Coming of Age

Last week SFF publisher Angry Robot announced they are setting up a YA imprint, Strange Chemistry, and Amanda Rutter, has been appointed as the editor. I am totally thrilled and delighted for Amanda because for as long as I’ve known her she has always been extremely enthusiastic and vocal about the joys of YA fiction. They could not have picked a better person for the job. This, combined with reading my first YA book, Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan, made me think back to when I was the right age for YA books and what was available.
 
When I was in primary school the only SFF books available were those to help you read which contained lots of colourful pictures and not many words. After that I jumped to books of Myths and Legends which often had beautiful paintings and sketches of the monsters like Grendal or the Green Knight from the story about Sir Gawain. After that I had to jump to borrowing my brother’s books, which were the Belgariad by David Eddings, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis and there’s another series I’ve completely forgotten but will come back to me later. LOTR was a bit beyond me and at that age I quickly grew bored and was bogged down with it, but the Belgariad was probably closer to what we might call YA today. No such segment existed back then, there was just one small and quite repetitive SFF segment in my local bookshop for SFF and it was dominated by the likes of Stephen King (too old and weird for me back then), Clive Barker (far too scary) with the occasional Terry Brooks or Eddings thrown in. Once I had exhausted the Belgariad, and the Mallorian was not yet in print, I went through all of Brooks’ Shannara books.
 
The first time I read the Belgariad series I was probably ten or eleven as I distinctly remember sitting on a bench at lunch times in Middle School reading Pawn of Prophecy while other boys ran around playing football. This could explain why I never got into football and don’t support a football team. Anyway, I picked up most of the content in the Belgariad, probably missed some of the nuances but that was all right, I absorbed enough to know what was going on and who all of the characters were. I was already in love with the genre by that point and without knowing it, this was my first brush with a coming of age story which I would later read over and over again. The story was about a boy named Garion who grew up to discover he had a destiny that could not be avoided and like Luke Skywalker, and a host of other orphans, farm boys, scullions and stable hands, he discovered the kindly old man with the white beard who was always so nice to him was actually a powerful Sorcerer.
 
I’ve gone back and read the Belgariad since and on subsequent readings it has had far less of an impact. I can see what is going to happen next, I know the main character will always do the right thing and that in the end the heroes will always win. It’s a comfortable read and without meaning to sound patronising, it’s a much simpler book than I remember.

So some of that was in the back of my mind when earlier this year I read Glow, my first proper YA book and to my relief it was a totally different animal. Some adult issues were referred to in passing, or they took place off the page, so perhaps that is one of the minor differences between YA and other fiction, but apart from that I didn’t notice anything in particular. It was a SF story and like the SF I enjoy the most, it focused more on the characters and it used the SF elements as background and structure, the technology did not become the whole story. As someone in his thirties I know it was not written for me and therefore there were certain elements I felt were missing, but it didn’t prevent it from being an enjoyable read.

I was recently listening to an episode of the SF Signal podcast where they had a panel discussion on YA. One of the panellists said in their experience there are typically two types of YA. The stories that can be read and enjoyed by anyone of any age, and the teen focused stories which centre around particular issues they might be struggling with, such as eating disorders, image issues and personal confidence, social conformity and so on. They’re never spelled out that overtly, but at their core that’s what the stories are about. I haven’t read much YA so I can’t comment on that so I will defer to her knowledge.

I think an adult could read and enjoy a novel in the latter category, but personally I would probably want the heart of the story to be focused on something else. My angst days are a long time ago. Glow probably straddled the two categories but I can definitely see it appealing more to a YA audience as it is all about searching for answers and searching for yourself. I think it was about the main characters believing they would grow up to be one thing and then events didn’t go as they had anticipated and they had to adapt in order to survive. By the end of the book they were totally different people and they looked back on their younger selves as naïve. It was never patronising, there were no easy answers and unlike the Belgariad the characters didn’t always do the right thing. There were plenty of grey in Glow and at the end of the book it was not all tied up neatly in a little bow. I would definitely read another YA book, but right now there are so many other books I desperately want to read and don’t have enough time, so perhaps I will revisit YA when my to read pile is more manageable.