Is YA fiction a blessing or a curse?

by |June 20, 2011

Way back when, years and years ago, in the olden days when I was no longer a boy and not really a proper teen, I was faced with a dilemma. I had turned fourteen and I was done with kids’ books – Encyclopedia Brown just wasn’t cutting it any more. I could either stop reading or try a book written for adults. There didn’t seem to be much in the middle. I remember there was Hinton’s The Outsiders and there was A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. Believing every teenager in the would was a smart mouthed misfit, teachers made us read Catcher in the Rye (I was, but that didn’t absolve them of their sin of assuming I was).  Judy Blume wrote some books, too, but they were for girls. And, of course, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4. But that was it, really.

I was fourteen. My parents wouldn’t allow me to watch M or R movies or AO TV but as far as books were concerned, I stood on the verge of adulthood and it was up to me whether I crossed over or stayed put. I crossed over, of course… And have never looked back.

If I were fourteen all over again today, (a horrible thought), I would never reach the book border between childhood and adulthood because since my day, they have inserted a vast country called Young Adult (YA) fiction between the two. Once a child enters the realm of YA fiction there is very little chance they will ever emerge.

I cannot complain about the rise and rise of YA fiction, not just because I would get pilloried for doing so, but because YA is having such a positive effect on teenage reading habits. More teens are reading than ever before. Reading is now, dare I say it, kinda cool.

(May I change metaphors, please?) The sink or swim model of my day has been replaced. Now kids are dumped into the ocean of adult fiction wearing YA floaties. (That was worth it, wasn’t it?)

I wouldn’t have worn the floaties.  Were I offered them way back when I may have been lost to reading. Intellectually, I wanted to skip the teenage years and enter adulthood. I enjoyed not understanding everything I was reading. I was excited by the challenges my ignorance presented. While reading adult fiction, I felt there was room to move, room to think, room to grow.

I have encountered many arguments for and against YA fiction. I cannot say I am convinced by either party.  My imagination, however, is stirred by the thought of a young Jane Austen browsing a library of adult books, of pulling down Tom Jones at fourteen and reading it guiltily. And of the Brontës reading Clarissa together or the works of Shakespeare. Or a young E.M. Forster reading The Betrothed.

Having read Nancy Phelan’s gorgeous memoir of her childhood, A Kingdom by the Sea, I know what joys an adult library can bring to an inquisitive young mind…

Though my father was paying for us to go to school I think he had more confidence in his own methods of education. Ever since I can remember he had been prone to share with us whatever he was reading at meals… Voltaire, Roman Law, Shakespeare, Dr Johnson, Dickens or Cicero. He believed we should be exposed to the best from the start and had little patience with Tales Retold for the Young. We were allowed the run of the library, for he held that what was Too Old for us would pass over our heads. I took advantage of this to display at school an illustrated edition of Mademoiselle de Maupin.

“Oooh!” said the Lower Fourth happily, snatching from each other. “Your father has Awful books.”

As I have said, I think I benefited from not being exposed to YA fiction as a teen but I am aware that there are thousands of people reading today who would not be were it not for YA fiction.

Do you think YA fiction helped or hindered your progress from childhood reading to adult reading? When did you start reading adult fiction? Do you continue to read YA fiction as an adult?

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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  • John Silberberg

    June 20, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I’m not sure if YA fiction was around in the 70’s? I remember reading Famous Five and Secret Seven, but do they count as YA? I am reading YA fiction by default, because of my kids.

    My eldest is 8. She has read the Harry Potter series… multiple times. And she comprehends it. We’ve had many in-depth discussions about events in the books and even whether so and so really died, or did he go to another place? So I figure she’s thinking about concepts as well as narrative.

    But I digress, my point being, those readers who are precocious enough to read beyond the average of their peers will always strive. My daughter is reading YA now, several years earlier than the target audience. When she’s a few years older, perhaps she’ll be reading adult books.

    An advantage of YA is capturing those readers who would otherwise have been lost. Some teens/young adults simply don’t want to read adult books and YA gives them an alternative.

    In my daughter’s situation YA is a great pre-t(w)een stepping stone away from children’s books, without exposing her to more adult concepts.

  • June 20, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    It’s important that kids have access to good YA fiction. Fortunately, these days, there’s a lot of brilliantly written YA around.

    But it’s also important that young readers have someone to guide their reading; a parent or a teacher who can talk about books with them and steer them towards the good stuff – you know, so they don’t spend too many of their teenage years reading – oh, say The Baby-Sitters Club and Point Horror. Ahem. Like, erm, me.

    I was fortunate enough that my English teacher when I was fifteen or so decided to help me out by introducing me to a fellow called Thomas Hardy…

    ANYWAY, to reiterate, kids these days really do have some amazingly intelligent literary YA novels at their disposal…wait, did I just say “kids these days”? Oh great. Now I feel seriously old…

  • June 21, 2011 at 7:44 am

    This is a really thoughful and interesting post. I’m sure I read an early version of YA in the 70’s- the Flambards series springs to mind (catering to the innate female love of horses, but also tackling the big issues of war, lust, death, family), the, um, Sue Barton series (possibly not intended as YA), definitely the Judy Blume books like Flubber and Deenie and eventually Forever, the Paul Zindel books… I think there were quite a lot of options if you knew where to look (or had teachers who did). At the same time or by the time I was into my teens in the early 80’s) I know I was also reading Rebecca and Jane Eyre and Austen… so I’m not sure it’s an either/or. My daughter, who is 9, has been reading YA for about a year (enough with the mother-with-breast-cancer books, huh?) but also has started picking up classics she can handle such as Little Women and Treasure Island. She also reads the odd pony/netball/fairy book too- she is a hungry reader, and I’m sure her reading habits will continue to overlap genres for years to come. On the other hand, my son, who is a perfectly good reader, but doesn’t like to read anything other than Tracks magazine does only read YA on the odd occasion I can find something that appeals to him. I am very grateful for YA for him, because there’s no way he’d tackle an adult library.
    Books are a blessing. As a parent, but also a mad reader who has to admit she is currently totally sucked into the YA Hunger Games series, I’m just grateful we have such a variety to call on.

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