Tuesday 19 February 2008

YA Readers Are So Worth Writing For

I once attended a talk by Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now) at which a middle aged lady raised her hand and expressed surprise that Rosoff was wasting her time writing for younger people – at least, that was the gist of what I remember, it was a while ago now.

Now comes the hoo ha over this New York Times review by Dave Itzkoff.

To paraphrase Itzkoff’s rather wordy controversial statement: Itzkoff declared that there was “no self-respect”, no “artistic satisfaction” or “dignity” in writing for younger readers. Here is what he said in full:
As someone whose subway rides tend to resemble scenes from an “Evil Dead” movie, in which I am Bruce Campbell dodging zombies who have had all traces of their humanity sucked out of them by a sinister book — not the “Necronomicon,” but “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” — I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers. I suppose J. K. Rowling could give me 1.12 billion reasons in favor of it: get your formula just right and you can enjoy worldwide sales, film and television options, vibrating-toy-broom licensing fees, Chinese-language bootlegs of your work, a kind of limited immortality (L. Frank Baum who?) and — finally — genuine grown-up readers. But where’s the artistic satisfaction? Where’s the dignity?
I had to read it twice because having declared YA an undeserving audience, Itzkoff proceeded to lavish praise on two YA books (Un Lun Dun by China MiƩville and Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reeves).

Itzkoff was impressed that the authors didn’t “sugar-coat” their stories for their young readers. Here’s what he says about Un Lun Dun:
When its disheveled characters are sent on exactingly prescribed quests, you can be sure these heroes will cut corners or otherwise fail to fulfill their missions; when prophecies are invoked, they generally don’t come true; and any character complacent enough to believe he or she is some sort of Chosen One is all but guaranteed not to save the day
Well deserved praise for MiĆ©ville but hey it’s rather obvious this guy hasn’t read any YA recently if he is so astonished that YA can produce edgy, intelligent novels that twist and turn and surprise.

Author Shannon Hale (her Book of a Thousand Days just won the Cybil for YA fantasy) wrote in her blog:
He must just be speaking outrageously to garner attention--his attitude is so Victorian, so narrow-minded to the point of melodrama. But I have met this attitude so many times--the goal for any real, self-respecting writer must be to have "grown-up readers." Writing for children is less than.
Even Neil Gaiman weighs in:
It's an odd review -- I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don't Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre. Just don't. Don't start a review of romance books by saying that all romance books are rubbish but these are good (or just as bad as the rest). Don't start a review of SF by saying that you hate all off-planet tales or things set in the future and you don't like way SF writers do characters. Don't start a review of a University Adultery novel by explaining that mostly books about English professors having panicky academic sex bore you to tears but. Just don't. Any more than a restaurant reviewer would spend a paragraph explaining that she didn't normally like or eat -- or understand why other people would like or eat -- Chinese food, or French, or barbeque. It just makes people think you're not a very good reviewer.
Me? I write YA because young people delight and surprise and excite and inspire and challenge me – and as Scott Westerfeld said in a recent interview when he was asked, "Were you worried about being pigeonholed by having your novels called Young Adult?”
Young adults are far more universal readers ... politically and all sorts of other ways, kids are more open to things ... they are less narrow.


  1. What an interesting post, Candy.
    I think this speaks volumes about the reviewer's ignorance of YA fiction and his wide knowledge of what he likes.

  2. Hi Candy, I agree - even people who never read books sometimes say the same thing - 'Er - do you write adult books?' It's weird but who cares? Of course, these days you've lots of 'adult' writers jumping onto the teenage book bandwagon - some more successfully than others. I've found a single rule of thumb helps me tell straightaway whether they're genuine or not: are the adults in their childrens book more interesting than the kids? People who are natural kids writers nearly always want to put the kids at the heart of the story, and usually find the adults an encumbrance. This is a generalization, of course, and sometimes adult-child relationships are the nub of the story, but overall it's a good instinct that young people's writers have. Be suspicious of the adults in your novel. After all, it mirrors teen perceptions. They pretty much dislike/distrust us during those years anyhow. Teens like nothing more than novels that demonise adults, esp parents. Either that or kick em out of the story ...Cliff McNish

  3. Hi Candy...
    Thanks for linking to article. I didn't much like his opening para but I wondered if what the reviewer was doing was attempting to reflect the attitude of his (mostly adult) readership... get them all nodding their heads and then suckering them into a piece that describes exactly what YA in general does well. I find the closing paragraph inspiring, particularly the last sentence.
    "What each of these novels recognizes is that its purpose is not to dispel this fear for its readers, but rather to provide them with irresistible incentive to take those tentative first steps into unpredictable worlds beyond."

    Margaret Carey

  4. Like my nan used to say, if someone's calling you names just ignore them. They're probably jealous!

    Mariam V

  5. Cliff wrote "Be suspicious of the adults in your novel."

    that's a really interesting point - i have never thought of this but it seems to come out in my writing all the time - adults as disappointing creatures.

    Margaret pointed out the final paragraph which I agree appears to counter the opening premise of the piece. Perhaps Sharon Hale's suspicion - that he was just trying to be provocative - was right. But if so, it's a tiresome device.


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