I’ll Never Grow Out of…Middle Grade?

At the beginning of the year, Bee and I posted a video on our channel called ‘Outgrowing YA?‘ in which we talked how the Young Adult genre isn’t something you can ‘grow out’ of, because that suggests the age of the audience of YA has a limit. Instead, you can ‘expand’ or ‘change’ your reading tastes, both words not holding the horrid connotations that reading YA is childish after you reach a certain age.

So, I’ve always thought that, regardless of age, you can read whatever books you like. If you’re 44 and love Percy Jackson, cool! If you’re 8 and love Jane Eyre, amazing! I’ll never try and stop someone reading what they love, not matter which section of a bookstore they’ve picked it up from.

But there is one person I’ve limited. Me.

And I’m a complete hypocrite because of it! For years I told myself I’d ‘grown out’ of Middle Grade, using the same phrase on myself that I tend to avoid! I stopped myself enjoying whatever Jacqueline Wilson has published in the last decade by saying that I’m too old to enjoy it. I read, and love, all of Cathy Cassidy’s books, but have to qualify it by saying that I owe it to my younger self to keep reading them.

To heck with my younger self! Nineteen year old me LOVES Middle Grade!

Why couldn’t I admit that? Why was it like a dirty secret?

If I preach that anyone can read anything, that sentiment needs to extend to me as well. I can read Rooftoppers. I can read The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not too old and the books aren’t too juvenile. In fact, the last twenty books I’ve read have been Middle Grade, and I haven’t had this much fun reading in a long time.

I think, by finally admitting that browsing the children’s section in my local library is my new favourite hobby, I’ve finally fully accepted my reading tastes, and what I enjoy. It no longer has to be something I hide from my Goodreads account, and it didn’t need to be in the first place.

Read what you want to read, regardless of age labels, everyone, because that’s what I’ll be doing from now on!

Diversity in YA

There’s been quite a bit of talk in the YA community recently about representation and diversity. More specifically posing the question of “is there enough diversity in YA or do we need more?” This sparked multiple debates, where twitter became an angry void for opinions but from the arguments some interesting discussion points were posed.

On twitter Meg Rosoff claimed that “good literature expands your mind, it doesn’t have the job of being a mirror.” This is true in the sense that fiction is just that, fictional. I often say that readers don’t owe the author anything, once a book has been released into the world it’s out of the author’s control and is now up to a reader’s interpretation (I believe this partly because my English Literature teacher at A Level was so convincing when he expressed this same opinion.) But do authors owe their readers diverse characters or marginalised points of view?

If authors start to become too conscious of the characters that they’re writing perhaps the characterisation would feel too forced or inauthentic. This is probably how the sidekick is normally typecast as a POC/ non-heterosexual character to inject a bit of diversity into a novel, but surely that isn’t enough. If anything these veiled attempts at trying to be inclusive are transparent enough to make readers cringe and complain, even though didn’t they get what they were asking for? Perhaps it’s even worse to continually see POCs and cis-normative characters as secondary / the best friend rather than the actual protagonist.

Diversity shouldn’t be written for the sake of making a novel seem edgy or to sell more copies and this is where I disagree with Meg Rosoff’s comment about literature “not having to be a mirror”, because our current society is one of diversity and, across the UK, schools and colleges celebrate the representation of minor students, proclaiming safe environments for everyone.

We should write diverse characters into our novels not because it’s trendy to do so but because to do so would be a more accurate representation of today’s youth. That’s not to say books that don’t include a spectrum of gender and sexualities are not worth reading, because it all depends on context. I’m going to focus on YA contemporary novels as historical fiction, fantasy and sic-fi aren’t necessarily written in the same 2015 we’re living in today. Contemporaries set in inner cities (eg. London, New York or California) or areas with large populations should have characters of all ethnic backgrounds, with different races, genders and sexualities, but contemporaries set in small villages in the south west of England aren’t likely to have diverse characters because the majority of the population is likely to be heteronormative, cis-gendered and white. Therefore to criticise of book like the latter example for not having diverse characters would be unjust.

It’s also important to note that there are actually incredibly well written and crafted novels that also include diverse characters and maybe instead of complaining that there isn’t more literature like this we should make an effort to find and appreciate the diversity that is already out there. There’s even a Goodreads page for it!

Representation is incredibly important and I believe that any author, no matter what race or sexual orientation should be able to write about whatever characters they choose. Write what you know is valuable advice, but it’s also ridiculous and I’m sure many authors and creative writing professors will tell you how ludicrous the concept is, because what kind of a world do we live in if heterosexual white people can’t empathise with (and therefore write about) POCs and all types of sexual orientation?

At the end of the day it’s the author’s creative right to decide who they write about, although they should now be aware that diversity and representation is what readers want to see. There’s a reason why books like Everything, Everything, Simon vs, the Homosapien’s Agenda and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before are favourites among teens.


The Reading Hierarchy

Having accepted our places at university, Bee and I were discussing the curriculum of university English Literature courses. Shakespeare is a staple of the syllabus, appearing in every course without fail, turning up like a bad penny. One of the Bronte sisters is also there, ready to throw some 18th-19th Century context your way.

But you’ll struggle to find books like ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ appearing at university level. Now it’s becoming more common for ‘Lord of the Rings’ to make it to the set list, with ‘Harry Potter’ almost getting there, skirting on the edge of the fantasy genre, struggling to gain prestige because he’s labelled as a ‘children’s book’.

Why is it that classics like ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Great Expectations’ are always given precedence over books like ‘The Raven Boys’ and ‘Under the Never Sky’?

When I told my English teacher that I primarily read ‘Young Adult’ fiction, she said I needed to ‘grow out’ of that stage before university, and start reading things like ‘The Shock of the Fall’ or ‘We’re Completely Beside Ourselves’ if I was interested in contemporary fiction, instead of ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’. I should be moving on to ‘adult books’.

But if I told her I’d recently read ‘You’re the One that I Want’ by Giovanna Fletcher, that would probably be looked down upon too, because of its placement within the ‘Women’s Fiction’ genre, or ‘Chick Lit’.

It seems unfair that academics think more of you if you’re read the collected works of Charles Dickens over that of Rick Riordan, and there seems to be this invisible hierarchy of reading, with classics at the top of the pyramid and YA at the bottom.

YA is the one of the largest growing genres of literature. Publishers can’t publish YA books fast enough. There seems to have been a boom of teenagers that want to read something that’s more suited to their age group, like me! When I was nine, I used to worry what I would read when I grew out of Jacqueline Wilson books. Now there’s a plethora of choice and I have trouble deciding what to read next!

I think that, and be warned of the oncoming opinion, that we should all just be happy that people are reading. Just because the book was published a month ago by someone straight out of college doesn’t make it any less worth reading than if it was publish over one hundred years ago by someone in their late forties.

Let books be books, instead of instruments with which the reader’s are judged.