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Hang on a minute, folks: more thoughts on YA

YA debate

In the wake of the first UK Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC), we’ve been retweeting links to articles and essays on Young Adult literature right, left and centre. Many of these stem from a recent piece by a writer called Ruth Graham in Slate Magazine, in which Graham stated that adults should be embarrassed to read ”˜children’s books’.

YA authors’ dander ”“ of course – was immediately got up. Matt Haig wrote an article with Ten Reasons it’s OK to read YA on his blog. Over in The Guardian, Non Pratt confessed that she only reads YA. Children’s Laureate (and Barrington Stoke author) Malorie Blackman confessed herself a little depressed that many young people still feel that it’s uncool to read, and took Ruth Graham to task on a number of points of accuracy. (Note that Kevin Brooks’s boundary-pushing Bunker Diary is certainly earning its keep in this argument). Even the magnificent Mr Philip Ardagh got in on the act, and he’s not even a YA novelist:

Philp Ardagh Tweet

Back at YALC, author Anthony McGowan played Devil’s advocate on a panel on the crossover appeal of YA and said that it’s not good enough for adults to read only YA. Meg Rosoff and others shot him down wittily and well, Meg asking whether he would therefore propose that any individual whose spouse fails to challenge his/her intellect should seek a divorce.

But”¦ but.

In answering a deliberately goading article or assertion, do we end up guilty of similar rhetoric ourselves? Ruth Graham of course chooses to write in loaded terms in order to generate controversy; a reader who enjoys only young adult literature isn’t missing out or indeed even misguided ”“ no, he or she should be ashamed. It’s reminiscent of the sort of ‘journalism’ beloved of the Daily Mail, i.e. thinly-veiled nastiness masquerading as concern for others’ well-being and/or moral fibre.

But some of the pro-YA ripostes use pretty high rhetoric themselves, and similarly sweeping statements regarding ”˜adult’ novels. Non says:

”˜Ruth Graham assumes that literature is a means to an end. That it will bring to those who partake something beyond the experience of reading. I do not believe this is true. For me, reading is an end in itself ”“ I do not read novels to transcend my intellectual boundaries. I read because my soul sings when I’m lost in a good narrative or caught up with characters I wish were real. I read because I love reading, not because I crave the reward of being stretched.

There is no intrinsically beneficial reason why I should value complexity over simplicity, or ambiguity over clarity. What Ruth Graham seeks from novels is not what I seek from novels, but that does not make me a lesser adult than her. It makes me a different one.’

I love Non to bits but I’m going to take issue with her opinion here. My soul sings too when I’m lost in a good narrative (it even whistles a jolly tune when I’m lost in a bad one) and I don’t necessarily value complexity over simplicity, or ambiguity over clarity. But I simply don’t accept that it’s not possible to get lost in good narrative in literary fiction, or to find simplicity or clarity there. I think that it’s no less wrong for Non to assume that literary fiction is a hard and boring slog and not for her than it is for Ruth Graham to assume that YA is facile. (And if one doesn’t read it, how can one know what it is or isn’t?)

Back at YALC, when Meg Rosoff and others were scoring points off Tony McGowan, I was busy wondering if the arguments were becoming just a little disingenuous. The other writers on the panel are every bit as ”˜literary’ as Tony, and I would guess that they read every bit as widely ”“ as most writers do. I haven’t read anything by Matt Haig but I am a massive fan of Meg’s work and I reckon that it must be true that she writes as well as she does ”“ at least in part – because of the breadth of her reading. I absolutely respect the fact that Meg and her fellow panelists do not wish to see anyone judged for their reading choices, but I do wonder whether people who read everything and anything shouldn’t at least acknowledge that they don’t ”“ personally – read within narrow boundaries, and while they may believe that it’s a valid choice for others to do so, they can’t precisely speak to it as a good thing.

