When is a child not a child?
When they’re a young adult. – Or so people would have us believe through their treatment of young adult fiction as a genre.
A prime example of this is public reaction to David Almond’s A Song for Ella Grey being named winner of The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize 2015 a couple of months ago. Lynne Reid Banks, the author of the enduring children’s classic The Indian in the Cupboard, sparked a lively debate in a letter to The Guardian where she claimed that even in the first five pages of David Almond’s book “there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children. Children are people up to the age of 12. They are not grownups of 17. The books are going straight back to Waterstones.”
The many reactions I’ve seen in response to this complaint make many valid points: that children of the age of 12 and younger are mature enough to understand the concept of love; that some children of that age drink, or know people who do; and that even more swear, or hear people swearing as part of their daily life. I think that this is an important conversation for us to be having: the world has changed, and people’s minds have broadened as access to information and a wider spectrum of opinion have been made available to us through the internet. I know that this is a topic I’ve discussed with some of my authors, and I’m sure many editors would tell you the same. Here, I’ve found that the key is to balance the boundaries the authors want to push, with what the publishing company is comfortable with, and what their particular market will accept.
From a publishing perspective though, it is the second part of Lynne Reid Bank’s complaint that interests me: here she distinguishes between ‘children’ of 12, and ‘grownups’ of 17, and she goes on to complain, “Woe to us who really do write for children! No prizes for us. Publishing is not a children’s world any more.”
So what counts as children’s fiction? I suspect this is a question that is asked more often than you would think – I discussed this with one of our authors very recently, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to be having this conversation. The confusion stems from the fact that people have different understandings of what a child is in this context. For many, the general idea is that a person is a child before the age of 13, at which point they become a teenager, who reads young adult fiction. At the face of it, this is a straightforward way of looking at things, and those on this side of the argument might be keen to point out that the term young adult even contains the word ‘adult’ in it.
But this idea is at odds with the legal definition of a child – any person under the age of majority (18 in the UK) – and many people see the label ‘teenager’ as a label that falls under the subcategory of ‘children’. This approach also makes sense: age is a factor in the way that we treat teens and preteens. Children are people that are still developing; they are people who are still learning to understand themselves, and they are people that we, as society, want to protect from unsavoury or difficult aspects of life. Teens are still developing in a way that adults are not, and this is reflected in the content of the literature aimed at this age category.
When related to young adult literature, the waters are muddied further: the target audience for these books is much more diverse than that of books aimed at younger children’s books. In fact, a study published in 2012 revealed that 55% of buyers of YA fiction are adults, and that of these adult customers, 78% are buying the book for themselves. This is a fact that young adult authors are aware of, although it should be pointed out that their primary readership are still adolescents. From this angle, Lynne Reid Banks does have a point: the truth is that young adult fiction does appeal to adults in much the same way that fiction aimed at adults can very easily be read and enjoyed by adolescents. The differentiating factor between adult and young adult fiction lies more in the themes, than in the complexity of the plot or in the writing style here. Just as the difference between an adult and an adolescent is far more subtle than the difference between a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old; the distinction between young adult and adult fiction is much less obvious than the difference between a picture book and an early chapter book.
The fact is that young adult fiction is a crossover category: while many adults read and enjoy it, so do many children aged 12 and below, and the reaction in the wake of this debate has shown that children around the age of 12 have read and enjoyed A Song for Ella Grey. Some people seem to think that children risk being corrupted by David Almond’s most recent book, but I think that it’s easy to underestimate what children are able to read and understand. Above all, it’s important not to be patronising.
No matter what you think, what needs to be considered here is how the publishing industry and the media categorise the genre. The truth is that young adult fiction is consistently categorised as a thing apart from adult fiction, and is often seen as a category within children’s literature: in many publishing companies, young adult fiction is managed by the children’s division, and it is most often found in or next to the children’s section of bookshops. For better and for worse, the media also sees young adult fiction as a sub-division of general children’s fiction. (CJ Daugherty has written a fantastic article on the way in which young adult fiction tends to be looked down on by the literary scene, which you can read here.)
With this in mind, I don’t think the argument of those criticising The Guardian’s choice of A Song for Ella Grey holds water. After a quick search of their books section, I could see that The Guardian categorises young adult fiction as a sub-category of children’s books. The prize’s eligibility criteria also states that the prize is awarded to fiction written for children aged eight and above. If we went by the definition of children being “people up to the age of 12”, the Guardian Children’s Book Prize would concentrate on a very narrow 8-12 age range, which, going by the other nominees on previous year’s shortlists, is clearly not the case.
There are two debates to be had here. The way that the publishing industry sees book genres is in constant flux, and young adult fiction is no exception. With A Song for Ella Grey though, the lack of complaint about any of the other shortlisted titles for the prize, many of which are aimed at readers of ages 12 and above leads me to suspect that this complaint originates from the fact that some adults feel that the themes David Almond has chosen to explore are unsuitable for children. Because young adult fiction has such a diverse readership though, it is harder to censor than other categories of children’s literature. Nevertheless, if we want to discuss which topics should or shouldn’t be addressed in children’s literature (and I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen), we need to address this explicitly: here, debating labels will only cloud the issue.