-By Dan Kiernan, Bookseller
Towards the back of the barn we have a wall dedicated to Young Adult books. This location, which at first may seem oddly out of the way, has been chosen precisely because it is as far as you can be from the children’s area while still being in the shop. We used to have the two next to each other, but as there can be some confusion as to what distinguishes a kid’s book from a young adult one, we decided to keep them apart in order to give teens their own corner of the barn. Despite this, sorting books into this area can still be an issue. As with most definitions in the book trade, ‘Young Adult’ is not quite as clear-cut as you would expect.
On the surface, Young Adult is not a difficult tag to grasp: it is a marketing term used to define books aimed at 13-18 year olds featuring protagonists of the same age. The problem arises from the fact that this can be applied to many books of varying genre, tone and style (hence my reluctance to call Young Adult a genre). The age range also blurs the distinction. For example, in the first Harry Potter book our eponymous hero and his friends are 11, which would make it a kid’s book. Come Prisoner of Azkaban, however, the characters have turned 13, making this and the following books works of Young Adult fiction. Given this, where do we put the entire series? Keep Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets in kids with the rest in Young Adult, or choose one and put them all in there? Either parents might worry that their children are being exposed to something too dark for their age, or teenagers may feel they are being offered ‘kiddy’ books and not something that speaks directly to them.
The concept of teenagers, as a group distinct from children or adults with their own needs and desires, is relatively recent phenomena, having only come about in the 1950’s: Young Adult fiction, on the other hand, has been around much longer. As early as 1802 Sarah Trimmer separates ‘Books for Children’ from ‘Books for Young Persons’ in her periodical The Guardian of Education, but publishers only cottoned on to Young Adults as a seperate market in the 1960’s. Since then we have been treated to a wide range of classics and curios of Young Adult fiction. To give you an idea of what you can expect to find on our back wall, here is a selection five individual books and series ranging from gritty realism to magical fantasy, with a few others in between.
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
This book is doubly Young Adult: not only are the characters teenagers but so is the author, having finished the book when she was just 16. Focusing on ‘Ponyboy’ Curtis, a member of the Greasers who finds himself in conflict with rival gang the Socs, this is a tale filled with violence, drinking, social dysfunction and ultimately redemption. The realness of the story was in stark contrast to the Young Adult novels of the time, which the author described as ‘Mary Jane went to the prom’, and conveys all the raw emotion of adolescence in candidprose. Stay gold.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Susie Salmon, a 14 year old girl in 1973 Pennsylvania is raped, murdered dismembered by her neighbour. A depresing start to a book for the young, but after this horrible circumstance her spirit passes to the other-side from where she observes her family and friends struggling with her disappearance. Eventually she tries to find a way to bring them closure and justice. This is a beautiful novel which tackles heavy themes in a gripping manner, and is decidedly agnostic on the nature of the afterlife, giving it a broad appeal.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett
Following the lives of the three Baudelaire orphans after their parents burn with the family home, these books offer precisely what they say on the cover as the children are chased by an evil relative trying to steal their fortune. The morbidity and gothic overtones are played mostly for absurdist laughs, though the story is not without its heartbreaking moments of anguish either. While the books become a little formulaic towards the end of the series (there are, unluckily enough, 13 in total), they are packed with wit and references that can fly right over the heads of younger readers, making them ideal to revisit as an adult.
The Girls Series by Jacqueline Wilson
I struggled to pick a Jacqueline Wilson book for this list – her work reflects the harsh realities faced by so many young people and their families with such good humour and marvellous plotting that to pick just one of her books or series seems criminal. While Tracey Beaker is currently on everyone’s lips as a new installment has (at time of writing) just been published, I feel Girls deserves the spotlight. The books tell the story of Ellie and her friends as they navigate school, boys, and all the other dramas faced by teenage girls. Though aimed at girls, young men could easily learn a thing or two about how the other half think from these books, and are great reads regardless of your sex or gender.
Shattered Sea Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
Well known in fantasy circles for his dark and un-PG First Law books, this series offers everything adults love about his work while being suitable for younger readers. Set in a fantasy world not so dissimilar from our own world, each book is told from the perspective of a different set of characters fighting to keep their kingdom independant. I’d like to say more, but the less you know going in to this series the more you will be rewarded as certain facts about the secondary world become more apparent. Full of ancient magic, action, romance and written in witty and melodic prose, this is a fantastic trilogy well worth anyone’s time, regardless of their age.
Come and visit our Young Adult section! We are open Monday – Saturday 9am-5pm and Sundays and Bank Holidays 11am-5pm.