Rewarding YA reading for Grown-ups! Let me persuade you…

I’m in my early fifties prime (!) and I’m not afraid to say that I love reading modern YA books now and then … but only good ones, naturally.  By using the term ‘YA’ here, I’m distinguishing them from those books we usually call ‘children’s classics’ (which still appeal to readers young and old alike).  I’m concentrating on contemporary novels specifically aimed at older children/teenaged readers, usually 12+.

I passionately believe that the very best of modern YA writing can be as good as books for grown-ups, and equal to that of the children’s classics that we remember from our youth.  Many remain to be converted to this way of thinking, so I’d like to explain a bit, maybe encourage you as a grown-up to give a YA book a go, and offer a few suggestions for reading.

There’s an incentive if you make it all the way to the end of this post.  You may disagree with me too, and I don’t mind that at all. We each find our way to the things we like to read, but I’m trying to encourage an open attitude to at least try reading something different.  I will, however, be the first to admit that as an adult reader of a YA novel you do have to be a bit more picky …

That black cover!

One barrier is making your way past all the formulaic black covers of all the ‘Twi-likes’.  The paranormal romance genre has been the big marketing success of recent years in teen fiction, spawning werewolves, witches, angels – stories featuring all kinds of undead following in the vampires’ wake, (paralleled to a lesser extent by zombie mayhem aimed at boys).  Twilight wasn’t the first teen vampire novel by a long shot – L H Smith’s The Vampire Diaries were there way before for instance, but it was Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (my review here) that became the publishing phenomenon and really kick-started the whole shebang.  I’ve read a good variety of these paranormal high school romances; more than enough to know that although they can be enjoyable fun, they are for teenagers.  As an adult reader, I don’t need to read any more of them, even the rest of the Twilight series, (I have watched all the films though).

Now we’ve got that out of the way …

What are the differences between adult and YA literature?  

Well, they share the three major common elements of plot, character and writing style of all novels.  Many adults tend to favour writing style to dominate over plot or character – a debate that was the subject of a great post a while ago at Stuck in a book. What use is a great character or story if you can’t get into reading it after all.  Well, the same is true of YA books too,  but the balance between the three elements is often different.  I realise that by necessity I’m having to generalise here, but using my daughter’s reading experiences too, so go with me if you can …

Writing style in literature for younger readers does tend to be more direct.  Authors have to take great care with their language,  not using bad language unnecessarily, but keeping it appropriate to their audience.  Difficult subjects such as sex, drugs, alienation and all the good and bad bits of growing up – all these emotive issues need to be tackled with tact and sensitivity, again appropriate to their audience.  Sometimes I wish more adult books would moderate their language a bit – you can get fed up of too many profanities and graphic sex scenes.

What would a novel be without strong characters?  Pretty uninvolving, I think.  The only difference here is that the main protagonists in YA books tend to be younger, older teens themselves – an age their main readers can identify with.  This shouldn’t be a problem for the adult reader either.  There are so many adult novels with child or teen lead characters – the ‘coming of age’ novel in particular being its own sub-genre (see some of my reviews of these here.)  YA characters can, however, can often be defined by their actions, rather than their thoughts.

Plot though, does tend to come more highly up the scale for teens.  Younger readers need action.  They need things to happen all of the time – they can’t cope with pages of descriptive atmosphere or scene-setting.  This can sometimes make a YA novel seem rather relentless, you wish for a break.  The clever YA author will build in descriptive elements throughout whilst keeping a cracking plot going and coming up for breath now and then.  As we progress up the age scale, the action-quotient typically decreases a little to let the setting speak, and allow characters to pause for thought more too.

So, are you willing to have a go yet?  If yes, what could you read?

For starters, you won’t go far wrong if you pick one of the books that have been awarded the Carnegie Medal – an annual prize in the UK made to a writer of outstanding fiction for children. The medal is awarded by CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.  Admittedly, many of these winning books are for older children rather than teens – but they’re all great books.

My favourite Carnegie winner from 2008 is Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve.  It is a very different and brilliant take on Arthurian Legend with Merlin as a spin doctor.

I’m also a big fan of Patrick Ness, who won in 2012 with A Monster Calls (and 2011). It’s a simple story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, who can’t accept what’s happening, and a monster comes to help him through. As our book group found, this one wasn’t universally popular as an adult read, but did provoke good discussion.  You can hear Patrick talking to Simon Savidge about his writing for adults and children in a podcast at You Wrote the Book!.

This year’s Carnegie Shortlist (award in June) has some brilliant novels on it; I’ve read three so far, plus several that were longlisted that didn’t make it onto the shortlist. Some previous thoughts on the longlist are here, but the highlights for me are:

  • Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (review coming soon).  Sedgwick is my favourite YA author. Many of his novels have a magical edge to them, they nearly always have a darkness at their heart and are based on folktales and folklore. My favourite book of his though, is his fictional account of Arthur Ransome’s years in Russia Blood Red Snow White.  I particularly enjoy his writing style which seems ‘ageless’. My fingers are crossed that he may win this year.
  • A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle.  A bittersweet novel about dying which tells the story of four generations of women with great empathy and humour, and is typically Roddy Doyle too!
  • The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner. A complex and fantastical philosophical novel for teens. While The Double Shadow didn’t make it onto the shortlist; another of her novels did however – Maggot Moon is narrated by a boy with dyslexia, which Sally suffers from. I shall be reading it soon.

Some other authors of YA books that I’ve read and reviewed include Sally Nicholls, Charlie Higson for ‘zombie mayhem to scare your pants off’, Matt Haig creator of the crossover vampire family The Radleys, Cliff McNish.

