Recently, I attended a discussion of Canadian children's authors, illustrators, and book sellers on the genre that is generally categorized as Young Adult or teen fiction. One of the book sellers pointed out the sorry state that he considers Canadian Young Adult fiction to be in. American YA fiction is in a similar situation. He thought that authors are not taking enough risks, are not pushing the edge, and that many authors seem to underestimate what teens can handle and are able to read.
The one point I do agree with is that authors and publishers (and film-makers) often underestimate teens. I started reading books that are considered adult novels when I was fourteen, and until I discovered that some of the best writers write for teens, I hardly ever read YA novels. My mother was reading adult novels when she was twelve. In fact, she was not allowed to get into a film adaptation of a book she had read because it had a lot of graphic violence (despite the fact that the book was much more extreme). It really makes me wonder what authors of teen fiction are thinking. Do I have to read books that insult my intellignce simply because I am interested in stories about teenagers?
The point I had a problem with is the concept of taking risks and pushing the edge. Sure, there is a place for books that take risks and push the edge, but why do writers need to do it on purpose? If writers are contantly pushing the edge, eventually they are just going to fall off. I think a good writer does not write a fictional story or a book with the intention of taking risks, doing something different, or pushing the edge because they feel they should, or because they think they need to address a certain issue that is important to teens. I believe that a good teen author writes a teen novel because they have an idea they want to explore or an idea for a story, and the character happens to be a teenager.
During the discussion, one woman felt the need to ask why we need YA fiction if her twelve-year-old can read adult novels. This, I believe, is a perfect example of age descrimination. She was almost saying that teens don't need to have books about themselves. First of all, not all twelve-year-olds can read at an adult level. People who do not have much experience with many teens seem to forget that we are people too, as well as the fact that we are all different. Besides, it has nothing to do with what we are capable of reading. It is about reading books that have meaning to us. People who are no longer children, but are not quite adults, have a very different life, and usually a very different view of the world than children and adults.
A Canadian publisher called Annick Press talks about having "an authentic teen voice" and "the real teen experience" in its submission guidelines for teen fiction. My question is, what is an authentic teen voice, and what can be defined as the real teen experience? Aren't all teens different? Doesn't every person, regardless of their age, have their own voice? How do they know that something can be called a real teen experience? This, I think, is the problem with most teen fiction. The need to define what a teenager is, and determine what a teen is able to read, not the lack of risk-taking.
What makes something teen fiction? Simple. It has a teenaged character. Book sellers have a tendency to group Young Adult fiction and middle reader fiction as only two genres, when in fact they are just as diverse as adult books. It has all the same genres, right? Something I find quite interesting is that many of the authors I read will be shelved as teen or middle reader books under one publication, as shelved as adult novels in another, or in a different store. The Lost Years of Merlin, for example. It's published as a middle-reader series in the Canadian book store chain, Indigo, but as a teen novel in a local Toronto store, Mabel's Fables. Yet in the Toronto libraries, it's in the adult fantasy section as well as the teens and middle-readers section.
I believe that there should not be such a strong distiction between Young Adult and adult fiction. Writers should not worry about the age demographic when writing a book unless s/he is writing for an audience who is still learning how to read. Just write a story. If you want to write about a teen, use a teenaged character, and everything else that makes it meaningful to teens will come naturally.