During the Q&A at the release party for The Six Days last Wednesday, someone asked this question: Why young adult fiction? Why YA?
Different books serve different purpose. Kids’ books--I mean picture books and board books--are meant to engage a very young reader, maybe someone whose not even reading on her own yet. The language is simple and the content is clear, and it’s important that books for slightly older kids are slightly more difficult--that’s how you learn, right? Literary fiction for adults serves two purposes: one, to tell an interesting, thought-provoking story, and two, to tell it in an interesting, thought-provoking way. (It may serve other purposes as well, but that’s a whole other day.)
YA falls somewhere in between. The writing needs to be at a level that’s challenging enough to be interesting and simple enough that the young adult reader isn’t frustrated or bored. The story needs to be entertaining. But there’s a third thing that YA fiction needs. It’s critical that stories--literature--for young adults be thought-provoking, thematically complex and socially aware.
The books that influenced me the most were the ones I read in middle and high school. Of course I’ve read things as an adult that influenced me, too--but the books we read when we’re young, when we’re learning to think and to question--those books are uniquely poised to shape us. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the Harry Potter series, Stargirl, Wonder by R. J. Palacio, anything Judy Blume has ever written--these are examples of fiction for young adults that are defined by complicated worlds and relationships. And on top of that, they’re good stories. It’s not a coincidence-- I firmly believe that the best stories are thematically complex, and there are tons of writers who have proved that YA fiction can be, too.
But contrasting with them are books for young readers that aren’t. There are books that I think are actually harmful for young people to read if they’re not also going to unpack them in a discussion afterwards, books that--even inadvertantly--uphold narrow-minded ideas of beauty, gender, race, sex, and morality.
Now don’t get me wrong--I don’t think those books have necessarily failed. Many of them are gripping, entertaining reads, and I’ll be the first to say: better young people read something--anything-- than nothing. But I think young adult readers deserve more. They deserve to be challenged by what they read, and it’s up to authors to write challenging stories that are also so high-stakes, fast-paced and fun that readers can’t put them down.
Fantasy cultures and social justice causes can go co-exist in A books; so can sci-fi and gender-bending; so can fluffy romance and realistically awkward sex. (It doesn’t get any awkwarder than in The Six Days--but whose first time wasn’t awkward?) Those things can go together and they should. That’s what I’m looking for in YA; it’s why I wrote a YA novel; it’s why I’m working with Rachel Miller on Giant Squid Books. I’m on a quest for YA novels that don’t underestimate the YA reader because I couldn’t get enough of them when I was younger, and I can’t get enough of them now!
Anna Carolyn McCormally currently manages a small used bookstore in Washington, D.C.. She has a tattoo of the Deathly Hallows and blogs about YA fiction at www.giantsquidbooks.com.. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in pacificREVIEW, Quantum Fairy Tales and 3 am magazine. Follow her on Twitter @mccormallie.