The link below is to an article reporting on the 2020 Readings Young Adult Book Prize shortlist.
COVID-19 is changing the way we live. Panic buying, goods shortages, lockdown – these are new experiences for most of us. But it’s standard fare for the protagonists of young adult (YA) post-disaster novels.
In Davina Bell’s latest book, The End of the World Is Bigger than Love (2020), a global pandemic, cyberterrorism and climate change are interrelated disasters that have destroyed the world as we know it.
Like most post-disaster novels, the book is more concerned with how we survive rather than understanding the causes of disaster. As such, we can read it to explore our fears, human responses to disaster and our capacity to adapt.
The day after
Kelly Devos’s Day Zero (2019), and the soon to be released Day One (2020), use cyberterrorism as the disaster. Like Bell’s novel, Day Zero focuses more on how the protagonist, Jinx, maintains her humanity when she must harm or kill others in order to keep herself and her siblings alive.
A form of speculative fiction, YA post-disaster writing imaginatively explores causes and responses to apocalyptic disasters. (Some readers categorise YA juggernaut The Hunger Games – and the recently released prequel – as dystopian rather than post-disaster – others think it’s both.)
Many YA novels in this genre explore issues of survival and humanity following a catastrophe. In YA post-disaster novels, teenage protagonists must learn to exist in a fractured world with little support from elders.
When they are explained, the fictional causes of catastrophe can illustrate social concerns of times they were written in. Because of this, YA post-disaster books allow us to reflect on our current beliefs, attitudes and fears.
Davos’s Day Zero can be read as commenting on contemporary concerns about cyberterrorism and political corruption. Bell’s The End of the World Is Bigger than Love expresses similar anxieties, but is also prescient given the current pandemic.
War is the cause of disaster in Glenda Millard’s A Small Free Kiss in the Dark (2009) and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. While Millard’s novel raises questions about homelessness, Marsden’s series expresses an anxiety about invasion from Asia. The author has expressed regret about this aspect of the books since their publication.
A latent xenophobia is also present in Claire Zorn’s, The Sky So Heavy (2013), in part because the nuclear disasters are attributed to “regions in the north of Asia”. Passive ideologies of racism that pervade some YA post-disaster novels are problematic, as are other underlying ideals that promote any form of discrimination.
Us against the world
Literary texts that reinforce fear about Asia, particularly China, are especially problematic in the context of coronavirus, which reportedly saw an increase in racist attacks.
Panic buying and the stockpiling of goods during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak established an “us against them” dichotomy in our “struggle to survive”, reminiscent of YA post-disaster fiction.
Not everyone hoarded food and items for themselves though. Others showed compassion, donating toilet paper and food to those in need. Because of this, we were confronted with questions about how we want to survive.
YA post-disaster novels allow us to explore similar questions of humanity. In these fictional worlds, teenage characters are faced with moral dilemmas about who to help and who to harm. How does someone look out for themselves while still expressing empathy and consideration for others? How can characters maintain their humanity if their survival means another’s suffering or death?
Who to save
Tied up with the question about how we survive, then, is who survives. The protagonist, Jinx, in Day Zero is continually faced with this dilemma. As she flees the corrupt government, Jinx must decide who to help, and how.
While Jinx readily uses violence to overcome her aggressors, she eventually must shoot to kill to save her stepsister. Doing so, Jinx loses a part of herself and becomes “something else”; she must now reconcile her actions with her sense of self.
It’s not so far from the choices medical professionals in Italy, the United States and elsewhere have had to make about who to treat due to limited ventilators and a rapid influx of patients.
No matter the cause of catastrophe, the literary exploration of questions of survival provides opportunities for teenagers, parents and teachers to discuss a range of contemporary issues, including humane responses to disaster.
Given the current crisis we are in, perhaps it is time to critically read more YA post-disaster novels. If they hold up a mirror to our current attitudes and behaviours, they can help us reflect on our humanity, and on what and who we think matters.
The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2020 LA Times Book Prize for Young Adults.
The links below are to articles reporting on the longlist for the 2019 USA National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
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The links below are to articles reporting on the winners of the 2019 Inky Awards.
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The link below is to an article that takes a look at the young adult literature wars.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the 2018 *Book Shimmy* Awards, for young adult novels published in the USA in 2018.
The link below is to an article that looks at the 2018 Inky Award Shortlist.
