Young Adult Literature has changed dramatically over the years. When you think about what was considered YA even a few decades back, the shift in writing style and the content is shocking.
It interesting to note the differences – the progression and the regression in the genre:
- It speaks volumes of the transition in culture and sentiment over the years – the change in priorities, the ideas of proprietary, in what is considered attractive, in the attitude/openness of women in accepting their sexuality, etc.
Of course, in that last aspect, contemporary YA is miles ahead of what it used to be. And that is reason to celebrate.
- I think the focus on language and overarching themes has lessened; instead the thrust is now on characters and the relationships between them. Of course YA still deals with themes, but I guess the writing in the early to mid 1900s was more meaty in this regard as society itself was undergoing a massive change and people were still coming to terms with it. That change and conflict is often evident in the writings of the time. Even today YA is a reflection of society, but there is little conscious effort to do so.
Today, characters and their experiences seem to be the focus. Perhaps because now there is room to explore. The men and women are no longer confined to the dimensions specified by society – of goodness and rightness and masculinity and proprietary and class distinctions and race. (Well, at least they don’t need to be confined. Let’s forget about Twilight, shall we?)
- Where things seemed to have moved forward with respect the expression of female sexuality, aspiration and ideal – I think there has been little progress (overall) when we speak of body image. The quintessential good girl may not have been size zero back in the 1930s, but she was still whatever fit the male fantasy at the time – voluptuous, relatively short, golden haired, blue eyed, elegant finger-ed and all things delicate.
And today, when these women are thin and pale and blonde with big breasts and narrow waists and firm derrieres – this also ends up setting unrealistic ideals for body image that cater only to men.
And if a woman/girl isn’t any of these things, she is described then as one who is “different” or a “rebel” or any other polite term for “abnormal.” What is common and real is made to look rare and unacceptable in society. It’s a shame.
[However, a few hours of internet trolling told me this is slowly but surely changing. Especially because a lot of female authors are finding a voice in this genre. I really hope that is true.]
- Here’s the thing. When YA lit was gaining popularity in the mid 1900s, it was specifically marketed to schools and libraries and recognized as something that would encourage kids to read.
Over the years, in academic circles, people have begun to understand that this is something that is catering to young adults and allowing their sentiments and problems, which are usually sidelined by society, to come to the fore. Culturally, over the years, YA lit has become significant.
However, while it is still serving its original purpose – getting kids and teenagers to read – there seems to have developed a biased against the literary merit of the entire genre. I get why Twilight and the likes would make someone want to puke. But it’s not like you don’t have any bad writing in adult fiction.
I do admit that a large fraction of YA lit is basically full of useless love triangles with unexplained teenage angst with the major issues only lurking in the background. But then there is a huge load of crap churned out in the name of adult fiction as well. Why this prejudice against YA ?
The genre is much more than teen-romance. It often deals with real and troubling issues such as the impact of divorce on children, child abuse, bullying, sexual curiosity and awakening, jealousy, peer pressure and many more. In fact, now people seem to have come up with an all new genre called “new-adult” – where the protagonists are not in school, but in college —- basically meaning license for sex.
It’s ridiculous to not to accept its merit in the field of literature and its contribution to a society that rarely spares a moment to empathize with teenagers.
[To be frank YA is not my favorite genre. Not even in the top 5. But it’s not because YA is bad, but because I tend to enjoy the others more.]
- Theories on language have evolved, I get it. Structure, grammar, vocabulary – all has been challenged. I get it. Language literally holds a mirror to society now. I get it.
Yet, I enjoy the richness in the writing and language that was used to weave stories and tales in classics such as those mentioned below. It adds another realm to the pleasures of reading. And that also makes them excellent options for re-reads.
So, for those who sometimes wish for a simple romance, for subtlety in emotions and carefully crafted writing, some of the older writings have a timeless charm.
Harry Potter will never be forgotten. And though personally I quite disliked the Hunger Games series, I have a feeling that will also be remembered for a very long time. And some others of the like.
But I would like to list some classic YA novels, ones I think are charming and warm and have a timeless quality to them. I read a lot of these as a teenager and they hold a special place in my heart for that reason. They may or may not be considered better than the stuff that is currently popular, but they are magical 😀
I love these books because they connected with me – the characters, the moments, the relationships, the emotions. And they also got me interested in reading, so I am grateful for that. At the risk of sounding dramatic, let me also add that some of them changed my life. Here we go:
- Heidi by Johanna Spyri: It made me imagine the idyllic European countryside – something I had only ever seen on TV. More importantly, despite the exotic setting, here was a young girl I thought I could relate to – one so real that we could perhaps even be friends. It was simple and touching and I felt grown up because I had read a book and the girl in the book lived in Switzerland.
Years later when I re-read it, I felt the pleasant sense of warm nostalgia waft over me. A delightful read.
[PS – Yes, this could very well be called Children’s Literature. But it’s in between that and YA, don’t you think?]
- I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: This should be no surprise. Pretty much the ultimate YA novel out there. It’s the best. No debate.
Wonderful characters, beautiful writing, spectacular setting, a touching love story and the coming-of-age of a lovely young woman.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. If you haven’t read it, please do so now!
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: Gilbert Blythe. NEED I SAY MORE?
This series somehow manages to find the right balance between idyllic and real.
Also, for those who have already read this, check out The Blue Castle by Montgomery. Not as well known as some of her other works, it’s an independent book and is just as wonderful as the Anne series. Really.
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: Easily the most well written book on this list. It’s Joyce we’re talking about, of course the writing is spectacular!
It takes you through the ideological, intellectual and artistic evolution of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus.
It may not be as enjoyable as most YA lit tends to be, but it is definitely worth a read. It has some moments that just hit you so hard – you feel like you’re close to a life changing epiphany.
- And now – feminist YA! So we also have The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.
Aerin is one of the greatest heroes of all time. She breaks all stereotypes and fights for her right to be treated equally with men. Her gender will not decide her destiny. She finds her voice and makes sure she is heard. She is badass.
Here we are – some wonderful YA lit with awesome characters, great writing, and that special charm that lends them a timeless quality.
P.S – No, Little Women will not make it to this list. I may have loved it when I read it first, but as of today – I pretty much hate that stuff. Nope, Alcott isn’t for me.