Saturday 23 February 2019

Arrested development: Grown-ups and young adult fiction

With 'The Hunger Games' blazing a trail, Eimear ryan finds an increasing number of grown-ups hooked on young adult fiction

With 'The Hunger Games' blazing a trail, Eimear ryan finds an increasing number of grown-ups hooked on young adult fiction
With 'The Hunger Games' blazing a trail, Eimear ryan finds an increasing number of grown-ups hooked on young adult fiction

Eimear Ryan

The Grown-Ups-Read-YA Book Club has been meeting in Dublin city-centre pubs to enjoy adult beverages and teen fiction for two years now. According to their Facebook page, they're in constant search of a snazzier name, but for now, this one does the job.

This evening, as well as discussing Stephanie Perkins' 'Anna and the French Kiss' ("fun book, terrible title" is the general consensus), the members talk excitedly about the prospect of getting tickets to an advance screening of 'The Fault In Our Stars', the latest juggernaut of a YA novel to get the big screen treatment. Its talented author, John Green, wears many hats: savvy multi-platform businessman; one half of the YouTube sensation Vlogbrothers; hero to 'Nerdfighters,' an online global movement of proudly nerdy teenagers; and, according to actress Shailene Woodley, a prophet.

In short, he has a huge captive teenage audience, but he recently acknowledged in a 'Cosmopolitan' article that his books have experienced a surge in adult readership.

"In the weeks after 'The Fault in Our Stars' was published in 2012, I heard from more and more proper adults," he wrote. "They told me their kids had given them the book or they'd read it in book club or their friends had recommended it. Suddenly, the vast majority of my readers were grown-ups."

Previously the preserve of younger readers, YA has come into its own as a publishing force in the last decade or so. Part age group, part genre, young adult fiction occupies a unique space, with grown-ups no longer embarrassed to be seen browsing the teen section. According to author Claire Hennessy, founder of the Grown-Ups-Read-YA Book Club, there's been a recent shift in the way that YA books have been written and marketed.

"The upper end of YA has expanded," she explains. "Before, it was very series-led – 'Baby-Sitters Club' and 'Sweet Valley High' – and once you hit 14 or so you'd stop reading them.

"But now there are books about 15, 16 and 17-year-olds that older teenagers – and adults – are happy to read."

YA also tends to adapt well to cinema, which has helped embed it in the culture, whether it's monster successes like 'Twilight' and 'The Hunger Games' or sleeper hits like 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' and 'How I Live Now'.

When the film version of 'The Fault In Our Stars' is released on June 20, the book will surely gain more legions of readers. But what is it about teen fiction that gives it such a broad fanbase?

According to Green, it's the "unironic emotional honesty" of YA that gives it its power.

He says: "We love stories about teenagers because although they can be cynical about many things, they aren't cynical about love, hope, and the stuff that really matters, like the future."

I ask the Book Club about the pleasures of teen fiction for the adult reader. Primarily women in their twenties and thirties, many of the club's members are involved professionally in the book industry – in publishing, or as writers, booksellers and librarians.

They're smart and opinionated, and passionate about books of all genres. For them, it's the themes of identity and coming of age that make YA so compelling. The word 'intensity' crops up a lot.

"There's something very powerful about characters experiencing something for the first time," says author Ruth Long. "And then you have hormones making everything 10 times worse – amping up the drama."

Deirdre Sullivan, author of the 'Prim' trilogy for teenagers, says: "YA is a great vehicle for stories about dealing with who you are and discovering yourself. There's also the forced companionship of the teenage years – a teenage character will more than likely be living with her parents, for example, and going to school every day.

"It gives the narrative a closed, almost reality TV-style intensity."

Sarah Pitre is the founder of Forever Young Adult, a US-based blog "for readers who are a little less Y and a bit more A", as its tagline goes.

For her, the appeal of YA is that it is truly universal. "Adolescence is a pivotal time for everyone, regardless of background or ethnicity, and the coming-of-age journey, fraught with such intense highs and lows, is ripe for compelling stories," she says.

"YA can inspire a nostalgia that increases the reader's connection with the book."

Forever Young Adult has a dedicated following, and it's easy to see why.

Its commentary on YA is sharp and intelligent, its reviews pull no punches, and it also provides inventive drinking games for adult viewers of teen movies ("Take a drink every time Katniss is referenced as 'The Girl on Fire'").

Pitre founded it, she says, out of necessity. "Back in 2009, I only had a few friends who shared my passion for YA, and I wanted a place where I could talk about books, share recommendations and just nerd out.

"I couldn't find a site that was aimed at adults like me, so I decided to create it myself."

She adds: "I would say that our success has been gradual, but I was never surprised by it, especially given the massive popularity of 'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight'.

"However, in 2009, it was certainly less acceptable in society for adults to read books 'meant for teenagers'. Now, thanks primarily to the success of 'The Hunger Games', our culture's perception of the YA audience has grown to include adults."

While it may only be recently that YA has started to enjoy a large presence on the cultural radar, teen fiction has a long and proud tradition.

The Book Club's picks are usually recent publications, but they have also discussed teen fiction classics, such as Virginia Andrews' cult incest shocker, 'Flowers in the Attic'; Judy Blume's groundbreaking depiction of teen sex, 'Forever'; and Dodie Smith's much-loved 'I Capture the Castle'.

"Arguably the beginning of YA was in 1967 with the publication of 'The Outsiders'," says writer Kathryne Del Sesto, referencing SE Hinton's seminal text.

"But then you have something like 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles', which was a YA novel before there even was YA." (Indeed, post 'Twilight', there was a YA edition of Tess released, complete with a teen-baiting Twilight-esque cover.)

Children's bookseller Karina Clifford shares this view.

"A lot of the fantasy books I read growing up – the likes of David Eddings and Robin Hobbs – were actually YA. They just weren't marketed as such."

Pitre agrees that marketing is hugely influential on whether a book is deemed to be YA or not.

"I think the main distinction comes from the publisher, who determines the target audience and where the book will be shelved in libraries and book stores.

"Certainly, some books with YA protagonists contain material that might not be suitable for young readers, but I'm of the opinion that everyone should have access to anything and everything they want to read."

In a sense, adults have been reading about teenagers for years – from Holden Caulfield to Vernon God Little.

Can these books be claimed as YA, or is there something essential that distinguishes YA fiction from adult fiction about teenagers?

"There's a respect for teens in YA that isn't always there in adult fiction," says Claire Hennessy.

"There's no pity or condescension. Adult narratives often expect the reader to have more knowledge and perspective than the young protagonist. YA doesn't do that."

Deirdre Sullivan adds that the attitude of the text is key. "Adult narratives about teens focus on the loss of innocence, whereas YA focuses on the acquisition of experience," she says.

An interesting point, especially given that several authors of adult fiction are migrating over to YA. John Grisham, Philippa Gregory and Joanne Harris all have their own YA series, and 'Gone Girl' author Gillian Flynn's next book is reportedly a young adult novel.

Perhaps these experienced authors see YA as the ideal platform to explore a fresh perspective.

"The young adult genre, free from the expectations of 'adult literature', gives writers the freedom to take more risks," says Pitre. "YA authors are making bold choices and exploring uncharted territory, and their readers certainly reap the benefits."

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