I think it’s important that we don’t confuse the right anyone has to read anything they please wherever, whenever and however they choose with an implication that restrictions ”“ self-imposed or otherwise – are in themselves positive and to be encouraged. (Coincidentally, Patrick Ness talked at YALC about fundamentalist Christians in the US and this reminded me that I’ve met a few people in my time who limit their reading to one book, or perhaps I should say Book. They don’t always strike me as broad-minded).

Also picking up on a point Patrick Ness and others made at YALC, it’s worth noting that ”˜YA’ is not a genre, but rather a market category – a much broader and less cohesive thing. I would argue that the same is true of ”˜literary fiction’. The rebuttals of Ruth Graham’s argument – in defending YA and pitting it right back against literary fiction ”“ have tended to miss this fact. It would be funny, and arguably not much less daft, to recast Ruth Graham and Non’s arguments ”“ or perhaps even Meg’s and Tony’s – with ”˜animation’ and ”˜drama’ taking the place of ”˜YA’ and ”˜literary fiction’.

Barrington Stoke exists because we want children who struggle with the written word, or who do not like books, to read. And we are pretty aspirational. We want them to become non-excluded readers – the sort of readers that are empowered to tackle anything and to shape their own likes and dislikes by trying new things, not by not trying – or worse, being afraid to try. At the end of the day, we are out and proud ‘book people’ and we have firmly hitched our wagon to a star called ‘struggling-readers-need-bloody-brilliant-books-of-all-sorts’. We know that no one ever got to love reading through hectoring (”˜you should read this’) or judgmental nonsense (”˜you can’t/musn’t read that’). The trick is to tempt, to be advocates for reading, role models for reading, enthusiasts for reading. And personally I find it hard to imagine being any of those things without defining ‘reading’ pretty broadly.

I’ve just been to see The Events, a David Greig play exploring the aftermath of a mass shooting, and more specifically the effects on one survivor thereof. It was thought provoking, although not, perhaps, entirely successful. But it did make me think; in relatively short order I thought about an article I read recently in which Judy Murray discussed the shootings in Dunblane, about We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel I admired and disliked in approximately equal measure, and about Andrew Solomon’s Wellcome Award winner Far from the Tree, which I’m reading right now (slowly, because it’s too heavy to cart around with me every day). It seems to me that this sort of experience is what reading is all about ”“ linkages, allusions, relevance to things within our own lives or the world around us, all parcelled up within a narrative that draws us in, takes us out of ourselves, makes us feel and leaves us with something to think about ”“ for good or ill, deep or otherwise. (And entertains us, of course, although I am slightly loath to use the word given the subject of The Events. But that’s one of the issues fiction often throws up and will continue to do so. I think it’s an issue for YA too, cf. The Fault in our Stars). Non says she looks for no end beyond the reading – but of course she does. She admits as much in her article – and by the fact that she reads books, not cereal packets.

While my example of what reading means for me is perhaps quite ”˜literary’, I think it’s not a million miles from the sort of route into reading an author like Tom Palmer might recommend when faced with an audience of non-reading boys. Tom believes that all reading is good reading, and he’d suggest starting with football programmes and match reports, sticker books and annuals, football fiction from Theo Walcott, say, or perhaps Tony Bradman and then ”“ if they build up enough confidence and enthusiasm – perhaps they might enjoy a novel by Mal Peet. And one of Mal’s books is based on a play called Othello by some bloke called Shakespeare, and that’s worth a read, too. And so readers ”“ of many types ”“ are born.

– – –

To end on a cheerful note for anyone concerned about the status of YA, at the end of the week I’m off to join in a BBC radio programme on fiction about the First World War. When I was asked to take part I agreed on condition that I could talk about a range of books, including some written for adults, and some written for children and young people – Private Peaceful, War Horse, The Shell House and Barrington Stoke’s own World War One novels. The producer took no convincing and yesterday she wrote to me to check that I’ll have one of those books with me, so that I can read an excerpt and the programme can acknowledge the importance of literature for young people within the wider world of books.

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