What is Young Adult fiction? Does the label help or hinder the category? And how do you write such fiction when you are outside of the age section yourself?
These are some of the questions that our panel tackled this afternoon. The session was chaired by 936 ABC’s Melanie Tait and featured Kathryn Lomer, Jane Harrison, and Kate Gordon.
The discussion began by thinking about how our panellists define Young Adult fiction, and how they see their work fitting in within this realm. Kathryn opened with stating that it is not merely having teenage or young adult protagonists, though this is certainly an important aspect. Themes like self-realisation, finding out who you are and then trying to be who you really are, feelings of voicelessness, and peer pressure are characteristic and offer constant opportunities for interpretation and exploration. Kathryn added that another appeal for an author can be writing the books that you wish you had read as a teenager. Kate echoed this by saying that it is a stage that she is continuously drawn to, and joked that in her head she is still 15. She pondered that perhaps this may be because it was an age in which she really needed books in her life, and they provide escapism for those who are struggling to fit in or may feel alone.
Jane also built on this idea by explaining that one of her motivations to write her recent book ‘Growing up Kirrilee’ had been to make up for the lack of books with young people of Aboriginal heritage. She made the point that young Aboriginal people need to see their lives and culture reflected in fiction, particularly with contemporary and urban characters and settings.
The conversation then moved to thinking about the classification of ‘Young Adult’. Kate commented that a lot of people confuse YA as a demographic with YA as a genre. There is often a problem in bookshops of YA books being shelved in sections next to children’s books and all arranged together, rather than according to YA literature, popular fiction, non-fiction, etc. Perhaps there is a need to remove the generalisation of a YA genre and instead focus on classifying according to sub-genres? Is this already happening?
The panel were then asked if they ever felt ‘shortchanged’ by the literary press by writing in the YA sphere as opposed to writing ‘serious’ or ‘grown-up’ fiction. Kate stated that she personally didn’t feel such pressure or stigma, but that was perhaps because she wasn’t too concerned about such views. She mentioned the problem of people sometimes ‘glazing over’ YA novels or seeing them as an inferior or lesser form of fiction. However, for Kate, her main focus is her young adult audience. If adults enjoy her books as well, it is an added bonus, but if an adult reviewer slams a book but she receives an email from a fifteen year old in rural Tasmania thank her for writing one of her stories, then the fifteen year old is one worth noticing.
Jane mentioned that we have a tendency to want to put things into categories or boxes, but that it is important to challenge and mix-up stereotypes and views, including those regarding young adult fiction and what it is or isn’t. Kathryn added that she is interested in those books that wipe out such distinctions completely, such as Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ and Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’. The panel all agreed that they put the same amount of effort into writing a YA novel as they would an adult novel, and that therefore any ideas of inferiority are not particularly justified. Fundamentally, good books are good books, no matter the age of the protagonist or a novel’s main market.
The panel was asked if they ever feel any pressure on issues or themes to include or not to include. The consensus seemed to be that the authors all endeavoured to include whatever they believed was relevant to the narrative and characters, even if some scenes or topics may be a little controversial or heavy. Kate said that sometimes swearing has to be amended, but this is often if a writer hopes for their book to be included in school libraries and used in class sets. Overall, however, the panel agreed that stories need to be real, not sugar-coated, even if at times they must argue strongly to have particular words or events included.
Finally, we discussed how the authors manage to keep up with the constantly-changing contemporary language of today’s teenagers, or if they feel a need to keep up with it at all to add realism to their work. Jane found inspiration in her four teenage children, and Kathryn too has a sixteen year old. Kathryn commented that you have to be careful with using contemporary language as it changes so quickly and a writer doesn’t want their books to date too rapidly. On the other hand, books are products of their time, and this also should be captured. Kate said that she rides buses a lot, eavesdrops on conversations, and reads Dolly and Girlfriend magazines. As a writer for young adults, you don’t want the readers to think that the author is trying to hard, so sometimes contemporary language must be limited. However, there are also some ‘timeless’ words like ‘like’ and ‘cool’ that have remained popular.
Overall, the session offered rich and thought-provoking discussion about the nature of writing for young adults and the value of the YA genre.