Misconceptions, Talking Tough Topics and Diversity in Young Adult Fiction

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Words || Alexander Basto

Young adult fiction has become somewhat of a phenomenon in the literary sphere. It is a market that is worth millions of dollars worldwide. Young adult fiction encompasses many of the same type of genres that traditional fiction has, from fantasy, paranormal and science fiction to romance and contemporary novels; you wouldn’t label Harry Potter and Twilight the same as The Book Thief or The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Typically, books written for young adults are aimed at teenagers aged 13-18, while some publishers and authors also consider people in their early 20’s as part of the targeted audience. Yet despite this, according to a survey conducted in 2012 by Bowker Market Research, approximately 55% of young adult books were purchased by adults.

So, what is it about YA that makes it so appealing to both teens and adults alike?

Several YA authors at the Sydney Writer’s Festival shared their opinions on this subject. When asked about what she thought was the biggest misconception people hold about YA, Gabrielle Tozer, the award-winning Australian author of three YA novels, said that many people think authors tend to “dumb things down when writing for young adults”. Fellow Amie Kaufman nodded in agreement and added that there seemed to be a sentiment that YA novels were “somehow lesser than adult fiction”.

Of course, this isn’t the case at all. In fact, one of the greatest characteristics of YA fiction authors and novels is that they treat their readers as adults. Authors don’t talk down to them as if they were children. As Garth Nix jokingly explained to the audience: “It’s called young adult, not old children.” This could quite possibly be the reason many adults also seem to enjoy reading YA fiction; because the language used is, more often than not, on par with what you would find in an adult fiction novel.

Young adult fiction, particularly YA contemporary novels, also tend to be more experimental than adult fiction. Many of these books are coming-of-age stories that frequently deal with prominent issues that exist in the lives of many adolescents. Suicide, bullying, mental health, drugs, domestic abuse, body image problems; these are just a handful of relevant, social issues that are regularly written about in many YA contemporary novels (think Thirteen Reasons Why, Looking for Alaska and Eleanor & Park).

American author Jennifer Niven addressed the issues of suicide and mental health disorders in her 2013 book All the Bright Places through the character of Theodore Finch. During her panel at the SWF, she talked openly about the real-life experiences that inspired her to write Finch. Niven revealed that when she was younger she loved a boy who, like Finch, was affected by mental illness and ultimately committed suicide because of it.

Niven believes that no topic should be considered off-limits in YA provided it is handled tactfully and respectfully. This is a view that seems to be shared by many other YA fiction authors. Authenticity and honesty are important when discussing these issues and facilitating a greater sense of awareness for both adolescents and adults. These issues shouldn’t be sugar coated simply because the books that talk about them are intended for a teenage audience. That being said, Niven also admitted that she thought it was important for her to offer her readers a sense of hope in her novels. Yes, there are dark moments that people go through. But life is a beautifully complicated combination of light and dark, good and bad. And this is precisely what YA fiction authors, at their very best, are able to so wonderfully convey in the stories they tell.

There are still some problems that exist in young adult fiction. One of the biggest is the lack of diversity that exists in terms of characters. There was an entire panel that discussed the importance of showcasing more diversity in YA. Will Kostakis, an openly gay Australian author, said that writing solely about straight, white characters was simply not an accurate representation of the world he lives in. Kostakis acknowledged that showcasing diversity can be a challenging prospect. Writing for the wrong reasons or writing token characters for the sake of having them is counter-intuitive. Diversity should feel organic and the characters written do service to the story being told rather than as an objective that needs to be ticked off.

Will Kostakis understands first-hand how difficult it can be to be an openly gay author whose books have included young characters in same-sex relationships. After the release of his debut novel Loathing Lola, Will Kostakis – who was 19 at the time – became widely known as the ‘teenage’ author. Following the launch of his second book, The First Third, Kostakis was categorized as the ‘Greek’ author as the book contained elements of Kostakis’ own upbringing and experiences as a Greek-Australian. And most recently, his latest novel The Sidekicks has led to many labelling him as the ‘gay’ author. Kostakis openly came out as gay on his blog shortly after The Sidekicks was published. A few days later, his book was deemed “inappropriate” to discuss with students at a Catholic school. This is despite the fact that Kostakis had already previously spoken at the same school for his earlier novel which also included gay themes. Regarding this issue, Kostakis has stated that he hoped that the school would “treat a book that features two boys kissing in the same way it would treat a book that features a boy and girl kissing.”

Fellow Australian authors Erin Gough and Randa Abdel-Fattah also added that they felt diversity was important to include in their novels as it could help readers relate to these characters in a way that they may not have been able to previously. For young people to read about characters that reflect themselves, whether it be through sexuality, gender, culture, social class or family, it can help them realize that they aren’t alone. It truly is a wonderful thing to read a book and feel as though you are part of a wider community of people who are experiencing the same thing that you are right now.

Diversity is increasing in YA fiction, albeit at a slow rate. Regardless, if just one extra book is published that reaches out to a group of people that wouldn’t have otherwise, that’s a very welcome improvement. No matter what your age is, where you come from, whether you like boys or girls or both – there is a YA book out there patiently waiting to be read by you! Here are a just a few quick suggestions to help you get started: