YOUNG ADULT FICTION:
WHO is reading young adult literature? Teens, young adults or adults? YA fiction is generally fast paced, alluring and often groundbreaking across genres, including contemporary realism, speculative and historical fiction, romance and humour. There’s also a proliferation of sub-genres within these, such as dystopian and paranormal. YA fiction aimed at older readers is a growth market: books that deal in adult themes and issues, although usually featuring young adult characters. These can be written with as much sophistication as adult literary fiction (and frequently with better storytelling), so it’s no wonder many older adults love reading YA.
This leads to a couple of questions, though. Can the 18-plus readers who have grown up reading through YA’s levels be tempted into mainstream adult literature? And, at the other end, where should younger teens be directed? Their books often fall into the ‘‘ middle years’’ category, works that also may be suitable for older primary school readers.
Two well written and engaging middle years books are Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy (Text Publishing, 208pp, $16.99) and Steven Herrick’s Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend (UQP, 228pp, $16.95).
Stead has won the prestigious Newbery Medal and is notable for creating innovative novels for children and young adults, such as When You Reach Me and First Light. Liar & Spy is set in Stead’s native New York. Secrets and lies are crafted and planted adeptly, although the main character, Georges — named after pointillist artist Georges Seurat — feels uncomfortable lying. He is in Grade 7 and is stressed because his father has lost his job, the family has moved from their house to an apartment and his mother has to work double shifts at the hospital. To top things off, his friend has joined the cool group. Georges makes a new friend, Safer, who trains him as a spy. They are interested in Mr X, who always wears black and is up to something nefarious. It is surprising to reach the end of the novel and realise some things already mentioned in this review are deceptions. These falsehoods are skilfully embedded, but the mystery can’t be revealed here. This original story resembles the dots in a pointillist painting, where placement of colours tricks the eye into seeing other colours, and a true picture can be seen only from farther away. The perspective and insight of time and space is needed to join the dots.
Different ways of looking at things also can be shown in literature by multiple narrators. Perspective and point of view is shared among a cast of narrators in Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend, which is a verse novel. A class of students’ responses to the happenings in their school and homes, and the emotions wrought by these, is refracted by the magnifying and telescoping of the characters’ focus. Laura is coping with her lack of friends by sharing a secret with Mr Korsky, the groundsman. When she hears him laugh in appreciation of her gift, she feels as overwhelmed as by the size of the sky in summer. Later, the students transform the school’s culture by sharing food and Mick encourages Laura to join in. ‘‘ And then he makes a space/ between him and Selina/ and offers me the first crackle/ and it tastes/ as fresh and crisp and sweet/ as friendship.’’ Friendship, an important theme of this book, can be manifested and described with wide sweeps or with detail to show cherished intimacy. NSW Blue Mountainsbased poet and author Herrick is an expert writer of humour and its offshoot, pathos. His style is simple but able to transcribe authentic experiences and emotions.
Another verse novel is Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again (UQP, 276pp, $16.95). This award-winning book tells the story of Ha, who faces the deprivations caused by the encroaching Vietnam War and whose family finally is forced to leave their Saigon home in 1975. Their sea voyage merges with the many appalling refugee trials that we hear and read about in the news and in other literature, but the family eventually is sponsored in Alabama by a cowboy lookalike with a sour wife. All the family find it difficult to settle. Ha is bullied and rages at feeling dumb because of her lack of English. The papaya fruit becomes her symbol. Before leaving home, she watches the biggest papaya grow and ripen until, finally, the family cuts it rather than leave it for the communists: ‘‘ Brother Vu chops;/ the head falls;/ a silver blade slices./ Black seeds spill/ like clusters of eyes,/ wet and crying.’’ The shared allusion of the fruit and dying people transform Lai’s short lines of spare writing into urgent images of pain and death. The verse novel form is potent because ideas and feelings can be crystallised into fewer, honed words. It has the sensory refinement of poetry and the power of story. This is a semi-autobiographical tale whose truncated, yet lyrical, voice is formed from the author’s reimagining of a girl shackled by speech and lack of understanding.
Paul Griffin is another New Yorker. His novels aren’t autobiographical but are influenced by his work with at-risk teens. His new one, Burning Blue (Text Publishing, 256pp, $19.99), masters the difficult subgenre of the psychological thriller. It’s aimed at older teens (and adults who read YA fiction will love it). The most attractive and popular girl at school, Nicole Castro, has acid thrown at her face. Her beauty seems to be destroyed. Jay, a loner, has seizures and is just resurfacing from a period of home-schooling. His life intersects with Nicole’s and they begin to grow close. Jay is an enigmatic character whose physical beauty is not revealed at the start of the book, skilfully clouding and changing our response to him. He uses his computer hacking and other skills in a riveting, chilling search for the vicious perpetrator of the attack on Nicole. Every character could be a suspect but, as with Liar & Spy, I mustn’t reveal too much. The unpredictable characters, along with the book’s secrets, are the foundation of the story. As well as writing in Jay’s voice, Griffin uses emails and journal entries to change perspective and keep us off balance, as we should be when reading a good psychological thriller. The red herrings and outright lies heighten the tension, misleading us through a dance of evasions until the truth is bared in the astounding finale.