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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Great Works of Fiction in the YA Section

I've been having a bit of an identity crisis as a writer. As I've mentioned a few times here, my style tends toward the light and the positive. I might be going through the most depressing episode of my life, but my writing will stay within a range that most readers interpret as light and fun. I first remember coming across this reaction in translation school, when the venerable Danny Weissbort said I had "a light touch," which might indicate me for translating foreign children's books into English. At the time, I was translating a delightful book in which animals talk, but my final project for that degree was No Turning Back, originally Camino sin retorno by Lidia Falcón, a novel about women's rights and the communist party in Franco-regime Spain. The main character has a lot of angst, sexuality is explicitly explored, and the prison scenes are all the more harrowing because they were based on the author's experience. I translated it because I was attracted to its serious themes and the possibility of literature raising readers' consciousness. It was probably at least partially a reaction to the "light touch" comment, with which everyone in the room (some ten other translators) agreed. Some part of me said, "I'll show them how serious I can be!"

I didn't think children's or young adult literature could accomplish the same great things as "grown-up" writing. I've kept that judgment in the back of my mind, so a week or two ago I was offended when one of the members of my writing group asked if I was directing my chapter at a YA audience. And then of course I got the rejection of the happy rhino story, at least partly because the style was too light. Oh, God! I cried. Will anyone ever take me seriously? 

Giving it a little more consideration, I thought of some of the extraordinarily mature books I've read recently from the YA section of the library.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy (plus the new fourth book) by Jonathan Stroud. These books meet the following children's lit criteria: 1. the main character is a child (but only in the first book), 2. it's pure fantasy, with magic and genies (djinn) and an alternate-universe setting, and 3. the writing is flippant and goes for the laughs. How it's adult: 1. the main character is an adult in the second and third books, and goes through situations that call for maturity beyond coming-of-age stuff, 2. adults can appreciate the fantasy, especially with the references to real history and literature littered through the whole thing, 3. the writing, while highly comedic, is also sophisticated and entertaining on all kinds of other levels.

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. Like the Bartimaeus books, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass take place in an alternate universe, so the series belongs firmly in the fantasy section. The main characters are children; in fact, a big part of the plot is their coming-of-age. Do those facts justify the series being "for children"? The writing is lush and engaging and it certainly doesn't pander to a certain grade level. The plot is an extended metaphor about consciousness and what it means to be human, which are fine ideas for children, but better appreciated by adults who have some experience of the world. Plus, the series starts heavily focused on two taboo subjects: politics and religion.

Is it a coincidence that both of these series are distinctly British?

These books accomplish just as much if not more than the most adult of bestsellers. The long and the short of it is that I wouldn't be put off to see these supposedly YA books on the shelf of the most serious scholar.

So, a certain lightness to the writing style and a fantasy setting don't make these books any less enjoyable for adults -- especially if, like me, those adults have an optimistic outlook. On the other hand, if my most serious efforts end up on the YA shelf next to the likes of these, I would be honored. It's just a shorthand label for the booksellers and librarians, after all.

So, dear readers, I invite you to follow me and my vision into whatever section it happens to take me. Thanks for taking the trouble. You won't regret it.