Young Adult Fiction, or Why I am Now Less of a Snob

Anyone who reads or knows people who do is aware that Young Adult fiction is blowing up these days, even among those who are not, in fact, young adults. This has produced a lot of varied reactions, from those who are likely to bash such works on the basis of their being juvenile, to those who are just glad kids are reading anything at all instead of watching TV or clicking through an endless series of internet memes. In just about any case, however, YA fiction is effectively ghettoized, and regarded as something less than “proper” fiction.

In a way, this isn’t that unusual. Literature in general has a way of compartmentalizing itself, and anyone who, like me, went through life as a fan of something other than the classics knows that there is a strong divide between genre fiction and the high literary. And then, even amongst the genres, there are those which are more or less highly regarded. It’s probably impossible to avoid this sort of hierarchy, but there have been many great authors in the genres who have worked to elevate their fields. Classification of fiction based on age is trickier, because few readers want to be thought of as immature in their tastes.

I will admit to a level of snobbery myself in this. As a kid, I didn’t want to be seen reading stuff that was “for kids.” I was reading mythology and serious fantasy as soon as I could get my hands on them, and I sneered at anyone who read books designed specifically for people our age. I similarly always preferred my heroes to be adults, and felt insulted and pandered to by kid heroes, who I always thought were usually lame and annoying. I don’t know if I was defensive about the fact that I was young; I would say probably not. It was more that I had this idea, which was reinforced by a lot of the cartoons of the era, that creators simply didn’t have a very good handle on what it was to be a kid, so they made kids in fiction overly emotional, obnoxious, prone to getting in trouble, and in constant need of rescue.  I figured they were wasting time on such characters who I assumed they wanted me to identify with, whereas I just felt insulted that that’s what they thought of me, and I’d rather just get back to Batman or Optimus Prime or whoever.

This perception has, I admit, stayed with me. When Harry Potter became a universal phenomenon, I had no interest in reading it. It sounded to me like a kiddier version of stories I had already read, and casually viewing a couple of the movies did not improve this perception for me. Harry himself struck me as exactly the sort of kid hero I despised. He seemed like a particularly incompetent audience cypher who was continually having to be rescued by his supporting cast and teachers. I think I settled on the notion that the series was “fantasy fluff.” I have had numerous people whose opinions I respect tell me that the series is actually good since then, and even one professor in grad school tell me that as an aspiring fantasy author, I owed it to myself to read them because they were, if nothing else, so damned successful. I still haven’t read them, and I still don’t really care for Harry himself (I’d much prefer the books to be about Hermoine, who seems far more interesting), but I no longer feel the same sense of stigma about the books.

One could simply attribute this to the fact that I’ve mellowed a bit with age, and while I am still strongly opinionated, my opinions no longer angrily condemn others with nearly the same frequency as before. I still preferred my fiction adult, or whatever passes for that, because if we’re being honest, I’m a grown many who reads mostly fantasy and the like. But in recent times, even this has begun to change. I think the success of such series as Harry Potter has inspired many more talented writers than would have otherwise to try their hand at Young Adult fiction, and this has not gone unnoticed by the numerous people that said series helped inspire to read. But of course, no one’s going to stick around of the series aren’t good to begin with. I hang out with a crowd somewhat younger than myself these days, and they’ve shown me a lot of series that sounded interesting, but I was iffy about giving a chance to because they were labeled YA. Eventually, I decided to give a couple of them a chance, and I’m glad I did.

In particular of late, I’ve been reading a series called The Last Apprentice, by Joseph Delaney. I like it for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that I don’t really feel like it’s that different from what I generally like about fiction. To give an idea of what it’s about, it’s the story of a kid named Tom Ward, who lives in a more fantastic version of pastoral England. The story isn’t fantastic in the sense that there are dwarves and elves and a dark lord. It focuses more on the actual myths and folklore of the British isles, including such creatures as boggarts, witches, and fair folk. Tom is the seventh son of a seventh son, which was considered to be good luck, and serves in the story to grant a tiny bit of supernatural power. I’ve always said that fantasy is best when it creates its own mythology, and rather than ripping off the standard fantasy cliches, Delaney creates his own world, with its own rules and ideas, and we get to learn about it along with the idealistic and naive Tom, his gruff but noble master The Spook, and his morally dubious girlfriend Alice.

So what qualifies the series as YA? I suppose the books read quickly and the main heroes are teenagers, but when I read it, that stuff doesn’t matter. The series has a great deal of darkness and gruesome imagery, not to mention many interesting moral quandaries, largely about whether it’s right to use evil against evil, or if it’s better to lose while holding one’s convictions, and how far one should go  to protect people one cares about. The characters are forced to use their wits and skills to win, and while Tom does have a somewhat “special chosen one” status, he never slides by on that. He has to learn new things and earn his victories. Alice saves him at least as much as he saves her, if not more. All the characters have their faults, and make mistakes, but the kids are very likeable characters. They are a far cry from what I’ve always thought of as teen heroes, because rather than trying to create a hero for a young audience to identify with, they’re simply people, interesting characters in their own right, who happen to be young.

I’m certainly not giving up my more mature works, but I’ve gotten off my high horse about Young Adult fiction, and I think there are a number of series out there worth reading regardless of intended age.