On a lack of respect for YA…

When the TES headline 'Today's young adult fiction is robbing our teenagers of the chance to become literate adults' started its viral journey across Twitter, I was quick to click.

And here’s a confession: I was hopeful when I landed on Joe Nutt's essay. I was keen to listen. The YA genre like any other section of publishing is not perfect or beyond improvement. I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't relax our trigger instinct to defend if it means hearing valuable critique.

But education consultant Nutt's argument – accusing publishers of peddling "gossip fodder" and "petty anxieties" which is dissuading young minds away from the classics and informative non-fiction – soon proved itself to be an exercise in fury over substance.

It is easy to call anxieties "petty", for example, if you have forgotten how it felt to experience them for the first time. And isn’t this an absolute raison d'etre of YA – to offer a safe space on the page to explore all the complexities, large and small, of coming-of-age?

Nutt posted a clarification to his article on Facebook, saying: "I never suggested kids read 'the classics' instead of YA fiction. I bemoaned the lack of writing for teenagers…that actually respects them."

And perhaps here he moves towards offering a valuable critique by emphasising that word 'respect'.

YA publishing does respect its market. Whether readers are looking for escape, humour, romance or an examination of serious themes, there is quality writing to be found. But as authors become braver with the issues they are willing to tackle, publishers must continue to match this bravery with what they select, edit and market.

At the recent Young Adult Literature Conference the panel I spoke on was asked if publishers had a problem with the portrayal of violence in books. No, I replied, but sex is always contentious. I have experienced extreme uneasiness from some editors during the submission process about including scenes that portray ill-advised sexual encounters, a rite of passage for many teens, worried that readers will copy.

A recent US review of one of my books took issue with a racially derogatory phrase a character learns from her mother and then repeats. It should not have been there, the reviewer argued, without me explaining that it was the wrong thing to say.

This worries me. YA characters must be allowed to do, think and say bad things if we are to continue to reflect the messiness of real life and ease mature teens into an adult world. Readers must be allowed to form their own conclusions from the context about right and wrong. Perhaps Nutt makes so many references to the classics because characters in those books are allowed to do startling and incorrect things, and to be read in school, because of the deference we have for older texts. 

I write the books that I was seeking out aged 15, stories that lifted the curtain to reveal what grown-ups were really getting up to. Done with Judy Blume's Forever and the Sweet Valley High series, I remember asking a librarian what to read next and being crestfallen when she placed in my hands a copy of Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

I was a serious kid, an all-A student in no mood to play stupid, but I knew Thackeray couldn't teach me about my world, about lower-middle class, 1990s Peterborough. What I would have given for the rich choice of YA available today.

That's not to say only contemporary realistic YA is of value. Alternate history and dystopia, for example, offer authors and readers a hugely exciting canvas on which to explore today's big questions. 

It must be hard for publishers to know which way to turn. The mainstream press routinely slams YA fiction for its language and outrageous content, demanding that children stay children. Then we have education spokespeople like Nutt saying teenagers are not being helped to grow up.

The TES article should make us stop and ask ourselves honestly, are we truly honouring the intelligence of young readers?  Are we still pushing the boundaries of what we talk about in YA and how? I believe the answer is yes – but we must hold our nerve.

Julie Mayhew is the author of three young adult titles – Red Ink, The Big Lie and Mother Tongue, which is published this week by Hot Key Books.