Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Young and Youthful Readers

I suppose this post will be my (humble-ish) contribution to the thousands upon thousands of words written attempting to define the ‘Young Adult’ genre. To spare you the trawl: some definitions hang upon character – the protagonists must be young adults; some define according to issue; the story must deal with the challenges of growing up; for some, theme is important – identity, for example; for others, it’s all about style, register, lexical choice and so on.
None of these work, though. Here’s why. And don’t worry, folks: I’ll be quick.
I was listening to a podcast – at times pretty engaging, at others pretty damn short-sighted – discussing writing for children. In it, a YA author is asked the age-old question and, after some preliminary thoughts, suggests that Great Expectations is effectively YA writing. And according to much of the above, it is. You can do the box-ticking yourself.
Except of course, Great Expectations isn’t a YA novel. For a start, sociologically speaking there weren’t any YA to write for in 1860. But in the main, because it is a bildungsroman novel. (An ‘education’ novel, an ‘apprenticeship’ novel, a ‘coming-of-age’ story; call it what you will.) These, by definition, need a young protagonist at the start, and follow his or her growth. Great Expectations, then, is no more YA than Jane Eyre is.
The poet Simon Armitage was once asked to define poetry. ‘If you scribble a few words down and arrange them, is that a poem?’ was the gist of the question. Armitage understandably struggled for a moment or two with this. Then he concluded: “In the end, if I say it’s a poem – it’s a poem.”
So here’s my definition of YA – stuff written for young adults, by writers writing for young adults. I s'pose that's just glib rather than the weighty beginnings of an academic thesis, though. (And what about The Book Thief? You might ask. Nope, says me. That’s been marketed as YA by a creative publisher with an eye for a profit.)
Why not turn this whole thing on its head. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s author introduction to his first novel, The Prince of Mist is an interesting place to go, I reckon. “I simply decided to write the kind of novel” he states, “that I would have wanted to read at 13 or 14; but also one that would continue to interest me at the age of 23, or 40.” (i.e. YA R.I.P.) And his final sentence is a lovely one; pertinent too, I think – “To both young and youthful readers, it only remains for me to thank you, and to wish you happy reading.”
A novel written for ‘young and youthful’ readers. Now there’s a definition I could happily live with. Long may we all continue to be youthful readers, whatever that may be.


  1. Great post. I think we all spend too much time trying to define the 'genre' and then defend our various definitions: sex, no sex, drugs, no drugs, cussing, no cussing. It grows wearying.

    So, do we lobby for a label change to YAY! Books for the Young and Youthful

  2. Learned something new and and interesting again, - bildungsroman - and I don't think I like them. The gist of what I caught was that they are YA novels where the protag grows up to conform, not keen on conforming well, not totally.
    LOVE the idea of YAY novels.

  3. Great post! I love Zafon's books and his definition really works for me too. Why do we have to impose labels and definitions on everything? I don't know if you know the French novel "Le Grand Meaulnes" (translated, I think, as "The Wanderer"). It's a bildungsroman (the characters are teenagers at the beginning and (young) adults at the end) but also a brilliant story for "young and youthful readers" (as Zafon said). I read it first at the age of eleven and it totally bowled me over (leaving me feeling bereft that I couldn't find another book with that extraordinary magical and gripping feel). I've reread it since many times, throughout my life, and have perceived other themes and levels in it, while still understanding the wonder I had felt about it as a child. A great book is a great book, whatever your age. As you say, may we always keep our youthful mind and our capacity for wonderment!