“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Hemingway once proclaimed this six word attempt to prove a point. It became arguably his best piece of short fiction. Yet how would this artistic, bar-loving scoundrel fare with the newest blast to the publishing world – Young Adult (YA) novels? Though criticised, beloved, ridiculed and acclaimed, no one can deny their monumental rise over the last twenty years. Whether you loath the ol’ Twilight style mania or are still a hardcore Quidditch fan, the question I put to you now is this: Why does YA appeal to those beyond its intended audience?
Writers and reviewers have been quick to note the expansion of the YA audience, extending to those well beyond their teen years. On average, up to 80% of YA readership has been attributed to readers over twenty-five in the last two years. A seasoned fan of the genre myself, I am somewhat relieved by this statistic. I no longer have to worry about some distant day when walking to a till with a dystopian wonder in my hands causes raised eyebrows from the store clerk. I can’t foresee a time when farfetched tales and sarcastic one-liners won’t make me smile. Such joy inspires the conclusion that YA novels are incorrectly labelled. This growing fanbase range demands improved representation!
YA novels were at first associated with adolescents aged 11 to 14 years – basically where fairy-tales were ‘too childish’ and classic literature ‘too difficult’ and ‘mature’. The term then grew to encompass all teens under the age of 20, encouraging a new type of author as well as story for an ever-growing genre. Lines were drawn around appropriate content that were in their very nature designed to be blurred and questioned. YA novels soon featured war and torture, romance and adultery, psychological issues and horrors, and all encased in mysteries, murders, and aliases. One of the few aspects that survived of the genre was the elusive ‘happy ending’. This comforting knowledge that “everything will be okay in the end” nowadays permanently resides only in the colourful pages of the children’s section.
YA ‘Storybook Endings’ leave the reader questioning and contemplating issues in their own lives that beloved characters face and overcome/succumb to. The first time I saw my best friends fighting, my mother was more worried than I was. I couldn’t have fully explained it at the time, but all I can remember thinking is that, ‘if Ron and Harry can make it through a fight, so can they’ (low and behold they were back swapping Yu-Gi-Oh cards two days later!).
Cassandra Clare, easily an all-time favourite author of mine, wrote the Infernal Devices trilogy for this youthful teen group. A world where a hybrid race of angelic warriors fight demons in 19th Century London (with magic, blades and parasols) ought to have little relevance nowadays, right? Yet, this series taught me about loss, identity, pain, and the ever present theme of love in a profound and universal way. I learned so much from a story that was written to entertain and sympathise with adolescents during turmoil filled years. And I’m still learning at 20.
Universal themes and unique solutions to everyday, and bigger problems, don’t have to be confined to an age group or genre. My mother read the Harry Potter books to me until I could read them myself. I was raised on fantastical stories, just like so many others. Our generation is the first to have a unique choice in literature. Variance (shout-out to stats students) in story type is expanding but we are still more than likely going to be the readers that remove the final barriers and blurred lines that remain in some YA literature. Fantasy isn’t just for teens. Sci-Fi is no longer improbable in its content. And the authority to say what age groups reads what is beginning to lose their voice in their outdated age. Years ago, eBooks were declared a revolution, “an end to the paperback!” Far from ending printed editions, however, this advancement caused a wave of adoration for print, pen and cover art to crash over the publishing industry.
Stories aren’t dying out. When the world is dark and a bit overwhelming, I will reach into a different reality. Maybe here I’ll find the answer, some hope or even a much needed smile. Whether I’m fifteen or fifty, that smile will be mine no matter the part of the bookshop I find it in. In fact, it is mine already. Just try and tell me otherwise.