Friday, 18 December 2015

In defence of YA literature, by Bryony Pearce

It appears to have become fashionable recently to write blogs and articles, to make comments on Twitter and Facebook and to journalists which make fun of Young Adult literature.

These detractors, some of whom are writers themselves, tend to focus their derision by stereotyping the genre as nothing but Twilight clones, Hunger Games wannabes and sparkly pink books about love at first sight.

Demanding more protagonists who don’t solve their problems by kicking ass, learning karate or becoming more attractive suggests to your audience that most of them do. Demanding fewer books about sparkly vampires or handsome werewolves implies that this is the dominating feature of YA literature (Twilight was written ten years ago, get over it). Saying that your own book stands out because it is complex implies that other YA is not. Asking for the elimination of ‘instalove’ allows your reader to infer that no YA literature contains relationships with slow build or real depth.

How are writers of YA literature meant to bring in more readers (even to convert reluctant readers) when there are people, other writers no less, telling them not to bother reading within the genre aimed at them.

At the moment YA is the nerdy kid in the playground; the one it’s easy, even fashionable to pick on.

Perhaps this is something to do with its success. YA literature is one of the few genres that has shown market growth throughout this depressed economy, and, as we know, bullies don’t like a successful underdog.

Perhaps it is because the books that have been massively successful have not all had great literary merit (but have been cracking good stories nevertheless – and given a choice between reading literary fiction with no story and a book with an amazing story, but which won’t have passages read out in poetry appreciation I know which I’d pick). Perhaps it is because the books that Hollywood chooses to make into film are the best known, if not the best examples of the genre, enabling those who don’t read YA widely to pigeonhole all YA literature (although by this argument I could go on to judge all adult literature by Fifty Shades of Grey).

Perhaps it is because the YA community is well known to be ‘nice’. As writers, readers and bloggers were are generally accepted to be mutually supportive and friendly, does this make our genre an ‘easy target’?

Perhaps it is because our readers themselves are, or appear to be easy targets. It has always been the role of those past a certain age to criticise the choices of the young – their music, their clothes and, now that they have it, their literature.

Readers of YA literature are not easy targets, as some attackers of YA literature have recently discovered but … and here’s the big but, some of them are.

Many readers of YA are young. Not all of them of course, YA welcomes readers of all ages, but by definition, Young Adult literature is aimed at young people.
When someone attacks YA as a genre, minimalises its importance, says that it has no literary merit, no complexity, no depth, no understanding of the world, especially if they have their own platform, I wonder if they realise that they are also saying to its loyal, young readers: there’s something wrong with you. Your choices show that you aren’t clever enough to be reading books that deal with real issues, or that have true complexity, you aren’t serious enough to enjoy real literature. All you’re good enough for is fiddling around in the shallow end of the pool, if you had any real chops, you’d join us in the deep end – the adult section.

The YA literature that I have experienced most commonly deals with subjects that concern young people. It helps them to work through and understand issues such as poverty, bullying, relationships, sexuality, climate change, death of loved ones, war, politics, violence, hatred, bigotry, racism, working out who you are, where you fit into the world, who you are going to be in the future and yes, love. It teachers its readership that it can be brave, that it can bring about change in the world – and who more important to send this message out to than the young?

Yes, some YA could perhaps be described ‘fast food literature’ (and why not – who’d want to read Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Melville all the time) but not all of it not, in fact, the majority. I’m not going to provide a reading list here (although I could); instead I suggest that we start a hashtag of the things that YA does well:

  1. Engaging teenagers in debate
  2. Enabling conversations between teenagers and their guardians
  3. Letting teenagers know that they are not the only ones in the world with those concerns, those problems, those feelings
  4. Exploring the ideas of and the ethics behind scientific discoveries
  5. Engaging reluctant readers by providing books that are totally gripping
  6. Creating believable, memorable characters
  7. Creating whole worlds for readers to get lost in
  8. Using science fiction, fantasy and magical realism to deal with serious issues
  9. Widening teen vocabulary, emotional intelligence and articulation
  10. Preparing readers for adult literature …


  1. Excellent post and I would add - providing stimulating books for adults too - there is a big adult readership for YA particularly on Kindle.

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  4. Sorry - my comment appeared in triplicate so I deleted two of them.

  5. Well said, Bryony! Are these people who are criticising YA literature objecting to great stories that can deal with important issues? How bizarre! Paula

  6. Sour grapes at success is old hat, as you say, Bryony. I hope YA readers & writers will respond with a celebration of what's great in the genre, rather than feel put down.

  7. I've seen this too - I find it bizarre. Some of the most important books I've ever read - and I read A LOT - are YA. I think that's why I write it, it doesn't pigeon hole, it DOES challenge, it's generally damned good page turning writing with a reason. We know it. Our readers know it. One day the rest will know it too!

  8. Yes a valid point well made.

  9. I don't understand the need of some quarters to throw stones at a vibrant genre that is as diverse as the world of adult books itself. And many stone throwers are not readers. We'll said, Bryony.

  10. I don't understand the need of some quarters to throw stones at a vibrant genre that is as diverse as the world of adult books itself. And many stone throwers are not readers. We'll said, Bryony.

  11. As a picture book and not-YA writer but with a daughter who reads lots of it, I've not been hearing criticism about YA books at all -just loads of praise from my book-loving daughter -and her friends, many of whom devour books. And from me. I've read loads of YA that I've really engaged with (usually the ones my daughter tells me to read because they're 'brilliant'). I'm not keeping up with everything that's going on in the book world but it's funny that I've not had the impression that there's an issue with YA. So the bad press about it may not be filtering down too much to the readers. Let's hope not. Hooray for YA! Clare.