Young Adult (YA) fiction continues its rise in popularity (one just needs to view the posts about ‘The Hunger Games’ on the Limebird forum). According to ‘Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age’, a study published in September 2012 by Bowker Market Research, 55% of those who buy YA are aged 18 or over, with 28% of sales going to the 30 – 44 age group.
What those adults were reading varied widely; while 30% of respondents reported that they were reading something from The Hunger Games series, the remaining 70% reported that they were reading over 220 different titles, only two of which commanded more than 5% of sales overall – ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ and ‘Breaking Dawn’. In August of 2012, National Public Radio in the USA ran a survey which received 75,220 votes for the ‘Best-Ever Teen Fiction’, of the top 20, 10 were science fiction or fantasy (with the Harry Potter series number one and the Hunger Games series number 2).
It has been suggested that the readership of ‘mainstream’ science fiction is increasingly greying and that YA SF is the potential saviour of the genre, bringing hordes of new readers to the fold.
In light of the above facts, I thought that I would take a look at YA science fiction; what it is, and how it has affected me as a reader and writer. With the wealth of YA out there, I will only be scratching the surface.
First a definition, YA is usually defined as being written primarily for readers from the age of 12 up to 18. It is, of course, principally a marketing tool – much of the early YA science fiction was to be found in the children’s section of the library when I was a lad (although I was also allowed to take books out of the adult section from about 13 and there was some crossover between the books found in the two sections).
One issue that some people have with YA fiction is that it deals with subjects that are too ‘adult’ for the readers (somehow the critics seem to forget what the ‘A’ stands for). I haven’t read any of the non-SF YA, that deals with drugs and sex, but, in the YA fiction that I have read, adult themes are addressed. However, in my opinion, they are covered in a way that is appropriate for a YA readership. For example, in the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy, sexual discrimination, militarization, genocide, appeasement and complicity are major themes, but I feel that the way they were addressed could be handled by most teenagers. Patrick Ness switches viewpoint between Todd Hewitt a 14 year old boy, Viola Eade a 13 year old girl, and one of the original inhabitants of New World known as 1017 (from the neck shackle that Todd is forced to put on him).
This allows the reader to experience things through different eyes, and I feel that teenage readers would be left thinking about the issues – not traumatized by it all. Two common attributes of YA fiction are that the protagonist is usually a teenager and the story is usually told in the first person; this results in stories that allow the reader to identify with the main character more easily, to see the parallels between their experience and the protagonist’s.
YA stories may touch upon adult themes, but I am firmly of the opinion that teenagers not only can handle them, but that novels can address current issues in a way that many YA readers can understand more readily, rather than expecting everyone to watch ’60 Minutes’, ‘Panorama’, or ‘Carte Blanche’ (depending on the country).
In my 2010 NaNoNovel, ‘Talatu’, I didn’t start out writing a YA novel, but it soon morphed into one – with a 16 year old heroine who has to learn to survive on her own after being captured by aliens. She grows from a teenager whose mother ‘doesn’t understand her’ into a confident adult; while themes such as environmentalism, colonialism, and the ‘Gaia theory’ are central to the story.
In my 2012 NaNoNovel, I consciously set out to write a YA story, two of the issues that the 12 year old protagonist has to deal with are the prospect of being married to her 27 year old betrothed and the terrible consequences of manipulating people (even though it is for altruistic reasons). In this book there is a lot of bloody death (centred around the conflict between Anglo Saxons and Vikings in 889AD) but I honestly believe that it is neither gratuitous nor overly graphic.
Enough about my own writing! What about some of the writers who lit up my childhood?
The first YA that I read neatly covers two of the greats, Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton.
Heinlein wrote a series of 12 YA novels that became known as his ‘juveniles’ between 1947’s ‘Rocket Ship Galileo’ and 1958’s ‘Have Space Suit – Will Travel’, all published by Scribener. His 13th and last one, ‘Starship Troopers’, was judged by Scribener as being ‘too adult’ and so was published, for teenagers, by Putnam. There is a 14th book (by readers’ reckoning, Heinlein didn’t count it as a ‘juvenile’) ‘Podkayne of Mars’. Heinlein, as usual, courted controversy when he had the 15 year old female protagonist die at the end of the book. The publisher was not happy and demanded a re-write and, after strongly objecting, Heinlein changed the last page. He later wrote that it was like “revising Romeo and Juliet to let the young lovers live happily ever after” and that it “isn’t real life, because in real life, not everything ends happily.” In 1995 Baen books brought out a version with both endings and a collection of readers essays which mainly sided with the sad ending as being better. As a child I read all 14 books, enjoying each of them, even if some of the more adult ideas didn’t mean so much to me when I first encountered them. ‘Have Space Suit – Will Travel’ was nominated for the Hugo in 1959 and ‘Starship Troopers won it in 1960.
Looking back, for all of their faults, I think that Heinlein got two things spot on, first of all his tone, he didn’t lecture to his readers, he treated them as young adults who could understand what he was talking about – that is why I can still read them today. Secondly, his protagonists are likeable, they may have flaws and faults, but one could see them as potential friends. It is these two key things that I try to bring to my own writing.
The other author that had a major impact on me as a child was Andre Norton. There are far too many of her books that can be classed as YA to note them here, but two series that I remember are ‘Time Traders’ and ‘Beast Master’ (NOT the TV series or movie – apparently the makers liked the concept of a Beast Master and bought the title!). The two main things that I keep with me from reading Norton’s YA is the importance of nature and the animals within it, and the fact that there are different options to a civilization dominated by the beliefs that were formed in Western Europe.
Since 2005 there has been the ‘Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy’, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) to the author of the best young adult or middle grade science fiction or fantasy book published in the USA in the previous year. The first award went to ‘Valiant : A Modern Tale of Faerie’ by Holly Black, other winners have been ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ in 2008, Cat Valente’s ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ in 2010, and, in 2011, Delia Sherman’s ‘The Freedom Maze’ (which also won the Prometheus Award for Libertarian fiction).
Talking from my own experience of the two authors above (and others), I would agree that YA was the gateway drug that got me hooked and reading science fiction for the rest of my life.
The illustration for this article is the cover of Alexei Panshin’s ‘Rite of Passage’, which won the Nebula in 1968 and was nominated for the Hugo in 1969. I chose it for two reasons; for me, the title sums up exactly what SF YA is most often about, it centres upon the various experiences (formalized in this book) that take a child through a journey to becoming an adult. Second, looking back on the writing process, I can see that this book was in the back of my mind when I wrote ‘Talatu’ – the ship-bound teenager, the survival training, the coming of age alone on a strange planet…
As I mentioned at the start, there is now more YA science fiction and fantasy out there than can be reasonably covered – or read! I for one see it as a sign that science fiction is alive and well, and look forward to seeing where it is taken by writers brought up on the latest crop of books.
If you are a parent, a teacher etc. what is your opinion on the ‘too adult’ debate?
If you are a writer of YA fiction, how do you go about ensuring that issues are dealt with in an appropriate way?
Do you read YA? If so, what can you recommend?