There’s no shortage of people spouting their own version of ‘when I was younger we just went straight on to reading adult books,’ since then there has been the development of teen books, YA and NA. But YA isn’t just about acting as a bridge between reading ages, it’s a lot more important than that.
Let’s be honest here. Literature, film and television have one very great flaw and that is a lack of diversity. The majority of books feature white characters as a lead and in any novel where the writer doesn’t refer to the race of their character, they are immediately assumed to be white, as if white, in much the same way that straight is, is the ‘default’.
While YA has been criticised for a lack of diversity in the past, 2015 has been an excellent year for diversity in YA. The Wrath and the Dawn, An Ember in the Ashes, My Heart and Other Black Holes, Everything Everything, Written in the Stars – all averaging a rating of over 4 stars on Goodreads and written by POC authors. A list titled, ‘2015 YA Books with LGBT Themes’ on Goodreads currently has no less than 133 books, including titles such as: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, More Happy than Not, None of the Above – and this list only includes books with a 2015 publication date.
The world of literature is still vastly dominated by men. (If you don’t think this is still a problem today, read this article at jezebel.com: Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending my Novel out under a Male name). Women who write children’s or adult fiction have used initials to hide their gender, such as JK Rowling but that doesn’t extend to YA. YA is vastly dominated by women. The most popular YA series are written by female authors featuring strong, independent female characters. The Hunger Games, Vampire Academy, Graceling to name a few examples.
The YA genre doesn’t shy away from anything. Perhaps it is not always so overt, or cynical when dealing with society, but the message is there. Take The Hunger Games for example, on the face of it, the story is about two teenagers who must fight to survive, and eventually fall in love. It’s about a post-North America society in which teenagers fight to the death on reality television for the entertainment of the Capitol. Now wait a minute, doesn’t that make you shudder at the thought of just how not improbable such an event really is?
Suzanne Collins first came up with the idea when she was flicking between TV shows: one about teenagers, and another about war. She was tired, and the two concepts merged together. With all the violence and gore that we are exposed to in cinema today, we are becoming desensitized to the tragedy of violent acts and war that happens in reality. How different does an explosion in a movie look compared to an explosion shown in the news? Collins manages to comment on our modern-day society, even though the story is set in a fictional dystopia called Panem. The juxtaposition of poverty in the districts to the over-indulgence of the image-obsessed Capitol makes it hard for a reader not to see the underlying messages of the story. And that was just one example from YA.
YA isn’t reserved just for teens. The YA umbrella of genres has a strong adult readership too. Why? Because YA speaks to us all. It is written to find the emotional truth, the intensity and complexities in the human experience, particularly the teenage experience – a part of an adult’s life they are unlikely to forget. John Green said, “Maybe some of what’s universal is the intensity of the experience, the intensity of falling in love for the first time, the intensity of asking questions about mortality and meaning for the first time.”
YA has brought us some of the most successful and entertaining stories of the decade, from the magical world of Harry Potter (the later books), to the action of Divergent, and the heart-break of The Fault in Our Stars. YA can stand on its own with its own merit. It has millions of readers, from the young to the old, and we aren’t going to stop reading YA anytime soon. And that is why YA matters.
– Elizabeth & Nadia