The Beauty and Pleasures of YA
by Rachel Swirsky
A few years ago, I started reading young adult fiction.
I’d read some before, sure. But I started reading it seriously. And then ravenously.
At first, I read because I wanted to write a young adult novel. I still do. However, I’ve also fallen in love.
There’s a lot of argument about what can and can’t be done in young adult novels, and I’m pretty convinced with the people who say “you can do anything.” For every example you can think of, there are exceptions. For instance, people will argue that you can’t have young adult novels without a young adult protagonist, but that hasn’t stopped people from writing from the perspectives of, e.g., centuries-old inanimate objects.
I’m sure there’s an exception to this rule, too, but my friend Katie Sparrow once told me that young adult novels can do anything but ennui.
That’s something I love about young adult novels, the energy of freshness and discovery. Reading YA, adopting the mindset of a young person who hasn’t been there and done that, I can enjoy the illusion of new encounters. Lone teen protagonists whining a lot as they search for meaning in a world they don’t understand? Okay! Epic plotlines so worn they have grooves? Yup! Ridiculous, angsty angel-winged warriors? You got it. They have feathers!
Of course, I still like my ennui. I’m a both/and kind of girl.
For me, loving young adult novels is partially about loving teenagers. I don’t mean that I love all teenagers (oy) or that I loved being one (at least not all the time). But there are beautiful things about that developmental stage, and I think that young adult novels allow us to explore those.
Right now, I’m just absolutely in love with the process of adolescent awakening as children move from trying to become familiar with the wondrous basics of their immediate surroundings and senses, and are starting to come to terms with the deeper mysteries of their minds, and the even more strange discoveries of the complexity of the world.
Young adult novels can form an interesting exploration of politics, for instance. Even something like THE HUNGER GAMES—which some have dismissed as pulp or fluff—really, at its heart, is chronicling the main character’s development of a social consciousness. In Shipbreaker and Drowning Cities, Paolo Bacigalupi broadens young people’s political awareness by showing them other young people. His protagonists are presented in science fictional scenarios, but their circumstances exist, horrifyingly, in the real world, and his books provide young people with a framework for learning about those realities.
I love the rich engagement between young adults and their literature. I want to participate in that conversation, both as a reader who’s absorbing it, and as a writer who hopes to contribute new energy in the future.
A few truly wonderful young adult novels to consider:
One for Sorrow by Chris Barzak
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King
Liar by Justine Larbalestier
Rachel Swirsky is an award-winning literary, speculative fiction and fantasy writer, poet, and editor living in California. She was the founding editor of the PodCastle podcast and served as editor from 2008 to 2010. Her novella "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window" won the 2010 Nebula Award and was also a nominee in the Best Novella category for a 2011 Hugo Award and in the Novella category of the 2011 World Fantasy Award. Aqueduct published her short fiction and poetry collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, in 2010. Her new collection, How the World Became Quiet, has just been released by Subterranean Press.