It was the second last day of the festival, and the piers were buzzing with crowds. Over at Sydney Dance 2, Pier 4/5, people were queuing a good hour or two before the next event was due to start. This was a free event, so a seat was not guaranteed unless you followed the example of the proverbial ‘early bird’.
When the doors finally opened, the spacious room filled quickly, until at last, every seat was taken. The popularity of the panel aptly reflected the topic – The Rise and Rise of Young Adult Fiction.
Our panellists for the afternoon included an exciting mix of home-grown, and international talent. Margo Lanagan, one of Australia’s most prize-winning authors, sat over to the left. Next to her, award winning, American novelist, Laurie Halse Anderson, sat knitting away. And to the right, sat the UK’s award winning author, Sally Gardner. Hosting the panel, on the far end beside Gardner, was Garth Nix, one of Australia’s leading writers for children and young adults.
The Rise of YA
So, we were there to hear about the rise of YA. It’s clear from the success of recent film adaptations (such as The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, and Divergent) that YA Fiction is a popular genre. But just how do we know it’s experiencing a surge? To lead us in, Garth Nix provided a number of facts and figures, demonstrating the enormous growth of YA Fiction. According to the data, collected by the Association of American Book Publishers, the sales of Children’s and Young Adult Fiction were up by 22.5% last year. (This was mostly driven by YA sales.) In contrast, Adult Fiction experienced a decline, of approximately 3.3%.
But it’s not just about the rise of YA as a genre. We were also looking at the expansion of the YA readership. According to the American Book Publishers, eBooks sales of YA increased by a massive 53% last year. This is particularly interesting, as studies suggest teenagers (the alleged ‘core market’ for YA) do not read eBooks as much as adults. This therefore indicates that the current audience of YA Fiction is mostly comprised of adults.
What is YA?
So how is Young Adult Fiction defined? Nix asked each of the panellists this question, and each had a slightly different answer.
In her definition, Lanagan focussed on the characteristics of the protagonist, saying the protagonist of a YA novel is usually a young adult themselves. (For example, the protagonist would likely be no older than twenty-five.)
For Anderson, adolescence is defined by an ‘intensity of emotion’ - one that is not felt as strongly in later life. In this way, she believed YA fiction reflects this intensity, and immediacy of emotion.
For her definition, Gardner came from a slightly different angle. She revealed that she doesn’t necessarily think of ‘YA’ as standing for ‘Young Adult’. Instead she sees it this way: ‘Y’ = ‘Why does it happen?’; ‘A’ = ‘the attempted Answer’. When it comes to adult fiction, Gardner believed writers only focus on the answer.
Here, Anderson jumped in with a cheeky addition.
The other label that we could be using is ‘Books that Don’t Suck!’”
The Pace of YA Fiction
Among other notable characteristics, the panellists stressed that YA Fiction doesn’t waste time ‘waffling about sunsets’.
You’ve got to get hold of your reader, and you’ve got to hold tight to them, and then you’ve got to run, as fast as you bloody well can, to the end of the book!” – Sally Gardner
Is There Really a Surge of YA?
So what did our panellists think about the apparent ‘surge’ in YA?
Margo Lanagan believed it depended on the definition of ‘surge’. According to Lanagan, YA has been growing and expanding for a good fifteen to twenty years.
I think it’s not only grown bigger, but it’s grown much more varied, much more eclipsing.”
But Laurie Halse Anderson believed writers shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to understand, and follow, the market.
If you’re interested in writing YA, the smartest thing you can do is to ignore things about the market… Because you’re the only person who can be writing your stories. So that’s where all your concentration needs to be.”
You’re not a fashion designer. We’re not doing next season’s product... If you really write, and you’ve really got the voice, you do it because that’s what you love doing. Blast what the market does!”
Do You Know a Story is Going to be YA When Writing it?
Garth Nix posed this question to the members of the panel. But again, Anderson indicated she doesn’t consider this in the process of writing.
I really don’t think about that stuff too much. I can’t think of anything I would do differently if suddenly someone said to me ‘Oh, we’re going to market this to a different age group.’”
What’s Appropriate for YA?
Throughout the discussion, the topic of censorship, and what is/is not appropriate in a YA novel, continued to arise. Here, the panellists all seemed to agree that the concern for YA censorship usually comes from parents, not young adults themselves.
When YA books are challenged by parents. Those challenges are coming from a place of fear. Because parents don’t know how to talk to their kids about whatever the topic is.” – Laurie Halse Anderson
Nix, himself, also had something to add; highlighting that young adults are quite capable of confronting difficult topics.
There is quite a difference between Children’s Fiction and Young Adult’s fiction… The clue is actually in the term: Young ‘Adult’. It’s not ‘Older Children’.”
Lanagan also pointed out that books are, in fact, a healthy way of confronting difficult issues.
Books are a particularly safe way of encountering a lot of distressing information. Because you can take them at your own pace, and you can close them and put them aside, until you’re more ready to face them.”
The Appeal for Adults
Despite concern from some parental groups, it’s evident that many adults enjoy YA Fiction themselves. So what did our panellists think about the appeal of YA for adults?
Part of the appeal for adults is that adolescence is the first really big transition in life… But as you age, you find that there’s a number of dramatic transitions and I think that the lessons of the period of changing in adolescence, is actually quite often mirrored as we become adults.” - Laurie Halse Anderson
“We look at youth, and we think it’s wasted on youth. That’s what I think we’re reading and enjoying when we read YA. We look back and think ‘It wasn’t that bad’. Because when you’re in it, you actually feel like you’re exploding!” – Sally Gardner
“I think also, for older readers, it’s a much more pleasant place to be, in your reading. It’s much more exciting, and more reassuring, to be reading stories of youth, and promise, and encountering things for the first time...” – Margo Lanagan
The Future of YA
So where is YA Fiction headed? Is all this growth sustainable? When Nix asked the panel this question, Anderson expressed an interesting belief. She believes, with the continued appeal, outside of the young adult demographic, the very term ‘YA Fiction’ has an expiry date.
Let’s come back in ten years, because I think that the label is going to be just not important any more.”
Advice for Writers
In closing the panel, Nix asked each of the authors for any advice they’d like to share with the writers around the room. Here’s how they responded.
Don’t ask the people who love you to critique your manuscript. Because either you won’t love them afterwards, or they won’t do an honest job, because they love you. You need to find peers, who are also writing, to critique it.” – Laurie Halse Anderson
“I read all my work out loud. For me, it’s like a blueprint. You want to make a building stand up? Read it out loud.” – Sally Gardner
“My advice is to just keep on going. Don’t allow circumstances or critics to put you off.” – Margo Lanagan
Writer’s Edit would like to thank Sydney Writers’ Festival for the array of wonderful events hosted, and for providing us with access to them. Looking forward to next year’s already!