Young adult fiction needn’t be cosy, bedtime reading, nor are its authors in any way stifled – on the contrary, they are among the most creative writers out there
Some years ago, the novelist Martin Amis gave an interview in which he asserted that the only circumstances under which he would write a children’s book were if he had suffered a serious brain injury. “In my view,” he said, “fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”
Leaving aside the fact that it’s ridiculous to think that writing children’s fiction places any restraints on the author at all – if anything, it has the opposite effect – the most surprising element of the quote is Amis’s haughty disregard for young adult fiction. One could make the case that it’s the most important fiction of all. After all, is there a serious adult reader or writer out there who has not enjoyed a lifetime of reading because they discovered a love of books when they were young?
I know I did.
As a child, my mother brought my siblings and I to the beautiful Carnegie library in Dundrum every week and I was like a puppy on a leash as we strode up the path towards it, straining to get in as I approached the front doors. The children’s section was upstairs, and I was always torn between choosing books I hadn’t read before and those I already loved. I lost myself first in Noddy, then in HE Todd’s Bobby Brewster series, before discovering the joys of classic fiction: Robert Louis Stevenson, Kipling, Anna Sewell.
For my part, I had never thought about writing for younger readers until the idea for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas came to me in early 2004. But once that novel was published, I embraced the idea of moving between an older and younger audience, convinced that I did not have to make the subject matter of my stories for children any less serious or relevant than those I was writing for adults.
Indeed, of the six books I’ve published for young people, three are set during wartime, two are about gender identity, and one is about the death of a parent. Not exactly cosy, bedtime reading, but I like the idea of placing children within adult experiences way before their time and seeing how they respond to it. Because, unfortunately, that happens all too often in the real world.
The writers working at the top of their game in young adult fiction today are often more creative, more interesting, and more original than their counterparts on the adult front. They have to be. When you write for young people, you need to capture their imagination immediately, hold on to it, and not let them go until the last page. It’s important that they get to the end longing for more, not feeling grateful that’s over.
We’re at that time of year where we’re starting to think about Christmas presents and this year, thankfully, the doors of our bookshops are open once again. Not to sound like a Luddite, but if you want to steer the children in your life away from screens, then books are the way to do it.
I know next to nothing about computer games but from what I understand, the very best ones lead the player into fantastical worlds where adventures happen. And isn’t that what books do too?
Of every living writer at work today, there’s probably only one who can be guaranteed a readership in 200 years’ time, and that’s JK Rowling, who has brought more joy, compassion, and excitement to her readers than perhaps any writer since Charles Dickens. She’s also encouraged a whole generation to read, something for which we should all be grateful.
Amongst Irish writers, we’re blessed by the incredible book-illustrating boy Oliver Jeffers, the creator of numerous whimsical and emotional picture books. Eoin Colfer has created an entire fantasy world that is the equal of any series. And if there’s a more poetic writer at work for teenagers today than Sarah Crossan, then I’d like to know their name.
I’ve often thought that one of the joys of parenthood must be sitting next to your child as they’re tucked in at night and sharing the books you loved when you were their age with them, watching how they respond to them, engaging them in a world of storytelling that fires up their imaginations, and then letting them loose in a library or bookshop to make their own discoveries.
It’s not that different to life. We guide them, advise them, then set them free.
But what might surprise you as an adult is the joy of engaging with contemporary writing for young people and discovering the great authors at work today.
Sadly, I don’t have kids myself, but that doesn’t stop me from reading the occasional book aimed at that audience. It reminds me that great storytelling is great storytelling, no matter where in the bookshop it’s stored.