Guest post – The Great YA Debate

The Edinburgh book festival is a veritable feast of authors and all manner of book related events that we are incredibly fortune to be able to attend every year. One of the events my teenage daughter and I went to this year was ‘The Great YA Debate’, a discussion on the category of young adult fiction, it’s features, it’s role and whether it curtails teen readers from moving on to more sophisticated adult novels. Chaired superbly by Daniel Hahn it was an hour and a half of lively discussion with many important issues raised. Anthony McGowan suitably provoked the audience with his sometimes controversial thoughts on young adult fiction (as an author for young people himself I did wonder how far his arm had been twisted to play this part, although I think he was enjoying winding up the crowd!). Elizabeth Wein provided a voice of reason with contributions from other YA authors Christopher Edge, Jenny Downham, Annabel Pitcher and Patrice Lawrence.  There were many relevant and pertinent issues raised and it was good to hear so many thoughts from young people too. My daughter and I both thoroughly enjoyed this event and have carried on our conversations on this topic at home. I thought it would be more interesting to share a young persons view on this topic so my daughter has willingly obliged and written the rest of this post for me!

Recently I attended a debate on YA fiction with various authors sharing different viewpoints on the importance of YA books and who they are for. Currently some readers, who I think seem quite snobbish, look down on adults who “read down” suggesting they are not maturing and moving on to books that are more appropriate. Others simply dismiss YA books as tacky vampire romance novels. It seems there is a lot of prejudice surrounding YA fiction, a category which is blossoming and growing in variety. So is there a place for YA books or are they just simple tales for those avoiding reality?

Let’s take a closer look at YA books. Most often stereotyped as books along the lines of Twilight or The Hunger Games, the reality is it is an exciting category crammed with books covering a huge breadth of topics often tackling subjects that are shied away from and expressing a variety of emotions. Of course there are some mediocre YA books but the same can be said of adult books, and there are many that are fascinating. It was suggested that YA books are too simple but I think there are many complex and important issues such as death, rape , sexuality and identity in these books which are written in a way that’s accessible for young people like myself.  Hans Hoffman said “the ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”. I think this is what so many YA books do well. This is not meant to insult adult novels but to demonstrate that just because something seems simple doesn’t mean it’s not powerful. I personally think it’s fine for adults to read YA books as they can open pathways to imagination and provide valuable insight into the issues that face teenagers today.

I don’t want to sound like I am dismissing adults novels, many adult books are intriguing with stories that are thrilling and heartfelt and of course there are wonderful classics. As an avid reader I devour classic novels and Shakespeare plays – they give me an opportunity to look into the past and provide a challenge that satisfies my brain. As within the YA category there are good books and not so good books.

My striking thought at the debate was who is anyone else to judge anyone else’s choice of literature? Books are books, why can’t we just read? Why should an adult feel bad for reading YA books or a child feel that they can’t read adult books?  I read Les Miserables at 10 years old, enjoy borrowing books from my mum but also love many YA books. I think it’s great that my mum can borrow and read my YA books too as there are so many excellent books within this category and we can enjoy sharing and talking about what we have read. I think within both adult and YA books there are rubbish books but there are also so many brilliant books that inspire, stir emotion, make you think, help you face challenges or allow you to escape to a new world for a while. Why should any work of wonder be abandoned or dismissed by many because of what category they have been put in? I think you should read what you want and need to read and that we shouldn’t let any categories bind us to only reading certain books but should feel free to explore and have our lives enriched by the many wonderful books out there.





Purity – Jonathan Franzen

I was passed this to read by a friend, it’s probably not a book I would have picked myself but I am always open to recommendations. It’s a big book, literally and in the scope of it’s story. Moving from contemporary America to Berlin before the collapse of the wall, to Bolivia it spans geographical distance and lifetimes. There are four main characters whose stories are told almost independently so at times it feels like you could be reading separate books about the individuals. However, despite this and it’s length, it does hold together. To summarise this book fairly succinctly is hard and won’t do it justice however I will attempt to. The main character is Andreas Wolf, a complex character born in East Germany who rises to fame after the fall of the wall. The book rests on the relationship all the other characters have with him. Andreas has a strange and complicated relationship with his parents and his homeland both of which seem to affect the adult he grows into. Following the collapse of the wall he sets up The Sunlight Project, an organisation that trades in exposing the secrets of the world. The one secret that can never be exposed is the one belonging to Andreas and about which he becomes ever more obsessed with as the book progresses. Although clearly a charismatic character apparently loved and revered by the people around him he is not likeable for us as readers, enlightened as we are with the knowledge of what he is really like. I quite liked this about this book, that as readers we are very much outside the story able to look into all the worlds and characters constructed for us and see the bigger and truer picture. The book opens with Pip’s story. Pip is young, living in a squat, in a dead end job, burdened with debt and frustrated by her mother’s secrecy about who her father is and her mother’s past. Through a connection that we as readers will understand later Pip is given the opportunity to work for The Sunlight Project in Bolivia where she also hopes to be able to find out the truth about her father. Her experience in Bolivia and with Andreas changes her life and her ideas about life in ways she could never have anticipated. The story weaves it’s way towards a tidy conclusion which I liked, it felt like something good had at last come out of something less good. Some of the stories in this book are fairly unpleasant, with a significant focus on sex, particularly dysfunctional sexual relationships. Although all the characters are complex it does feel like all the women, bar perhaps Pip, are a bit vulnerable and all looking for a strong man rather than being able to be strong themselves which is disappointing. There is a political current to this book which is interesting, particularly that about the regime in Germany. However I think this book is much more than a story, it is clearly very intelligent with a desire to say something about society. Perhaps an examination of purity in an impure and often sordid world?  Andreas himself seems to strive for something all the time, something that seems to always be out of his reach – a pure love not sullied in any way, always out of reach because it doesn’t exist? I am sure there are all sorts of ideas within this book that can be discussed at length however as a story it does work too. It felt too masculine for me and there was quite a bit I didn’t like however it was a good read in that I didn’t find it hard or long to read despite its length and I did want to find out what happened. I wouldn’t be suggesting it to my book group but I am sure it is held in great esteem by many people.

Cuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge

I had actually just started to read ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ next however a camping in the rain incident rendered it unreadable for a few days. Luckily my daughter always takes plenty of books on holiday and was able to lend me one. I make no apologies for the fact that I do read and review a lot of young adult books as it’s a genre I am really enjoying, there is certainly a lot more choice than there was when I was a teenager and some seriously good books. Neither my daughter or I are particularly interested in vampire stories, of which there are a lot, but there are also a lot of excellent books combining great storytelling with exquisite writing. I think it’s great that there is so much choice for young people with books that are about other young people navigating the same turbulent teenage years. I also love that they are just as readable by adults and would definitely encourage other readers not to dismiss this genre just because they are not themselves or don’t have teenagers. I am going to a debate on the place of young adult fiction at the Edinburgh book festival next week and very much looking forward to hearing from authors in this genre on this subject.

Having said that about the books being about teenagers,  the main character in this book is actually only 11 and it is not at all about navigating the teenage years! It is described on it’s back cover as being a dark and twisted fairy tale which I think is perfect. It’s gothic and fantastical, following the story of Triss who wakes up after an accident not feeling completely herself. It turns out that she is literally not herself (that’s about as much as I can say without spoiling it) and she must try to find out the truth of what has happened to her in order to find her true self. It’s a really good story, I had no idea how it could possibly end or where the many twists and turns would lead. I loved Hardinge imaginings of a world within our cities. She manages to make something completely ludicrous and unbelievable sound almost plausible which I think adds to the enjoyment. She has also created characters with a depth that enables the reader to like them more and more as you get to know them. Triss and her sister Pen are the central characters however their parents and deceased brother’s fiancee also feature and like Triss and Pen become much more than their, not great, first impressions. Set in the aftermath of the first world war she is also able to explore the loss of so many young men, of brothers and sons and how that grief affected families, as well as how this change in dynamics affected womens place in society. She manages to combine a very real post war world with a completely fantastical one but never in a way that feels clumsy or for younger children as it might have done. Although the main characters are children it definitely has a dark edge which makes it more appropriate for older readers. I thoroughly enjoyed this, it’s a bit different but definitely worth a read, it goes on my good reads list and Hardinge is an author I will be keeping an eye on.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post – Emily M. Danforth

I couldn’t decide what to read next and didn’t fancy any of the samples so had a look through my daughter’s library bag and found this one. I was intrigued by the claim on it’s cover to be a new classic. It tells the story of Cameron Post, a pre adolescent girl who loses both her parents in a car accident and is subsequently brought up by her religious aunt. When she finds out her parents have died her initial reaction is not shock or grief but relief that they will never know she has been kissing Irene, her best friend. The story follows Cameron over the next few years as she attempts, through her various friendships and sexual encounters,  of which there are many, to make sense of her own identity and sexuality in a time and a place where being homosexual was wrong and cast her into the edge of society. Her aunt Ruth eventually finds out about her ‘deviant’ ways and sends her to a religious centre in the hope to correct her. In this centre, as well as being taught how to not be homosexual,  Cameron is also able to reflect on her parents death for the first time and how navigating the teenage years without them has affected her. She is finally able to find the courage to stand up for who she really is. Although I suspect I am not this books target audience I could see it’s appeal. At times it is moving and insightful and I think could be helpful to young people facing struggles with their identity for whatever reason. The writing is excellent skillfully portraying well developed characters that were easy to feel empathy for.  However I found it a bit dull in places and the story far fetched at times (although maybe I just didn’t have very exciting teenage years!). My teenage daughter read it after me and also felt it wasn’t very realistic but enjoyed the story nevertheless. I don’t think either of us would put it on our good reads list but agree it’s not a bad read just not our cup of tea!

After You – Jo Jo Moyes

I am behind with my blogging again so will do a quick review of my last reads so I can get back to reading. Before going on holiday I had downloaded quite a few samples on my kindle hoping to choose a couple. I started with the sample of After You and, as is often the way with them, got sucked in and ended up buying the book. I read Me Before You a few years ago on holiday and really enjoyed it, it was a perfect holiday read. There have been lots of trailers for the film of it recently too so my interest in After You was piqued. After you picks up about 6 months after the death of Will. Louisa has been floating around somewhat aimlessly, travelling and drifting between jobs. Now she has finally bought a flat with the money she was left and after a serious accident finds herself beginning to confront her grief head on. This aspect of the book is well done, Louisa’s struggle to move on without Will and the many emotions this causes feels realistic. She is a likeable character however she just doesn’t work as well without the relationship with Will. There are other more contrived sub plots that I don’t want to spoil but at times make the story feel a bit bogged down. I think sequels are always tricky , it’s hard to recreate something that worked well and although this was not a bad read, I did enjoy it, I definitely didn’t enjoy it as much as Me Before You and was relieved when I had finished it.