Is the term YA creating a barrier for teens?

My final session at The Press Christchurch Writer’s Festival session this morning was probably the one that I was most looking forward to. Three great writers, John Boyne, Jane Higgins, and Helen Lowe, sat down with James Norcliffe to talk about YA or Young Adult fiction.

After a very detailed introduction, James Norcliffe asked each of the authors whether YA was a word used to describe their writing. John Boyne felt that YA is very much a term used by publishers, media and bookshops, and that putting labels on books tend to exclude people. John doesn’t think of himself as a ‘YA author’ and doesn’t really know how to write for a 14 year-old.  He alternates his writing between a novel for adults and then a novel for a young audience, and his younger books have featured an 8 or 9 year-old protagonist.  He is ‘not interested in categories, just whether it’s a good story or not.’

Jane Higgins didn’t read YA fiction when she was a teenager, preferring adult science fiction writers, books that weren’t ‘tagged as a young person’s read.’  Jane doesn’t think that we are helping teens by having walls between YA and adult fiction, but she does think that it’s important to have guides, like librarians, who can point them in the direction of a new book or author.

When Helen Lowe sits down to write, she doesn’t consciously consider her audience.  She was quite surprised when Thornspell (her first published novel) was published as a children’s title, and when people tell her that her Wall of Night series is young adult.  As a teen, Helen would read anything she could get her hands on, and reading adult books got her thinking about hard issues and the way the world is.  Helen wondered if the thing that makes a book YA is that the protagonists are teens.

Each of the authors then discussed whether they thought there was a genuine divide between adult and teen writing or whether YA is just a marketing term. John pointed out that marketing for YA books relies on the fact that they’re in a series (look at Twilight or The Hunger Games for example). John’s books all have natural endings and he said that he doesn’t have any ideas for series, and he doesn’t really want to write a series. Jane highlighted the extremely careful marketing campaign for The Hunger Games, which developed over time.  They figured out how they wanted to market it and released reviews at specific times.  Jane wondered if, by having a specific area of a bookshop or library set aside as “Young Adults'”we are saying ‘this is your area of the bookshop. This is where you go.’

The teen reading habits of boys also came up in the conversation. John pointed out that boys read a huge amount between 8 and 12 years of age, and that in order for them to keep reading in their teens, we have to keep giving boys good stories to read. He is keen to get boys reading, because books changed his life. As a writer, Jane said that it’s dangerous to say ‘this is a book for boys and I’ll put this in it’ or vice versa. As John pointed out in his session, you have to write for the unknown reader. Helen said that you shouldn’t underestimate boys.  They like quality stories and believable characters too and they’ll pick up on any inconsistencies. One thing that all the authors agreed on was that their goal is to break barriers.  They want boys and girls to be reading the same books.

To end the session, James asked the authors if there were any ‘no-go’ areas in writing for teens.  John suggested that there aren’t any no-go areas, only different approaches to subject matter. John feels that he doesn’t want to write about puberty ‘so if you set the story before then, say around 8 or 9 years, boys and girls can just be friends.’  Helen mentioned that at any age there are things that go over our heads when we read, like the icky things when we’re younger, and we take different things from books at different ages.

Jane’s last comment summed up the whole session for me – ‘Reading at that age is finding stuff you love.  If you don’t like it, you’ll go and find something else.”  So whether we have specific areas for YA in our libraries or bookshops, or group books for teens under the term ‘YA’, in the end, they’ll find something they want to read.

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