I read a lot of Young Adult fiction. It started out as part of my old day job. Thanks to a truly wonderful school librarian who I worked with in Tokyo, I started to read teenage books to help make recommendations to my students. It didn’t take long before I was reading them purely because they are so damn good. Somehow I’m not surprised that 55% of YA readers are over 18 (The Guardian) and I don’t think it’s because of a hankering to be a kid again – it’s because YA books take risks, show imagination and are just so immensely readable.
I’d been planning to write a blog on this topic when I came across news a few days that made my toes curl up with joy – Steven Spielberg is signed up to direct Ready Player One, a fabulous sci-fi adventure inspired by the 1980s. Despite my vast disappointment in films such as Insurgent, The Fault In Our Stars and the Maze Runner (and, believe me, I loved those books), I have high hopes for this one. Taking advantage of a lazy Sunday, however, I lay on my sofa today and read Only Ever Yours by Louise Neil. I’m now in an entirely different frame of mind.
Neil holds up a mirror to girls in today’s society by creating a nightmarish dystopian society. The genius in her book, however, lies not in its premise but in the main character, Frieda. Frieda often hates her best friend, Isabel, because she’s ranked as the most beautiful girl in her year (the only test that ever matters to any of these students). She won’t dare show her feelings but they’re there nonetheless. The characters are bitchy and mean, competing with each other to be the perfect weight, have perfect skin and be chosen to be worthy enough to be a ‘companion’ to a man. Frieda is no kickass heroine. This isn’t Katniss. She’s weak and unlikeable but I was rooting for her all the same. The trouble is that there’s no positive endpoint for her. To ‘win’ means to end up in a potentially abusive relationship where you pop sons until you’re culled at forty. To lose means to be a concubine, used purely for sex, or a chastity teaching new groups of girls. Turn the pages of any tabloid newspaper or glossy magazine with their screams of ‘too fat’ celebrities or ‘too thin’ WAGs and it’s easy to see how Neil’s book isn’t a dystopian sci-fi – it’s now.
YA books are so very good at dealing with difficult subjects. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson deals unflinchingly with rape, the Diary of Pelly D imagines a world where genocide and the extermination of an entire race has been successful, Eleanor and Park considers bullying and isolation and love, Every Day touches upon gender identity in the most breathtakingly original manner. In a week where the Clean Reader app has been dominating book related headlines, we should be celebrating the freedom, ideas and beauty of YA fiction. And learning a lot about ourselves in the process.