Friday, 19 June 2009

Guest Blog - Michelle Cooper

Michelle Cooper has written a fantastic novel in A Brief History of Montmaray. Today she's presenting her thoughts on what truly makes a novel YA.

I've been wondering lately about what makes a book 'Young Adult'. This was prompted by some YA talks I've attended lately (at Reading Matters and the Sydney Writers' Festival), but also by a very annoying review of Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You. The review said (and I'm paraphrasing here): "This is a really terrific, thoughtful read. It's a pity this novel's been labelled 'Young Adult' - it's wasted on teenagers."

I thought the reviewer was a complete idiot. I would have LOVED to read that book as a teenager. I love it as an adult. Is it a YA book? What does YA mean?

After much thought, and a couple of very enjoyable hours perusing my bookshelves, I decided the label of 'YA' didn't depend on the themes explored, the complexity (or profanity) of the language, or the number of pages in a book. Novels can be dark and complicated and weigh more than a large brick, yet still be YA. To me, a book is YA if the main character is a teenager who changes as a result of events vividly described within the book. Often the teenager is sadder, but wiser, by the final page. Often the book ends with a sense of hope. One key thing is that there's a STORY that keeps me turning the pages to find out what happens next (this is something that 'literary' adult novels often neglect).

By my criteria, Peter Cameron's book is YA. So are M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing books. They're clever, complex and enthralling. They're about a teenager growing up and changing and trying to take charge of his life. The Octavian Nothing books explore a lot of other ideas, and some teenage (and adult) readers might find the themes difficult or depressing, the language challenging, or the literary references confusing. But just because a book is about a teenager, and published for teenagers, doesn't mean that EVERY teenager has to read or like it. No book appeals to every reader.

On the other hand, there's Anthony Eaton's Into White Silence, published as YA and shortlisted for this year's CBC Book Award for Older Readers. The novel is both a thrilling adventure and a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a man and a hero. It's impeccably researched and filled with beautiful descriptions of Antarctica. It's a great book, and I'm sure a lot of teenagers would enjoy it - but I don't think it's YA. Neither of the two narrators is a teenager. (In fact, I only noticed one teenage character in the whole book. He has very little dialogue and disappears from the narrative fairly quickly.) This book isn't a 'coming of age' novel. It certainly doesn't have a hopeful ending (I'm not giving away any plot points here, because the author mentions the bleak ending in the first few pages). So, is Into White Silence really YA? Or was it published as YA because the author's previous books were for children and teenagers, so that's the category this book fitted into most easily? If this book is YA because there are teenagers who'd like it, then practically any book could be considered YA. So why isn't Tim Winton's Breathon this year's CBC shortlist? Answer: I presume it was because it was published as an 'adult' book, and his publisher didn't enter it in the CBC awards.

Categorising a book as YA is a marketing decision, and sometimes publishers in different countries make different decisions about the same book. For example, Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels were both published as YA in the United States, but as adult novels in Australia (and, in my opinion, the Australian publishers got it right). A YA label on a book helps booksellers and librarians know where to shelve it, and helps publishers know whom to target with advertisements, catalogues and review copies. There are certainly advantages to publishing a book as YA. There are specialist YA journals, conferences, librarians, blogs and awards. Teenage readers can also be more passionate and open-minded about books than adults. (Adult readers of this blog are excluded from this vast over-generalisation, of course!)

However, I wonder if the label of YA makes any difference to writers. I certainly don't give much consideration to the age or maturity of my readers as I write (which would be difficult anyway, as my readers range in age from ten years old to . . . well, I'm not sure, but much older than me). I don't ever think, 'Ooh, I can't write that! That's too much for teenagers! Their brains will explode if I make them think about history/politics/theology/war/mental illness/sexuality.' I write whatever the story needs. The world's a complex, difficult, fascinating place and I'd like my books to reflect that. Having said that, once the manuscript's finished, I do listen to my editors' advice. For example, I took out about half the swearing in my first YA novel, because my editor (correctly) pointed out that some librarians and teachers would refuse to buy it if I didn't. I should add that the swearing was much milder than one would hear in the average Australian primary school playground. And notice that this is all about ADULTS saying what's appropriate and suitable for teenagers. . .

Adele, are you regretting letting me take over your blog yet? I did warn you I have a tendency to rave on and on. . .

So, in conclusion: I don't really know what YA means. I'm not sure it matters to me. I love reading books labelled YA, and I love writing them and talking about them. And I'm glad I'm part of the YA literature community, because it's full of people who feel as enthusiastic as I do about these sorts of books!

So, what do you think YA is?

P.S. There is nothing new under the sun, and after I finished writing this, I got on-line and realised a whole lot of other bloggers have addressed this issue far more succinctly and sensibly than I have. I really liked these blog entries by Cheryl Klein and Justine Larbalestier, and this Horn Book article by Jonathan Hunt, all found via the CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus blog. Okay, carry on with your discussion . . .

You can find Michelle's website here . You can also win a personally signed copy of A Brief History of Montmaray by following this link. A big thank you to Michelle for allowing me to interview her while also assigning her some homework. Just a reminder that her novel is available in the US from October 13, 2009.

Next week the spotlight will be place upon Elizabeth Scott, make sure you return for some great interviews and a hilarious Aussie-themed vlog.


Summer said...

Great post. YA... it seems to be one of those catagories that is ever changing.

akash said...

Great insights about never changes. It is timeless.

akash said...

Great insights about never changes. It is timeless.

jonathan said...

I'm not going to try to explain what is or isn't YA. Anthony Eaton's own explanation lost me. I'm only part way through Into white silence. While I'm happy for it to be in my teen collection, I do suspect it would have been marketed as adult if not for his publishing history.

Of course, putting it in the adult collection means teens will miss it. But putting it in the teen collection means adults will miss it.

I guess it comes down to librarians and booksellers being willing and able to recommend good books from outside a particular person's "official" age range.

I'll hapilly put Into white silence or Octavian Nothing into an adult's hand just as quickly as into a teenager's. The same goes for plenty of books shelved in our adult collection.