficult. See, when reading books is such an integral part of your existence, it’s hard to know where to start or what books to talk about. Should I start at the beginning, from the books my mom would read to me before I could read myself? The Dr Seuss books, with cats in hats and the fox wearing socks, and Ibn-e-Insha’s Billo Ka Basta poems which I memorized and would recite to my parents during long car rides? Or is it better to talk about the books I read more recently, the works of writers like Italo Calvino and Julian Barnes, which make me marvel at the mind-blowing narrative techniques or clever turns of phrases? In the end, I have decided to talk about some books which I personally really love and which offer some great writing and wonderful stories, but often don’t get talked about or worse, get dismissed entirely. I’m referring to young adult or YA fiction.

Young Adult fiction is fiction in which the target audience is teenagers, and the protagonists are also (usually) teenagers. This does not, of course, mean that people who are not teenagers cannot read or enjoy these books. However, a lot of the time, young adult fiction is seen as fiction which is less well-written as, and overall less worthy of appreciation than, other kinds of fiction, the fiction for “adults.” Exhibit A: my mother, who usually scoffs whenever she sees me reading books which fall in this category, and whom I have yet to convince of its merits (and not for a lack of trying). See, what my mom imagines, and what I expect other people imagine when they hear the words “young adult fiction” is vampires and boy drama and teenage angst. That’s really not true. That’s like saying The Great Gatsby is just about spoilt rich people throwing parties and dismissing Pride and Prejudice as just another romantic comedy – it’s an incomplete and ignorant judgment.

A misconception people often have is that young adult fiction is a new-fangled invention in the world of literature, another item in the list of things ruining today’s youth (right up there with Facebook and rock music). Young adult fiction, which can also be referred to as coming-of-age stories, in fact go way back. There’s even an appropriate literary term which can reflect the essence of many YA books – the bildungsroman, or the novel of formation. The bildungsroman is defined as “a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood,” and that definition can pretty much be applied to much of the young adult fiction out there. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger might be the best example of YA fiction before it came to be known as such – Holden Caulfield has become the poster boy of a young person struggling to understand the world and their place in it.There is a whole list of bildungsroman novels which have the coming-of-age story – Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind, to name a few. The point is, the essence of young adult fiction, that is, trying to figure out how you fit into the world, has been around since at least the 18th century (and possibly even before that).

The thing I like best about well-written young adult fiction (there’s a lot of mediocrity in there too, as in any kind of fiction), is that it reflects the general mindset of young people – young people, I think, are generally less jaded than their older counterparts, more enthusiastic and hopeful for good things. At the same time, they are dealing with no longer viewing the world in black and white – they have to let go of many firmly-held childhood beliefs, like good winning out over evil and the world being black and white. They are straddling this in-between world, a world of transition where they balance between hope and cynicism, and young adult fiction reflects that remarkably well. Protagonists of YA fiction are struggling to figure not only themselves out, but also the world in general, and this struggle is, I believe, not relevant to only teenagers (because if nineteen is the deadline to having life figured out then I, for one, am incredibly late in the game). YA authors like Melina Marchetta (The Piper’s Son, my all-time favourite YA book), Markus Zusak (the brilliant The Book Thief), John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) and Rainbow Rowell (the heartbreaking but full of hope Eleanor and Park) are brilliant at beautifully writing flawed characters that feel like real people going through things that are credible and relatable.

Another one of my favourite things about YA fiction is that it has a certain intensity to the experiences it describes, which is another apt reflection of the young people mindset. Young people are experiencing many things for the first time – love, heartbreak, leaving school and venturing into the “real” world, dealing with the idea of imperfect parents, having friendships fade out – and so their experiences have greater intensity and more depth of feeling than older people with their “been there, done that” outlook to many things. YA fiction done right captures this very well, and I love it.

Another thing about YA fiction – protagonists can go through this search for self-identity in a wide variety of settings. YA fiction sprawls over many different genres – historical, dystopian, sci-fi, fantasy, or just plain contemporary. I recently read A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller, a historical novel set in early twentieth century London, where a young upper-class girl struggles with fitting in her misogynistic and oppressive social class and eventually gets involved in the suffragette movement which was just then beginning to find momentum in Britain. There is also The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, set in Nazi Germany and narrated by a personified Death about a girl who loves to read and whose family hides a Jew in their basement. Recently, The Hunger Games series has become very famous, where a young girl must contend with the effects of fascist governments and war in a dystopian society. (There was also the mildly famous fantasy series about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard – you might remember it, it caused quite a stir.) My point is, YA fiction is filled with writers not afraid to turn fiction-writing conventions on their heads in clever ways.

There are some conventions YA fictions generally do follow. A lot of them are written in the first person, or the close third person, which is generally more introspective (fitting in well with the self-discovery theme so prevalent). It is also often written in the present tense, which tends to be more urgent. There is also a convention which is actually criticised by some – that the young protagonists sound too “adult.” Apparently, the concept of teenagers being intelligent and witty is just not believable to some adults (if you could see me, I’m rolling my eyes with derision here). Voice is another remarkable characteristic of YA fiction – good writers take advantage of first-person narrations by fully fleshing out the main protagonist’s voice as he or she narrates it.

Like I mentioned before, not all YA fiction is brilliant. There are a lot of blah books overripe with lazy writing and generic characters and no depth at all. But the joy is in finding among these mediocre books, the many, many great books with wonderful characterisation and gut-wrenching writing and just plain good stories. Nick Hornby, best-selling author of contemporary (“adult”) fiction said something about YA fiction that I think sums everything up nicely: “I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of.”

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