The novel I am currently developing is a change of direction for me. There is no rural setting; the action takes place around a suburban housing estate and a secondary school. It is set no further back in the past than the 1990s, which does not count as a historical setting. And my main characters are teenagers, not adults. Does this mean (voice drops to a whisper) I am writing Young Adult fiction?
The Young Adult market is a massive phenomenon that I know little about. Some on-line research suggests that it started to become a serious genre in the first decade after the millennium. This means I missed it as a reader because I was too old, and also as a bookseller because I had left before it made it big on the shelves. Neither have my own children been particularly into it. Looking through bestseller lists and suggested reading recommendations, there is a wealth of high quality and thought-provoking fiction, with lots of publications that are considered “classics” of the genre. Young Adult is now a respected and lucrative element of fiction. As a passionate reader, I am, of course, delighted that so much is being done to encourage young people to read, and glad that the publishing industry has recognised that teenagers deserve high quality literature just as much as anyone else. It’s certainly something I feel I missed out on at that age.
I was a vociferous reader all through my teens, and yet when I look back on what I was reading, it makes my toes curl with shame. Between re-reading my favourite children’s books, I read some absolute rubbish. But the mediocrity of my literature choices reflects on the lack of options there were back then. Young Adult wasn’t a thing, only “teen fiction”, which tended to be mass-market produced romance. I read a few of the “Sweet Dreams” series, with the classic formula of Girl meets Boy, Girl hates Boy, Girl changes mind about Boy, Girls ends up with Boy, all sealed with a kiss on the last page. I read them willingly enough but with an awareness that they weren’t really any good. I liked something a bit spicier, like Virginia Andrews. Back then, novels like Flowers in the Attic and Heaven were published as Adult Fiction, probably because of the sexual content – that’s probably why so many teenagers like me read them. I also liked a bit of Aga Saga, picked up from my mum, and historical fiction, such as Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons. Then I discovered Fantasy and devoted myself to authors such as Tad Williams, David Eddings and R A Salvatore. Looking back on this now, I see that it was all pretty formulaic and rather disappointing as literature. Nor does any of it reflect my own experiences, as ordinary teen living an ordinary life.
So it is great that teens have such an amazing choice these days. And yet, I still feel a bit reluctant to label my new novel as Young Adult. Yes, it has teenaged protagonists, and yes, it is a “coming of age” story. But to me, that’s not what it is about. In all my fiction, I want to write stories about people, and it just so happens that this time, the people are young and living in a time period that I lived through myself. That isn’t meant to make it more accessible to just one group of readers, or exclude others. In the same way that I will ignore labels and read anything, I want my writing to work in the same way. If I do the job right, there isn’t anyone who shouldn’t enjoy reading my new story. So I’m not sure I would want it published as a Young Adult novel, even if that meant opening my work to a whole new market – not so great if that put off other readers. Why shouldn’t adults read books about young people – after all, we have all lived through our own ‘coming of age’, and even if it was a long time ago, we can still relate.
However, while this is definitely not an attempt to get a foot in a new market, I will admit that there is another agenda behind my choice of characters and subject matter. When I wrote my children’s book No Such Cold Thing, it was out of a desire to write something my own children could read. Now my children are older, maybe I am writing something that will continue to appeal to them. And not just my own off-spring. I work in a school with children aged between ten and eighteen. They don’t know that I write novels, and I suspect if they found out, they wouldn’t want to read them anyway – there’s way too much boring history, and the characters are practically middle-aged! But it would be different if I had a novel about teenagers. That would be relevant to them, and maybe even a tiny bit tempting to read. It’s not that I’m trying to be cool or impress them, but it would be nice to engage with them in a subject that I love. After all, I like working with young people, and the more I get to know them, the more interesting they become. They might even inspire more novels!
I must stop now, before I go off on flights of fancy about being discovered as the TA who wrote the bestseller that all the kids are talking about, and my novel making it onto school reading lists. I haven’t even written the novel yet.