Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Young adult fiction - how do you define it?

How do you define young adult fiction (generally referred to simply as YA)?

It’s a question I’ve been mulling over in recent weeks as I’ve alternated between YA and general novels.

The formal definition (i.e. from Wikipedia) is that YA is "written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents, roughly between the ages of 12 and 18". The subject matter and story lines are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character. Stories generally tackle themes relevant for a young adult audience (usually with a “coming of age” theme), told by a narrator in the same age group.

But YA is not, of itself, a neatly packaged genre. Books that sit on YA shelves can be fantasy, horror, science fiction, literature, romance, thriller, mystery ... or any other style. These days, YA books are also increasingly edgy.

They can be highly sophisticated in their storytelling (like Meg Rossof’s novels), so it’s not fair to say YA is generally less complex in nature. In fact, you’re likely to find some pretty heavy, and often controversial, subject matter (suicide, incest, isolation, cultural clash etc.).

And then there are those so-called YA books that transcend age–specific markets, like Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling (Rowling, in fact, is still often called a children's author, despite the fact children probably make up less than half her global market).

I recently read the first of a paranormal series by Kelley Armstrong (The Summoning). It was an easy read, plot-driven and concerned with issues relevant to teenagers. Every character of significance is a teenager. It's YA, and makes no pretence at being anything else.

Randa Abdel-Fattah's brilliant debut novel Does my head look big in this? is undeniably YA, and yet I know I’m not the only woman over the target age group who enjoyed this story.

Markus Zusak wrote four novels that comfortably fit on the YA shelf: Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolf, When Dogs Cry, and The Messenger. His fourth – and most renowned – The Book Thief, has also been categorised as YA, because it features a young protagonist (even though the narrator is actually Death). And yet, the latter is no more a YA novel than Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals or David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which each have young narrators but deal with concepts far beyond the life experience of those characters.(The same can be said about some so-called children’s novels, such as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.)

So, I wonder how publishers and book stores (and, for that matter, writers) determine what is YA and what is general fiction, when the lines are so blurred in the marketplace.

I’ve read quite a bit of YA in the last couple of years, sometimes intentionally, other times because I simply didn’t realise the book I’d picked up had been categorised as such. (Some of the most innovative and exciting storytelling is happening in this “genre”.)

But does the classification of YA put readers off picking up books that sit in a different part of the book store than their usual choices?

So, this week’s question: do you read YA? If not, is this a conscious decision? If yes, what have been your favourite reads?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cause and effect - The Time Traveler's Wife

I’m often drawn to stories dealing with the concept of cause and effect, and few have been as mind-bending as The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which I finally read last week.

It’s hard to explain this book if you haven’t read it …

Clare first meets Henry when she’s six and he’s thirty-six (and married to her in his present). However, Henry first meets Clare when she is twenty-two and he is thirty (they meet in his present, at which time she has known an older version of him for most of her life, from his time travelling visits).

For the first 50 pages, I just about did my head in trying to unravel the cause and effect factors: Does Clare love Henry because she meets him as a child and grows up knowing they will marry? Does Henry love Clare because she comes to him as an adult and tells him she’s been in love with an older version of him, and knows their future is together?

As Henry himself later says: “Things get kind of circular when you’re me. Cause and effect get muddled”.

For the rest of the book I (mostly) stopped worrying about the physics and allowed myself to be caught up in the dynamics of Clare and Henry’s unorthodox relationship. It’s one that crosses space and time, and it’s only at the very end that they both share the same memories (albeit experienced in different chronology).

Unlike in other time travelling stories, history can’t be changed by Henry’s movements through time. He must watch the same events over and over again, and participate in them exactly the same as other versions of himself already have (even if he has no memories of them).

If The Story of Edgar Sawtelle whispers about the philosophy of inevitability, The Time Traveler’s Wife shouts it. There’s a thread of fatalism in this story that is both comforting and deflating.

As a reader, you get to view Clare and Henry’s experiences from both sides and – like the couple themselves – only get half the story at any one time.

Almost ironically, their most precious (and often heart-breaking) moments occur not in the relationship in the present, but at moments when Henry visits Clare at different stages in her life – all of which take on greater meaning as the story unfolds.

This is certainly an original story and a unique romance. It’s poetic, erudite and very clever. It’s the sort of story that can be read several times over, if – for no other reason – than to appreciate the telling in full knowledge of the ending.

No doubt there are flaws in the time travel physics – I for one, am still trying to understand how the circular nature of their relationship started (surely it unfolded in real time at some point to be able to become circular?)

OK, my head is starting to hurt again.

I’d love to hear from people who have read this book and have an opinion, or have thoughts on the whole concept of time travel and how any story revolving around it can make sense.