How YA is shak­ing up the face of block­busters

Once blighted by heavy-handed mor­al­iz­ing and per­fect pro­tag­o­nists, young adult fic­tion en­ters a golden age of di­verse voices, flawed char­ac­ters

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - RYAN PORTER

Be­fore Sam J. Miller sold his de­but novel The Art of Starv­ing, struc­tured into the 53 com­mand­ments that anorexic teen Matt fol­lows to re­strict what he eats and — just maybe — nur­ture mys­ti­cal su­per­pow­ers, he was ner­vous about how, well, adult his young adult novel was. “You’re cool with all the f-bombs and gay sex?” he asked Kris­ten Pet­tit, his ed­i­tor at HarperTeen. “I think it has ex­actly the right amount of f-bombs and gay sex,” she re­as­sured him.

“She sup­ported me to take it to the limit of where it needed to go,” he says to­day of the sub­ver­sive mem­oir based on Miller’s own ex­pe­ri­ence with an ado­les­cent eat­ing dis­or­der. “If you are go­ing to tell a story about some­one’s journey to­wards self-de­struc­tion, you have to make it real for peo­ple.”

Matt is a painfully re­lat­able un­der­dog for teens and adults alike, even as his questionable de­ci­sions make him any­thing but a role model. But craft­ing teach­able mo­ments is hardly a pre­req­ui­site in to­day’s young adult sphere, where di­verse, nu­anced nar­ra­tives have emerged as to­day’s block­busters — see, for ex­am­ple, the break­out suc­cess of this year’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, about an African-Amer­i­can girl whose best friend is shot by a white po­lice of­fi­cer, or YA gi­ant John Green’s nov­els, which will be joined this fall with the up­com­ing Tur­tles All The Way Down, about a 16-yearold whose char­ac­ter was in­spired by Green’s own strug­gles with men­tal health.

When Jay Asher’s peren­ni­ally pop­u­lar 2007 novel Thir­teen Rea­sons Why launched as a Net­flix se­ries last Spring, many adults — ed­u­ca­tors and men­tal-health pro­fes­sion­als among them — were shocked by its por­trayal of sui­cide as a re­venge fan­tasy, even as young read­ers tes­ti­fied that the story af­firmed their own real-world ex­pe­ri­ences (a study found that, in the 19 days af­ter the se­ries was re­leased, searches re­lated to sui­cide con­tem­pla­tion and sui­cide pre­ven­tion both rose sig­nif­i­cantly).

Mean­while, main­stream best­sellers have bent to­ward plot-driven mys­ter­ies about women in jeop­ardy, such as Paula Hawkins’ Into The Wa­ter and Ruth Ware’s The Woman In Cabin 10. “A lot of peo­ple still think of YA as Twi­light, The Hunger Games, “says Alice Moore, se­nior col­lec­tions spe­cial­ist for youth ma­te­ri­als at the Toronto Pub­lic Li­brary. “But we’ve seen a lot of sto­ries of peo­ple’s lives com­ing through over the past few years. I think there’s in­ter­est be­cause a lot of those con­ver­sa­tions are hap­pen­ing more in the world and on so­cial me­dia as well.”

Sales in the cat­e­gory are boom­ing. Harper­Collins re­ports that 1,626 dif­fer­ent young adult ti­tles were sold in Canada from July 2006 through June 2007 com­pared with 8,157 dif­fer­ent young adult ti­tles sold be­tween July 2016 and June 2017, a five­fold in­crease in the num­ber of ti­tles pub­lished over 10 years.

And it’s not just teenagers find­ing them­selves in these sto­ries. Moore says adult li­brary users have been bor­row­ing more YA hard­cover fic­tion than teens have year over year since 2014.

Yet there con­tin­ues to be a stigma around Young Adult that its au­thors must serve heavy-handed morals and try-hard teach­able mo­ments. Susin Nielsen, a Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award-win­ning chil­dren’s au­thor for 2012’s school-shoot­ing themed The Re­luc­tant Jour­nal of Henry K. Larsen, says she is of­ten asked about her “re­spon­si­bil­ity” in writ­ing about top­ics for teens, such as the high-anx­i­ety teen hero­ine of her re­cent novel Op­ti­mists Die First.

“Less and less so these days, but there are those books that feel like kids should read them,” she says.

“Can you imag­ine as adults read­ing a book be­cause some­body said you would learn a good les­son? You’d think, good God life’s too short.”

When Laura Tims pitched two pos­si­ble fol­lowups to her 2016 de­but novel, she pre­sented both a thriller like her de­but Please Don’t Tell and a ro­mance, The Art of Feel­ing, about a girl liv­ing with chronic pain who meets a boy who can’t feel pain at all. Her publisher chose the more grounded Feel­ing.

If Tims’ novel, out Aug. 15, doesn’t hold back on harsh lan­guage and drug use, it’s be­cause Tims’ pri­mary goal was to stay true to her teen pro­tag­o­nists’ re­al­ity.

“The only trep­i­da­tion I had was to write about is­sues hon­estly and re­al­is­ti­cally and not just have them be a plot de­vice,” she says.

Her nar­ra­tor, Sam, sur­vives a car ac­ci­dent that kills her mother. She’s left walk­ing on crutches and tak­ing med­i­ca­tion to man­age her pain. Af­ter Tims, now 25, sub­mit­ted the first three chap­ters, she de­vel­oped rheuma­toid arthri­tis. “When I was writ­ing the book the first time, I had (pain) come up when it was con­ve­nient for the story,” she says. “Af­ter I de­vel­oped chronic pain I re­al­ized that it needed to come up a lot more of­ten. Chronic pain is some­thing that you ex­pe­ri­ence all day long.”

Her pub­lish­ers gave Tims their full sup­port in her ef­forts. “A lot of peo­ple work­ing in young adult are very open-minded,” she says. “And they are al­ways look­ing for some­thing new and in­ter­est­ing and orig­i­nal.”

The ap­peal of YA to not-so-young adults makes sense to Tims. “Ev­ery­one has been a teenager,” she says. “Ev­ery­one has been at a cross­roads. That is why young adult books are so com­pelling be­cause they write about peo­ple that are grow­ing.”

Men­tal health, which Tims neatly jux­ta­poses against the more tan­gi­ble phys­i­cal pain, is an area that young adult has par­tic­u­larly ex­celled at, Tims says.

“Men­tal health is­sues are an epi­demic among teenagers right now,” she says. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tre for Ad­dic­tion and Men­tal Health (CAMH), the age group most likely to ex­pe­ri­ence men­tal ill­ness or sub­stance use disor­ders is 15 to 24. “Be­cause of that mo­ti­va­tion there are a lot of very suc­cess­ful sto­ries be­ing told.”

Miller re­calls that his per­sonal teen de­mons were made all the more pow­er­ful by his own iso­la­tion in the 90s.

“Young adult was not in the same place. There were no books that were telling a truth that I rec­og­nized.” Now, he says, “There is an hon­esty that is ac­cept­able in young adult that grown-up nov­els are of­ten too ‘smart’ and ‘so­phis­ti­cated’ to tell. You can tell the truth in a re­ally pow­er­ful and unique way.”


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