Sunday, 25 September 2011

Y is for Young Adult

The Young Adult (YA) genre has come a long way since I was a teenager. Back in my day (!) we had to supplement books by the likes of S.E. Hinton with novels for adults. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it meant that I was introduced to fully-realised feminist role models such as Dr Susan Calvin in Asimov’s "Robot" series and Patricia Luisa Vasquez in Greg Bear’s "Eon". But even though these strong female role models were a vital part of my formative years, I would have loved to have read about characters I could have identified with more.

The emergence in recent times of a wider YA body of fiction is both reassuring and welcome. Being a young adult can be so challenging that it is important that these readers have plenty of material to see them through their often difficult adolescent and teenage years.

But how much of present-day YA fiction is speculative?

Contemporary YA showcases recognizable science fiction tropes, such as time-travel in Rebecca Stead’s "When you Reach Me". But it is in the dystopian themes that socio-political elements are more prominent, for example in YA books such as Scott Westerfield’s "Uglies" series, where the pursuit of the body beautiful is taking to devastating degrees or the setting of "The Chaos Walking" trilogy by Patrick Ness, where not even an individual’s thoughts are private.

By contrast, another sub-genre in YA fiction — paranormal romance — could not be deemed speculative. The most famous female character in this genre, Bella in Stephanie Meyer’s "Twilight" novels, is neither empowered nor independent; she doesn’t care about her schooling or future career, and neglects her friends in favour of spending time with her boyfriend. This submissive streak can also be seen in the mortal female counterparts to the male fallen angels in Lauren Kate’s books and again with those of the sexy fairy kings in Melissa Marr’s "Wicked Lovely" series.

Luckily there are plenty of alternatives to this paranormal romance category. The most influential book I read as a young adult was Isabel Allende’s "The House of the Spirits", so it made me very happy to see such an accomplished speculative fiction author writing for young adults. In her YA books "The City of the Beasts", "The Kingdom of the Golden Dragon" and "The Forest of the Pygmies", Allende touches on humanitarian issues such as child slavery and inequalities between the developed and developing world. She also sets out to challenge perceptions about what makes a culture “civilised”.

No article on YA speculative fiction can fail to mention the legacy of the masterful storyteller Ursula le Guin. "The Wizard of Earthsea" spawned a legion of young adult novels that followed the pattern of its story: a setting in a walled city where a young person of humble origins becomes an apprentice to a sorcerer. Books such as Joseph Delaney’s "Wardstone Chronicles", Trudy Canavan’s "The Black Magician" trilogy, Garth Nix’ "Old Kingdom Series" and William Nicholson’s "Wind on Fire" trilogy all pay homage to this original idea. Ursula le Guin’s contribution to speculative fiction has been phenomenal - for example with her exploration of gender in "The Left Hand of Darkness" or her strong female characters in her YA novel "Tehanu".

Speculative fiction for young adults offers an exciting opportunity to forge a storyworld where limits can be pushed to the extreme to shed light on the problems facing our society. An author has the power to make her readers think differently, and this is especially true for YA authors whose audience is in the process of learning about themselves and the world around them. So if you’d like to submit a YA speculative fiction story to "The Future Fire", push boundaries as far as you can. Your readers will love you for it.

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