Image: Wikipedia. I read this at 13, and yet I became a literate adult.
On Friday, education consultant and former English teacher Joe Nutt published this week’s excoriation of YA, of course illustrated by a photo of the film of Twilight because of course everything popular with teen girls is bound to be dangerous rubbish. To be fair to Nutt, he didn’t explicitly mention Twilight, but he did use language such as ‘petty anxieties and celebrity confessions’that suggested that it is fiction marketed to young women that he was particularly concerned about. And unfortunately some valid concerns, such as his points about non-fiction for young adults, has been lost.
Like Nutt, I have been a teacher for over 20 years, but in my case I was teaching mostly 7-11 year olds. For the past 8 years I have been teaching adults. And in my experience, nothing puts reluctant readers off more than being told that the reading that they enjoy is not valid reading. Many of my teacher training students became teachers later in life precisely because they were made to feel stupid or unliterary as children. Indeed, when I researched early attitudes to reading with some of my students who self-identify as white working class, I discovered that most said that their dads didn’t read, until I asked further questions. My students did not see what their dads read (newspapers, manuals, information texts) as valid, or what I was asking about.
However, in this hand-wringing about YA literature, we need to remember the following:
- YA is not a genre of its own. It is a classification of books, like children’s fiction, to help readers find books in a library or book shop. Within that classification there is SF, fantasy, crime fiction, romance, action/adventure, horror, historical and what might be termed ‘literary fiction’. It is true that they are often plot-driven narratives dealing with dilemmas or big ideas, but many readers, myself included, prefer this in a novel.
- Much of what is now considered classic fiction is also YA. Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and Sense and Sensibility are all novels about young people faced with dilemmas and moral choices and growing as a result of their decisions. Even Doctor Thorne by the son Nutt’s recommendation, Fanny Trollope (scroll forward to 2 hours 18 mins) concerns both forbidden romance, scandal and social commentary. Indeed, a modern classic, one of my favourites from my teenage years, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, is YA, but is not marketed as such.
- Most people do not just read one thing. Adults don’t, so why do we assume that young adults do? Ask a secondary school librarian and I am sure that they will tell you that one day young people are reading Charlie Higson’s zombie novels and the next they are reading The Brothers Karamazov. Or in my case as a 13 year old, Jilly Cooper romance novels one day and Madame Bovary the next, because I thought it might be like Jane Eyre.
So perhaps instead of pearl clutching about what we think YA is like, we should go to the library, ask librarians for recommendations and start from a position of knowledge about the varied and amazing world of YA. And if some of it is about vampires and Trans teens, what the hell is wrong with that?