Intelligent Young Adult Literature

22 07 2009

I was skeptical too. I am only 23, and when I was a young adult (or at least, more young adult than I am now) there was a genuine lack of intelligent young adult literature. Craving a good read, I moved up a notch, to the adult ‘literature’ and ‘classics’ section of bookstores and have since rarely wandered out of it for my fiction needs. With the exception of Harry Potter, and perhaps Isabel Carmody or Christopher Paolini, there was certainly nothing coming out that the publishers and booksellers pushed in my face as both entertaining and a really quality book.

Not the case now. Once you wade through the initial impact of Stephanie Meyer’s and other highly popular vampire/werewolf/zombie spinoffs, you discover a whole host of intelligent, inspired and entertaining literature. [NB I do not mean any harm against ‘popular’ fiction – which finds its worth in the pleasure it provides, I simply argue that there is a difference between our pleasure reading and our thinking reading. I would argue all of us, even our literature professors, have favourites in both genres, to suit moods for different times of the day and season. Anyone who denies they ‘goof off’ with something the academy would label ‘lower grade’ is rather suspect in my opinion.] I have just finished The Billionaire’s Curse, by Australia’s own Richard Newsome, due out next month. This teenage boy’s romp begins in sunny Australia, where Gerald suddenly discovers that he has inherited a fortune from an Aunt he never knew he had. He travels to the UK, finding there a motley collection of jealous relatives, as well as a murder plot and diamond thief. The adventure takes him through the halls of the British Museum, London underground stations and forgotten bomb shelters and into the English countryside. There are some truly hilarious characters in here, and you can see Newsome is building to something greater in the next book. But the best part is, it’s not patronising. Newsome gets inside his character’s head and stays there – as all writers should – but especially as young adult writers should, since it often seems difficult for adult writers to remember that young adults don’t need to be written down to, they are very intelligent people.

9781406310252I would have to say Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go (which I am reading now), and its sequel, The Ask and the Answer, is even more effective at this. Newsome is to Rowling as Ness is to Orwell (I know that’s a big call but I don’t make it lightly). In fact, if you were only going to read one book from this review, read Ness. In this apocalyptic scenario settlers have moved, from planet to planet, in search one less desolate from that they just left. We meet Todd and his talking dog Manchee in Prentisstown, where a history of germ warfare has wiped out all the women and left the men with a transparent Noise emitting all the thoughts from their minds in a constant tangled buzz like too many radio stations in static. As a result everyone can always ‘hear’ what’s on everyone else’s mind and there is constant male aggression. A month before he is due to ‘become’ a man, Todd escapes to the wilderness beyond Prentisstown and meets a very unfamiliar, unreadable, young girl – and I can’t tell you anymore for fear of spoiling it! Apart from the beautifully realised world, there is so much theory going on beneath the surface of this novel. Even more haunting, are its inherent human themes, on the nature of thought and human relationships. It is one of those novels that is so succinct in its meaning, it compresses more thought into the same number of pages than a lesser philosopher, theorist, critic or writer could ever hope to. And we walk past it in the young adult section!

I have also just started reading Witches and Wizards, the latest James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet novel, not due out in Australia for a few months. So far so good, I must admit more thought provoking along the theme of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible than I would have expected. And I can certainly see why Patterson and Charbonnet might have considered it timely to bring out such a novel (at least before the big bad GFC took over all our attention spans).

The other two I must mention, though I have not read them, but intend to, are The Hunger Games, and its sequel Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins and The Mortal Instruments series (books 1, 2 and 3) by Cassandra Clare. Both come highly recommended to me by both adults and young adults.