Teenage Fiction Comes of Age

Originally published in the Bookseller, 11th August 2000.

In Australia they call it crossover fiction. In the USA, it’s Young Adult. Over here we call it teenage fiction. Like the time of life it deals with it, it is difficult to classify and awkward to talk about. It seems to be out to deliberately shock. It has an obsessive and unhealthy preoccupation with the dark side of life and with forbidden fruits, which it often communicates in an over-serious manner, when you just know that all the time it’s sniggering about bums and tits behind your back. It’s embarrassing to have around. What the hell is it going to do next?

Aiden Chambers winning the LA Carnegie Medal, our most prestigious children’s literary award, for his book, Postcards From No-Man’s Land, is confirmation of the fascination the awards have with this kind of fiction. Tim Bowler won it with River Boy a couple of years ago, a book about death. I won it for Junk, a book about heroin addiction and prostitution. Anne Fine won the Whitbread a few years ago for The Tulip Touch, a book about a highly disturbed and possibly abused young girl who ends up committing arson. Surely young people want to read more cheerful stuff. Whatever happened to Swallows and Amazons?

The preoccupation with the dark side of life is not as universal as some people like to think. Phillip Pullman and David Almond, two other Carnegie winners of recent years, both write books that have won a very wide age range of readership without plunging anyone into despair. Although Almond’s book, Skellig, has death hovering in the wings, it is the angels rather than the devil who win the day. Perhaps it simply helps to focus the mind, especially the minds of journalists, when children’s books are talking openly about sex, violence and drugs, but it is also true that books dealing with these subjects tend to have more meat on their bones. Chamber’s book, for example, explores themes of homosexuality, euthanasia, war, adultery and lust, but alongside love, art, friendship, and self discovery. No one writes an article about those latter themes, but they are just as much a part of the book, and precisely what make it such a rounded, and meaty read. Naturally awards, particularly the more literary ones, are going to look with interest at books that take on so much, and carry it off so successfully.

Teenage fiction is an area that has developed out of recognition in recent years. I can’t recall any books written specifically for me when I was that age. Now the range of books increases every year – another reason why so many good writers are attracted to the age group. It is one area where you can still set the pace. For a writer, it’s like opening a door in a house and finding it full of unwrapped presents. Who could resist it? And who could resist going straight for the ones with, DO NOT OPEN! written boldly on the front?

Books occupy a very curious position as far as teenagers are concerned. Although there is no censorship for books for any age group, they have lagged behind the other media in the kind of material they present to young people. The film industry, the music industry, computer games, magazines, comics – they all know very well about the youth market. There is an age group of about fourteen to twenty five that is extremely profitable for everyone. It is this market that is now belatedly opening up, and no one quite knows how to go about it, even on the most basic level, like, where do you display the books, in the children’s, or the adults section? The answer, since children are both teenagers and adults, is probably both.

We are caught between hypocrisy and honesty, unlike, say the film industry, which knows very well how many school-goers watch such films as Trainspotting or Terminator (both of which have school age kids in them) but get round it by leaving it all up to parents. Everyone knows that people aged fifteen or sixteen and younger get to see 18+ movies. If they can’t sneak in to the cinema, they wait for the video or catch it on TV. They play 18+ computer games. Ask any group of fourteen year olds about the material they have access to, and you’ll be in no doubt that the censor is a guide that is largely ignored by children and parents alike. Young people can eavesdrop at will; we let them hear almost anything at any age. Several times I have been challenged on radio or TV about the material in my books, sometimes with truly shocking quotes, broadcast at a time of day when children of any age can hear it, without any apparent sense of irony from the journalists involved.

What is different about these books is this; that they address teenagers directly. Its not a question of overhearing information aimed at twenty-somethings, or playing violent computer games at age twelve when it has 18+ printed on the box, or reading reminisces about some old bloke’s first sexual experiences back in the sixties. It’s here and now, people your age doing these things today. We have always found it hard talking honestly to teenagers about the things teenagers do, and they have found it difficult talking to us. That’s fair enough. You don’t want to discuss what you do with your girl or boy friend with your mum (or do you – “How far does she let you go, then, Dave?) But at least you can read about it now, in books that may be deadly serious, or totally playful. The choice is yours. Teenage fiction has just about grown up; hopefully it will never quite make it. It is about young people reading books and recognizing themselves. I want people to be able to pick up one of my books and think – I know this stuff and I know these people; this is mine.

Back to Articles