‘Growing Up Too Soon: Fiction That Asks if Teenagers are Ready for the Real World’

I attended the London Book Fair last week and while browsing the brochure, I came across a talk titled ‘Growing Up Too Soon: Fiction That Asks if Teenagers are Ready for the Real World’. I had to go and see what would be discussed since I’m aware of the occasional controversy about what should and shouldn’t feature in YA lit (e.g. ‘Is YA too dark?’). Celia Rees (author of Witch Child and This is Not Forgiveness) and Nick Lake (author of In Darkness and HarperCollins Children’s Books editor) were on the panel, chaired by Julia Eccleshare (The Guardian children’s editor).

I made five pages of A5 notes but I haven’t typed up everything. The notes have been separated under questions, although the authors didn’t necessarily answer them as strictly. Both authors talked a little about their books (I’ll leave you to find out about them yourself) and also discussed young adult literature in general.

CR: Celia Rees
NL: Nick Lake
JE: Julia Eccleshare

Young Adult Literature: What is it?

  • CR. Being a teenager is about having choices that need to be made and realising that these choices affect other people. This is the difference between being a child and being a teenager (and so children’s vs. YA literature). It is also about ‘finding yourself’.
  • NL. But teenagers are not as aware of the significance of their choices as adults. There is a lack of hindsight. He also quoted Julian Barnes, talking about how teenagers think they’re about to be released into the real world when actually they’re already there.
  • JE. The range of literature offer teenagers is immense. We respect teenagers more than ever before.
  • Tropes of YA literature: power vs. no power, marketing (i.e. where the publisher places the book), lack of hindsight, cusp of transition.

What should / shouldn’t be in young adult literature?

  • Both authors talked about why certain things (e.g. violence, sex, drugs) should be allowed to feature in young adult literature rather than why they shouldn’t, for example, there is extreme violence in both This is Not a Forgiveness and In Darkness.
  • NL. Young people’s lives are now much more complicated than in the past, mainly due to the internet and social networking, but it is now easier to be a teenager.
  • NL. Facebook (and other social network platforms) have changed the way people are expected to present themselves. Interestingly, adult life has also changed. Adults are encouraged to ‘act like teens’ e.g. women are expected to look like young girls.
  • CR. Older teenagers should have (and deserve) their own literature. It may reflect real teenage lives e.g. involve swearing or sex, and this isn’t a bad thing. It also enables authors to explore familial relationships and conflicts.

Is there anything wrong with teenagers sticking to one genre?

  • A question was asked: ‘The market is awash with real issues dressed up as paranormal. Is this to make it more palatable? Is it better for authors to address these issues in contemporary writing?’ (Paraphrased!).
  • CR. Fiction for teenagers should be broad – fantasy and paranormal included – but we worry that the market will be swamped with only one type of book.  Often fantasy (e.g. dystopia) casts the teenager in a hero role; an invincible role. Escapism is great but it needs to be counterbalanced with a more realistic portrayal.
  • NL. Is bored of reading/hearing about the same book but just with different characters (e.g. people under domes, post-apocalyptic romance).
  • Both authors were worried about large, successful books driving other books underground (e.g. The Hunger Games and Twilight). It can be difficult for librarians to get teenagers to read outside of their favourite genre.
  • However, anything that attracts teenagers and children to reading (and reading for fun) is very important.

The discussion ended with both authors agreeing that they don’t know all the answers to the above topics but they do know that there is an immense selection of rich literature within YA.

Orca Books, Olympia, WA (by Sarah Enni)

I agree that YA has a tendency to become saturated with one type of book (e.g. vampires, paranormal romance, dystopia). I’m a huge fan of YA dystopian literature, as many of you will know, but even I have started to feel overwhelmed and long for something different. However, I think YA is actually extremely diverse, exciting, and hugely important both for the publishing industry (e.g. children’s book sales seems to be growing when other areas may find it more difficult) and for teenagers themselves. Although it is more likely to follow trends, there is also a huge variety of literature – mystery, contemporary, thriller, science fiction, historical, and many more – within the young adult ‘genre’ (for the lack of a better word) out there for everyone to read, not just teenagers.

What do you think?

7 thoughts on “‘Growing Up Too Soon: Fiction That Asks if Teenagers are Ready for the Real World’

  1. Just wanted to say thanks for posting this! It looks like it was a really interesting talk. Wish I could’ve gone to the Book Fair but I was down in London the week before and couldn’t stay for it, gutted! Hoping to go next year 🙂

  2. I agree with you. Please make the dystopian thing stop. Enough already. The thing is each of these books is based on increasingly implausible premises and it’s getting ridiculous the lengths to which authors are going to come up with new ones. “Everyone has to kill their doppelganger”, “everyone has to marry their match”, “everyone over the age of 16 dies in a horrible way” etc. Enough already.

    • Everyone has to kill their doppelganger? WHAT??? Sign me up! That sounds awesome.

      But seriously, something I find offensive about these “dystopian” novels is that, in the future, men and women are TOTALLY EQUAL IN EVERY WAY. Because, I guess, that’s the future? Everyone is also happily multi-cultural with no racial tension. So, all those things are totally ironed out, and the only problem is you have to get in a time bubble and marry your future grand-nephew or whatever, or choose between two of them in a dramatic love triangle.

      Also, one of the boys is blond and the other has brown hair. They’re totally different.


      • I suppose it depends what dystopia you’re reading! I actually think they’re more likely to highlight inequalities than other YA fiction. There’s dystopias about control over sexual reproduction (Eve, Birthmarked, Thumped, Glow) and others like Tankborn where people are segregated and oppressed due to race. When She Woke is also about gender.

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