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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #75 Young Adult Fiction: Write for the reader, not the age


Carina Diedericks-Hugo - 2011-08-11

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 It is with much delight that I have been following the discussions on books for young people. The genre seldom enjoys lively debate on the intricacies of writing for a market that is harder to pinpoint than Malema’s finances.

I have been in the business for ten years and have laboured through 16 of my own YA books. As a publisher I have published more than 300 books for children and YAs. In fact, I have the honour of being able to claim the title as Sally Partridge’s first publisher!

In all these years I have learnt that it is utterly presumptuous to claim to know what your readers want – never mind the volatile under 18 market. The genre is vast – both thematically and in terms of the target age. Why force a system of grouping YA books under the boring and lifeless category of “fiction”? Surely “adult fiction” is divided into science fiction, crime, romance, literature, classics, etc. If you chat to booksellers they will tell you that to categorise YA books in terms of age is a nightmare. Where do you draw the line (also if you want to label all books as “fiction”)? You might have a book which is aimed at a skilled reader of 13 but a less capable reader of 16. With my Thomas@ series we have found that it is used in grade 5 Afrikaans classes and is prescribed for grade 10 English learners. This is a challenge which “adult” writers seldom have to face.

What irks me is the arrogance of some who claim to know what children want to read or not. Have they spoken to all of the five million young people in South Africa? How much time do they spend at schools, chatting to kids, getting to know them and their world? Just because you were young once or have a child or two, that does not automatically make you an expert on the subject. And do they make the same claim when it comes to other genres? I hope not!

There are many points of discussion relevant to this topic and especially with regard to the Afrikaans market, which is seriously lacking in books for young people, cross-over fiction and popular fiction (other than outdated and rehashed love stories). I have, however, quite a few questions for authors, publishers and other interested parties:

  • Have children and young adults been approached to take part in this discussion?

  • Why do the prize committees and other influential bodies consist of literati who are by no means experts on the genre?

  • How do you define popular culture? Willemien Jansen, publisher at Burnett Media (Two Dogs/Mercury), correctly remarked that life as we experience it daily becomes pop culture almost immediately. A VW Polo today will be retro in 10 or 20 years. Do you remove it from a story? No. Steri Stumpie removes a particular flavour from the market. In a month’s time there are Facebook groups with a few thousand followers lamenting the demise of their favourite milk drink and sightings of it is called “retro”. The examples are endless.

  • To say that popular culture should not feature in books is impractical and sounds like a bland solution to a challenge which all writers face. So, do we disregard books of, for example, the New Journalists because of the pop culture references in Tom Wolfe or Hunter S Thompson?

I can really just reiterate what Madeleine L’Engle said: "You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it's going to be too difficult for grown-ups, you write it for children." I would like to add: “… without underestimating the market and without a smothering, dogmatic approach to your readers’ issues and preferences.”

 

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