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An 18-year-old girl prepares to die to enable the birth of her half-vampire baby. Her spine is broken in the process, and the fanged baby begins to gnaw its way through her stomach before the girl’s husband performs a vampiric Cesarean section. This is a crucial moment in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novel series, published from 2005 to 2008.
Meyer’s books heralded a new, and continuing, wave of Gothic fiction for Young Adult readers, which revisits familiar literary Gothic conventions: ancient, ruined buildings and monstrous supernatural figures like the vampire, werewolf, ghost and witch.
The Gothic romances of the 18th century, such as the novels of Ann Radcliffe, and the enduringly popular Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), sought to recreate feelings of terror and horror for an audience of adult readers. Today, however, most Gothic fiction is being published for, and read by, young people. Surprisingly, it has proved to be the ideal genre for exploring the grotesque and frightening aspects of coming of age, and metaphorically representing pressing social issues such as racism and gender inequality.
Friday essay: what might heaven be like?
The phenomenally popular YA genre, targeted at readers between 12 and 18 years old, evolved from realist novels of the 1960s. These books were preoccupied with the struggles of adolescence set against a backdrop of social issues. Now, though, the genre often looks to the supernatural. Beyond Twilight, some of the most popular YA Gothic series also focus on the “lives” of vampires who are protagonists rather than foes.
Richelle Mead’s six-book Vampire Academy (2007-2010), now adapted into a TV series, is about a teenage girl who is a Dhampir (half-human, half-vampire). She becomes entangled in a forbidden romance with her instructor as St Vladimir’s Academy, while learning how to defeat evil vampires named Strigoi.
The YA Gothic revival has also embraced a wide range of supernatural entities. Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles, a cross-media franchise that includes the Infernal Devices and Mortal Instruments novel series, charges angel-blooded humans with the task of protecting regular humans from a range of supernatural beings.
The Nephilim, or Shadowhunters, are busy controlling demons, warlocks, werewolves, faeries and vampires, but critically, it is their part-supernatural status that enables them to serve as protectors.
Clare has said that she did not write her series for young adults (and indeed almost half of the readership of YA fiction might be adults). Nevertheless, her teenage protagonists have resonated with readers of the same age.
The Gothic, and its newer sub-genres like paranormal romance, have a unique resonance with teenagers. They are poised in a transitional space between childhood and adulthood, neither quite embodying the stage they are leaving behind nor fully the thing that they are in the process of becoming. It is unsurprising, then, that they have eagerly embraced the Gothic’s themes of the liminal and the monstrous, as well as its fixation on romance and sex.
Another significant element of the current YA Gothic revival is the emergence of the girl monster. In earlier manifestions of the “female Gothic”, first published in the 18th century by women writers, female protagonists were often courageous, but simultaneously passive and victimised. The plots of the female Gothic reflected the comparative powerlessness of women at the time and their fears about their vulnerability and entrapment within domestic roles and patriarchal society.
In contemporary YA Gothic, girl monsters, who can constitute a threat to others and themselves, disrupt the plotline of male monster and female victim.
The most obvious catalyst for the embrace of Gothic conventions in literature for young people is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Its popularity signalled a warm embrace of fantasy fiction that confronted the eternal dilemma of the battle between good and evil, charging a child – and later teenage protagonist – with the ability to save the world. While Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was not necessarily Gothic, the Potter phenomenon opened the way for the publication of numerous titles that embraced the possibilities of young protagonists with supernatural abilities.
Rethinking Harry Potter twenty years on
Most significantly, Meyer’s Twilight series about human Bella Swan and “sparkling” vampire Edward Cullen, combined this staple figure of Gothic fiction with the teen romance novel. The Twilight novels were bestsellers internationally and the saga was voted into the number one position in Australian book chain Angus & Robertson’s Top 100 Books poll of 2010. The Twilight universe expanded from books into a highly successful film series.
The Gothic has had several major periods of popularity since its first appearance in 18th-century England, with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764). In each subsequent revival of Gothic fiction, the genre has been reworked and reinvented to address current cultural concerns.
In particular, the monsters that haunt the pages of Gothic novels are transformed with shifting fears and anxieties. In her influential book Our Vampires, Ourselves Nina Auerbach explains that “every age embraces the vampire it needs”, and this comment can be extend to Gothic monsters more generally.
Contemporary YA fiction blurs the line between good and evil. In Gothic novels of the 19th century, monsters were usually wholly “Othered”. A Victorian-era vampire such as Stoker’s Dracula, for instance was depicted as evil, foreign, and frighteningly different to the British human.
