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I’m in my early fifties prime (!) and I’m not afraid to say that I love reading modern YA books now and then … but only good ones, naturally.  By using the term ‘YA’ here, I’m distinguishing them from those books we usually call ‘children’s classics’ (which still appeal to readers young and old alike).  I’m concentrating on contemporary novels specifically aimed at older children/teenaged readers, usually 12+.

I passionately believe that the very best of modern YA writing can be as good as books for grown-ups, and equal to that of the children’s classics that we remember from our youth.  Many remain to be converted to this way of thinking, so I’d like to explain a bit, maybe encourage you as a grown-up to give a YA book a go, and offer a few suggestions for reading.

There’s an incentive if you make it all the way to the end of this post.  You may disagree with me too, and I don’t mind that at all. We each find our way to the things we like to read, but I’m trying to encourage an open attitude to at least try reading something different.  I will, however, be the first to admit that as an adult reader of a YA novel you do have to be a bit more picky …

That black cover!

One barrier is making your way past all the formulaic black covers of all the ‘Twi-likes’.  The paranormal romance genre has been the big marketing success of recent years in teen fiction, spawning werewolves, witches, angels – stories featuring all kinds of undead following in the vampires’ wake, (paralleled to a lesser extent by zombie mayhem aimed at boys).  Twilight wasn’t the first teen vampire novel by a long shot – L H Smith’s The Vampire Diaries were there way before for instance, but it was Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (my review here) that became the publishing phenomenon and really kick-started the whole shebang.  I’ve read a good variety of these paranormal high school romances; more than enough to know that although they can be enjoyable fun, they are for teenagers.  As an adult reader, I don’t need to read any more of them, even the rest of the Twilight series, (I have watched all the films though).

Now we’ve got that out of the way …

What are the differences between adult and YA literature?  

Well, they share the three major common elements of plot, character and writing style of all novels.  Many adults tend to favour writing style to dominate over plot or character – a debate that was the subject of a great post a while ago at Stuck in a book. What use is a great character or story if you can’t get into reading it after all.  Well, the same is true of YA books too,  but the balance between the three elements is often different.  I realise that by necessity I’m having to generalise here, but using my daughter’s reading experiences too, so go with me if you can …

Writing style in literature for younger readers does tend to be more direct.  Authors have to take great care with their language,  not using bad language unnecessarily, but keeping it appropriate to their audience.  Difficult subjects such as sex, drugs, alienation and all the good and bad bits of growing up – all these emotive issues need to be tackled with tact and sensitivity, again appropriate to their audience.  Sometimes I wish more adult books would moderate their language a bit – you can get fed up of too many profanities and graphic sex scenes.

What would a novel be without strong characters?  Pretty uninvolving, I think.  The only difference here is that the main protagonists in YA books tend to be younger, older teens themselves – an age their main readers can identify with.  This shouldn’t be a problem for the adult reader either.  There are so many adult novels with child or teen lead characters – the ‘coming of age’ novel in particular being its own sub-genre (see some of my reviews of these here.)  YA characters can, however, can often be defined by their actions, rather than their thoughts.

Plot though, does tend to come more highly up the scale for teens.  Younger readers need action.  They need things to happen all of the time – they can’t cope with pages of descriptive atmosphere or scene-setting.  This can sometimes make a YA novel seem rather relentless, you wish for a break.  The clever YA author will build in descriptive elements throughout whilst keeping a cracking plot going and coming up for breath now and then.  As we progress up the age scale, the action-quotient typically decreases a little to let the setting speak, and allow characters to pause for thought more too.

So, are you willing to have a go yet?  If yes, what could you read?

For starters, you won’t go far wrong if you pick one of the books that have been awarded the Carnegie Medal – an annual prize in the UK made to a writer of outstanding fiction for children. The medal is awarded by CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.  Admittedly, many of these winning books are for older children rather than teens – but they’re all great books.

The real King Arthur ...My favourite Carnegie winner from 2008 is Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve.  It is a very different and brilliant take on Arthurian Legend with Merlin as a spin doctor.

I’m also a big fan of Patrick Ness, who won in 2012 with A Monster Calls (and 2011). It’s a simple story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, who can’t accept what’s happening, and a monster comes to help him through. As our book group found, this one wasn’t universally popular as an adult read, but did provoke good discussion.  You can hear Patrick talking to Simon Savidge about his writing for adults and children in a podcast at You Wrote the Book!.

This year’s Carnegie Shortlist (award in June) has some brilliant novels on it; I’ve read three so far, plus several that were longlisted that didn’t make it onto the shortlist. Some previous thoughts on the longlist are here, but the highlights for me are:

  • Blood red snow whiteMidwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (review coming soon).  Sedgwick is my favourite YA author. Many of his novels have a magical edge to them, they nearly always have a darkness at their heart and are based on folktales and folklore. My favourite book of his though, is his fictional account of Arthur Ransome’s years in Russia Blood Red Snow White.  I particularly enjoy his writing style which seems ‘ageless’. My fingers are crossed that he may win this year.
  • A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle.  A bittersweet novel about dying which tells the story of four generations of women with great empathy and humour, and is typically Roddy Doyle too!
  • The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner. A complex and fantastical philosophical novel for teens. While The Double Shadow didn’t make it onto the shortlist; another of her novels did however – Maggot Moon is narrated by a boy with dyslexia, which Sally suffers from. I shall be reading it soon.

Some other authors of YA books that I’ve read and reviewed include Sally Nicholls, Charlie Higson for ‘zombie mayhem to scare your pants off’, Matt Haig creator of the crossover vampire family The Radleys, Cliff McNish.

These are just a few of the contemporary authors writing primarily for teens that I’ve read and enjoyed on an adult level; authors I will be returning to again and again.  There are so many more for me to explore, not least Diana Wynne Jones who died in 2011 and who has an army of adult fans, Meg Rossoff too, and, and, and … the list could go on for pages.

Which contemporary YA authors & books would you recommend to me?
Would you consider reading a YA novel?

As a final incentive, I’m offering one copy each of Here Lies Arthur, and Midwinterblood as a GIVEAWAY – open to any country to which the Book Depository delivers to.  To enter – just recommend any children’s or YA novel that makes a rewarding read for adults, ancient or modern.

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