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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #77 Young Adult Fiction: What Makes YA Fiction YA?


Lauri Kubuitsile - 2011-08-11

Untitled Document As a writer of books for children and young adults I’ve read with interest the recent discussions in the South African book world about young adult fiction. Maya Fowler and Sally Partridge both ask if timely, trendy references are needed to make young adult fiction pertinent to that generation. Both of them come to the conclusion that no, they are not, and I agree.

It reminded me of a session I attended at the Cape Town Book Fair, where British YA writer Kevin Brooks was asked about getting the lingo right in his books, asked if he did extensive research, since he was clearly no longer a teenager. He said no, because he saw no interest in getting the lingo right. As Partridge has stated and Kevin Brooks has concurred, what is in and what is out moves at lightning speed. The rate of the publishing world is more snail-paced, so logistics alone say you’ll get it wrong. And as Kevin Brooks said that day in Cape Town, when you try to be hip and you get it wrong, it’s not nice. Really not nice.

I was recently shortlisted for the Caine Prize and our shortlist had the unhappy honour of garnering the attention of Nigerian journalist Ikhide Ikheloa. He had many things to say, but one thing I found outstandingly ridiculous was his assertion that the stories on this year’s shortlist were not modern because they contained neither cell phones nor computers. This is a bit how I feel about the reference in YA fiction to certain computer games or pop figures. Just as a cell phone or a computer does not make an African story modern, mentioning Justin Bieber does not make a story a good one for teenagers.

As Izak de Vries mentions in his discussion about Fowler’s and Partridge’s articles, good writing is good writing. If you shove Captain America: Super Soldier, a couple of Taylor Swifts and a Beyonce or two into a pile of bad writing it does not automatically become a YA book.

I see drops of pop culture and teenage or children’s references as spice. Much like the way I use Setswana in my English books. They both need to be used in such a manner that even if the reader has no reference to that pop-culture titbit or the Setswana, it doesn’t affect the reader’s enjoyment of the story. And, as others have mentioned, it doesn’t make the book a one-shot cultural dinosaur before it even hits the shelves.

Also, adding detail for detail’s sake is just bad writing. I recently attended the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, and one of our teachers, Chimamanda Adichie, pointed out the power of significant detail, how choosing particular things in the setting or about the characters can bring truth to your writing. On the other hand, piling in detail of everything just adds clutter. In some cases, I feel pop-culture loading in YA fiction is just clutter.

One question that has not been fully interrogated in this discussion is Izak de Vries’s when he asks why we must make a distinction between YA fiction and any other type of fiction. He states, and rightly so, that a YA book can be enjoyed by adults just as easily as it can be enjoyed by teens. But this point can be applied to all fiction, actually. Chic lit, sci-fi, detective, romance - these are categories designed by marketers, primarily, in order to sell books to people they feel are most likely going to enjoy them. These categories are not written in cosmic stone in The Big Book of Publishing in the sky; they’re fluid.  

But as Partridge points out, and I agree, some themes draw young adults to them, no matter when the books were written. Teens are in that no man’s land where they are trying to establish their identity while trying to work out how the world operates. When I was a teen I searched out books that helped me find my way through the minefield, and my teenage children do the same. So I differ with De Vries: I do think there are differences between what young adults and others like and this helps to define the genre, even as fluid and overlapping as it may be.  

I also think this is a wonderful, healthy debate; I’m happy it is taking place and I look forward to hearing what others have to say.