But contemporary monsters are no longer necessarily imagined as racially different or set in opposition to the human. Moreover, they are often represented sympathetically, especially in stories told from their perspective.
These include the iZombie comic series, in which the protagonist must eat brains on a monthly basis to survive, and Claudia Gray’s Evernight series, in which the reader is not even aware that the girl protagonist is a vampire for half of the first book. Indeed, as Anna Jackson explains in New Directions in Children’s Gothic, “the monsters have become the heroes” in contemporary children’s Gothic.
The passive heroine
Most Gothic novels for young people contain a romance plot. This is often because the protagonists’ age places them in the transitional zone for entering adulthood, which is demarcated by sexual experience.
How long have we believed in vampires?
In a typical YA Gothic novel, such as Twilight, a plot in which a human or monstrous girl protagonist falls for a boy who is not her “type” can dissolve the boundaries between monster and human. These monstrous love interests range from traditional Gothic ones – vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts and witches – to newer figures such as fallen angels and faeries. The key challenge to be overcome in these novels is the barriers posed to love by supernatural monstrosity, including the physical dangers to humans, as well as social discrimination about “cross-species” love.
In one of few major studies of teen romance fiction, published almost 30 years ago, Linda Christian-Smith described these novels as a “site of ideological struggles for young women’s hearts and minds”. In particular, she refers to teen romance fiction’s emphasis on heteronormative coupling and motherhood. Little has changed with respect to depictions of sexuality since, despite the YA Gothic’s embrace of diverse human-monster relationships.
Most romances in the genre are heterosexual. They do often emphasise the heroine’s agency through her supernatural abilities and ability to choose between men or move between relationships. However, the human heroines of the Twilight series and Lauren Kate’s Fallen series, in which the heroine becomes drawn to a boy who is a fallen angel, are comparatively indecisive and continue to need rescuing.
Tellingly, Joss Whedon, the creator of the TV series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), has described Twilight’s Bella as lacking empowerment, overly fixated on her romantic options, and “completely passive”.
Novels with passive human heroines allow the reader to use the fantasy of romance as a temporary escape from real-world gender inequality. Yet they also reinforce its reality for female readers.
The girl monster
Supernatural heroines, however, are often able to breach the confines of traditional femininity and become extraordinary in ways that Twilight’s Bella and other human characters cannot. In a number of YA Gothic novels, such as Mead’s Vampire Academy, the protagonists disrupt expectations of feminine behaviour because of their unique, and often poorly understood, supernatural abilities. These special powers become the focus of anxieties about the girls’ coming of age, as they pursue romances that place their broader communities under threat.
The Vampire Academy series was sufficiently popular in 2010 for three of its six titles to sell between 300,000 and half a million copies in hardcover in the US alone, according to Publishers Weekly. However, unlike the Twilight series, on which it likely attempted to capitalise, its protagonist, Rose, is half-vampire, half-human and a monster in her own right. Rose shares a close bond with vampire Lissa, and is driven to break the Academy’s rules in order to save her friend when she is kidnapped, highlighting that girls are also capable of protecting and rescuing people they love.
Vampire Academy positions Rose as a sexual object, particularly in the eyes of a privileged type of vampire (Moroi), who find Dhampir women especially attractive because of racial differences. Rose enjoys her sexuality and dresses to take advantage of it, but this sexuality operates within her definition as a strong young woman:
First they saw my body and the dress. Testosterone took over as pure male lust shone out of their faces. Then they seemed to realize it was me and promptly turned terrified. Cool.
Rose is able to reject unwelcome advances and possesses the physical strength and skills to stand up for herself, suggesting a fantasy of empowerment and equality.
Lissa, meanwhile, thwarts what amounts to an attempted gang rape of a drugged girl. A group of male Moroi students attempt to take advantage of a female feeder (person who permits their blood to be sucked) at a party, “doing a sort of group feeding, taking turns biting her and making gross suggestions. High and oblivious, she let them”.
The supernatural female protagonists in YA gothic novels are responsible for their own safety and protection, yet they also have a responsibility to keep others safe.
These heroines have some romantic and sexual agency in a way that can be considered progressive. However, their desire is also framed as disruptive and dangerous and there is an obsessive fixation on the pursuit of romance above the girl’s own development, education and safety.
