Think you’re too old for YA – think again! by Clare Furniss
One of the questions I get asked a lot as the writer of two YA books is… “So what exactly is YA?”
To be honest, it’s not the easiest question to answer. For a start, no one even seems exactly sure who Young Adults are (let’s face it, we ALL like to think of ourselves as young adults!). As an age category I guess we’re looking at older teenagers, but research shows that half, if not more, of YA books are read by adults.
This doesn’t surprise me. The best YA books are incredibly well written, with tight, pacy plots – because you don’t want to give a teenage reader any excuse to put your book down. For the same reason every word counts, every character has to justify their place, any wandering subplots or self-indulgent descriptions are culled mercilessly. YA writers know their writing has to be right on the money as it’s got to appeal to some pretty tough critics – not those writing for the Sunday Times or the Telegraph but teenagers who could be watching TV or snapchatting their friends instead of reading your book.
But the best YA books do this without simplifying the subject matter. These books have rounded, complex characters and the stories are often pretty daring, exploring some really tough and complicated issues. For example, just to name some books that have been published over the last year, Lisa Williamson’s How To Be Normal is about gender identity. Sarah Crossan’s beautiful book One tells the story of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace. Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is about society’s obsession with female beauty. YA books almost always show things from a teenage perspective, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be nuanced and perceptive.
My latest book, How Not To Disappear, which tells the story of an unlikely roadtrip embarked on by teenage Hattie and her gin-swigging great aunt, is about teenage pregnancy, family relationships across generations, Alzheimer’s, identity, falling in love with the wrong person, and what makes us who we are… Big subjects which I hope speak to both teenagers and adults.
Many classic books, if they were published now, could be classified as YA – To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, I Capture the Castle. And as for Romeo and Juliet, what could be more ‘YA’ than teenagers falling in love against their families’ wishes?
When Frances Hardinge’s brilliant mystery The Lie Tree won the Costa Prize it sent a message that just because books were about teenagers, it didn’t mean they were only for teenage readers. After all we’ve all been teens and it’s such an interesting time of life to write about – everything is so intense, so vivid, so exciting or heartbreaking, so new. You’re finding out what the world is and where you fit into it. You’re discovering who you are and who you might become. We’re all drawn to coming of age stories because we all understand them. It’s a time when anything is possible, but also the time when you first realize that not all those possibilities are good. Films about these themes are seen as universal, but somehow with books they’re seen as different. And yet I had feedback from teenagers right through to readers in their seventies telling me how much they loved my first book, The Year of The Rat.
So if you think you’re too old for YA, think again. To paraphrase what Duke Ellington said about music, there are two types of book, good and the other kind. And if a book’s good, you’re never too old for it.