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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #76 Young Adult Fiction: “Youth novels” are unlikely to ensure a comfortable retirement home for their creators


Derick van der Walt - 2011-08-11

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 Pondering the concept youth novel during the past few years I have been amazed to discover that nobody really knows exactly what the concept entails. People really don’t. Not the publishers, and certainly not the teachers who are responsible for cultivating the dying art of reading books among the people who will, in future, make watershed decisions about global warming, the classical concept of democracy and how to feed the poor. (And, of course, how much they would be willing to spend on the upkeep of their parents in the retirement home around the corner.)

Do we really need this concept, and does it contribute anything meaningful to the world of books or literature? I really don't know. But what I do know from experience is that people who read (and age is not the issue here) do not judge a book by the way it is categorised. Rather, if it makes you angry, makes you cry, or makes you laugh, you will consider including it on your list of things that mattered.
   
My concern is that when a book is classified as a “youth novel” it becomes something that has to be treated and experienced in a specific way. If I were a teenager (I actually was, some decades ago) I would have been seriously “gatvol” if someone told me the following: “This is a youth novel. It was written especially for you and you friends between the ages of 13¾ and 15½. We as informed adults (having googled everything from illegal substances to how iPods could fly) have your interests at heart. Because we care about you, this was written especially for you, because we know you so well. We understand the hormones and the stuff that goes with it. Been there ourselves.” As a teenager I would actually contemplate killing the cat or not brushing my teeth for the next decade.

Most younger readers (those who really read – and there are actually still a whole bunch of them) would probably have moved on to serious adult literature long ago –  perhaps even before starting to shave. (I encountered Hold my hand I'm dying and Lady Chatterley's lover when I was 14 – “borrowed” them from my mother's collection.)
   
Of course, publishers utilise the label to market books. This may help them to focus their marketing efforts on a specific audience, such as the teaching fraternity. No problem here, but it is such a grey area.

Why are books such as The book thief, Spud, Roepman and Swartskaap not being regarded as youth novels? Or are they? If a novel has young people as its main protagonists or antagonists, does this make it exclusively a “youth novel”?
   
Some amazing books about young people have been published in South Africa over the past few years. Fanie Viljoen's disturbing but wonderful Breinbliksem; Francois Bloemhof's Nie vir kinders nie,which, among other things, explores male prostitution;Anoeshka von Meck’s story about a girl who desperately tries to survive in an orphanage (Vaselientjie); and Anzil Kulsen's Zita, who tries to explain the difficulty of being a girl from a different cultural background trying to fit into "white" South Africa, are but a few that come to mind.

Bottom line: These are good books. And not only because they are good “youth” novels, but because they are books that can be appreciated by people between the ages of 12 and 112.

This may be the secret. A good book is a good book is a good book. If it is a good book only because the teachers think it will be a fairly comfortable and easy read for the bored people in their classes it will, in all likelihood, not stand the test of time.

And the creators of the “youth novel” believe that the term decreases the book’s selling prospects. If you have written a youth novel, people will look you straight in the eye, even rejoice about its success – but they will never ever read it. You have written a “children's” book, after all.

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