These are just a few of the contemporary authors writing primarily for teens that I’ve read and enjoyed on an adult level; authors I will be returning to again and again.  There are so many more for me to explore, not least Diana Wynne Jones who died in 2011 and who has an army of adult fans, Meg Rossoff too, and, and, and … the list could go on for pages.

Which contemporary YA authors & books would you recommend to me?
Would you consider reading a YA novel?

As a final incentive, I’m offering one copy each of Here Lies Arthur, and Midwinterblood as a GIVEAWAY – open to any country to which the Book Depository delivers to.  To enter – just recommend any children’s or YA novel that makes a rewarding read for adults, ancient or modern.

17 thoughts on “Rewarding YA reading for Grown-ups! Let me persuade you…

  1. Sharkell says:

    Markus Zusak is my favourite YA novelist. He has written The Book Thief, The Messenger, The Underdog…. I’ve reas Patrick Ness as well and love him too. Would love to enter into your competition, thanks fir the opportunity.

    • Sharkell says:

      Gosh, sorry for all of the typos! I’ve just added a few of your recommendations to my wishlist for my 13 yo daughter and 11 yo son (and some for me as well!).

  2. gaskella says:

    Thanks Sharkell. The Book Thief is one I’ve meant to read for ages – I believe I own a copy – I’ll go and check that out. I’m starting a YA pile for a project I’ve been thinking about, so it’ll go on top (if I find it that is!).

    • gaskella says:

      Debbie – I took one look at The Westing Game … and ordered a copy! Thanks for the recommend. I have a copy of the Rebecca Stead somewhere too.

  3. Teresa says:

    There are some fabulous YA/crossover authors e.g. Siobhan Dowd who inspired A Monster Calls, Mary Hooper and Theresa Breslin are as engaging as Sally Nicholls, Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on The Mantlepiece + Ketchup Clouds are v good too. Wonder by RJ Palacio is a favourite of my son and I. I echo your praise of Gardner, Sedgwick, Higson et al. Won’t be to everyone’s taste but I’m glad there’s so much quality writing for my own children. I think I went straight from Blyton to King and Christie!

    • gaskella says:

      I have the two Pitcher novels but which to read first? – a nice quandary. I’m glad to hear Hooper and Breslin are worth reading too – they were on my radar, but I’ve not read them yet – authors to look out for. Thanks for the recommends.

  4. Alex says:

    I’m certainly with you where ‘Here Lies Arthur’ is concerned. I love all Reeves books, but this one was out of his usual mould and very special indeed. The one that I’m surprised no one has mentioned so far is David Almond’s ‘Skellig’. That is a magical book for any reader, whatever their age.

    • gaskella says:

      It is a special book isn’t it. I must read his ‘Mortal Engines’ series – I’ve found the first one in my piles and promoted it to read soon. Now – ‘Skellig’ – that’s a different matter. I really enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to anyone too, but I didn’t rave about it – there’s something about Almond’s writing that I don’t quite gel with – can’t quite put my finger on what though 😉

  5. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    Great post! I read YA occasionally, but I should read more because I was made a youth librarian a few years ago and really need to get caught up.
    I really like Marcus Sedgwick so I am thrilled that you mention him. I’ve also enjoyed Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and The Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper.

    • gaskella says:

      Code Name Verity is one of the Carnegie shortlisted books I think. I’ve not heard of the other you mention, so I shall look it up. Thank you. I am a huge Sedgwick fan, and I see from his website he’s writing an adult novel now.

  6. Victoria says:

    What a timely post for me! I have just embarked on a journey into YA fiction after years of being snooty about it. I have to admit I was completely put off by the Twilight craze. But I follow the sff genre conversation online and it seemed like so many of the newly recommended books were YA that I had to give them a try. I’ve had three big finds that I have to share with you.

    1. Frances Hardinge’s A Face like Glass – this is an amazing YA fantasy set in an underground city, about a people who have no natural facial expressions. Amazingly inventive and beautifully written. I can’t wait to read more by her. My review is here:

    2. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina – this is about a young girl who is half dragon, half human and her coming to terms with that. It sounds daft but it has been nominated for half a dozen major sf awards now. I loved it:

    And finally 3. Catherynne M Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship
    Of her own Making, about a girl who does exactly that! I haven’t reviewed it yet but again really loved it.

    I will definitely be looking up Marcus Sedgewick and Patrick Ness soon. In a way I’m glad I missed out before because now there are so many good books to catch up on. 🙂

    • gaskella says:

      Victoria – I’ve not read any of your 3 recommends yet, but a friend of mine is a huge Hardinge fan, I’ve seen great reviews of Seraphina, and the Valente is on my shelf already. So lots of great reading ahead. Thank you. I hope you enjoy your YA reading too.

  7. Mary Preston says:

    You really must read THE BOOK THIEF that others here have recommended. It made me cry.

    I also loved BORN WICKED by Jessica Spotswood.

    NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman is quite extraordinary. I didn’t want it to end.

  8. sakura says:

    I’m a bit conflicted about YA too (I don’t like the term YA but that isn’t really a good enough excuse to put me off) which is strange as I used to read a lot of them. Maybe it’s because there’s a lot of samey books following the Twilight phenomena (I did read all of them and liked them apart from the last book) but I’m often left wanting. But I will have to check out Marcus Sedgewick, Patrick Ness and Dianna Wynne Jones.

    I love Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency series and more recently Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

  9. miathereader says:

    I like to think of myself as a girl who likes thick, intimidating, intellectual books, but I have decided to admit that I love a good YA book. My favorite YA author right now is Juliet Marillier. Wildwood Dancing is a fantastic book that came out in 2007. I just reviewed it on my blog recently. Also, if you like The Book Thief, check out The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. It’s not technically YA, I don’t think, but it’s a moving and well-written coming of age story about a German girl in WWII.

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