In other words, the superficially radical potential of girl heroines with superhuman physical strength, mind-reading abilities, and the potential to kill can merely be a decorative smokescreen for the reinforcement of traditional feminine values.
The good and monstrous within
The recent proliferation of Gothic YA novels is skewed toward a female readership with a focus on girl protagonists, and significant emphasis on their quest for romance. Nevertheless, there are a number of series with boy heroes. For example, Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (the first book of which was recently filmed by director Tim Burton), focuses on a 16-year-old human boy, Jacob.
Jacob has inherited an ability that makes him uniquely able to help the supernatural peculiar children of the title, who are threatened by creatures named hollowgasts who are driven to murder peculiar children in order to feed upon their souls. For Jacob, his transition to adulthood is less about romance and more about self-discovery, connections with his ancestors, and finding a way to negotiate his new-found abilities and responsibilities.
In The Gothic Child, Maria Georgieva suggests that the traditional Gothic novel is preoccupied with “the growth and transformation of the child, the crisis of adolescence and the sometimes painful transition into adulthood”. She is referring to the child’s potential to grow into the hero, heroine or villain.
However, the recent surge in YA Gothic fiction takes this fascination with the darker aspects of childhood in a different direction. The girl heroine, in learning to manage the physical and emotional shifts of her development and more complex relationships in romance, can both be a threat and a saviour to others.
The fuzziness of her nature reflects both the liminal status of the teenager and new cultural understandings of the monster, who now more often resembles the typical American teen than an undead Romanian count.
Instead of contemplating a child’s potential to head towards either good or evil, recent Gothic YA acknowledges the possibility of both the good and the monstrous residing in one person.
At the Hay Festival on June 2, Melvin Burgess received the Andersen Press Young Adult Book Prize Special Achievement Award for his novel Junk, first published 20 years ago. Since then, the young adult novel has come of age.
Burgess and his publisher, Andersen Press, took a risk when Junk was first released in 1996, when books for teenagers were hardly as gritty as the typical dystopian fare of today. A book about drug addiction and prostitution aimed at “young adults” was then a very daring thing, and many thought that this was a book that was simply too depressing for the market and would languish on the library shelves. It was, after all, one in which 14- and 15-year-olds take high risks, living away from home in a squat and fuelling their heroin addiction through theft.
Actually, it didn’t languish on the library shelves at all. It became a bestseller and was translated into 28 languages. Unsurprisingly, it received some negative commentary, but as Burgess himself has pointed out (in the latest edition of Junk), most of that came from people who had not read the book. There was also plenty of positive commentary: “An honest, authentic look at the drug culture,” said Time Out. “May just be the best YA book ever,” thought Robert Muchamore. “It is the real thing – a teenage novel for teenage readers,” argued The Scotsman. Burgess was awarded the Carnegie medal for Junk in 1997.
As its title hints, it’s a grim story, and now slightly dated. The young people involved have to make phone calls from phone boxes and have little access to computers. Yet the main characters, Gemma and Tar, are believable and rounded. The addiction is real. Homelessness is still an issue. It was Burgess’s aim to tell an authentic story but by his own admission, “authentic is informative”.
Teen or young adult?
Arguably, the young adult and the young adult novel have existed for some time. Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens and even Goethe featured them and wrote them, of a kind. The Bildungsroman, or coming of age story, was aimed at all ages (think David Copperfield).
More recently, in the 1970s, Judy Blume and Christine Nöstlinger wrote for the older teen. These books featured some of the challenges facing young people: growing sexual awareness, peer pressure and the need to take responsibility for the world. But the young people in these novels do not take such high risks as Burgess’s characters nor is the description of their activity as explicit. Not quite (young) adult.
The term “young adult” did not come into common parlance until sometime after the appearance of Junk (though some educationalists have used the word since 1957 when the Young Adult Library Division, now known as the Young Adult Services Association (YALSA), was formed).
The bookshop chain Ottakar’s relabelled their teen fiction “young adult” in 1999. Waterstone’s changed the description back to “teen fiction” in 2006. At this point, the book-producing industry could not quite define what was meant by “young adult”. But Junk is often considered to have launched the Young Adult novel. Burgess may not have seen this as permission to write for this newly defined reader. He just wanted to write that particular story. Now he admits, however, that “the time was ripe for YA to grow up, and I was the right person in the right place at the right time”.
Other writers began to write for this newly defined reader. Kate Cann and Louise Rennison started writing what might be termed “Chicklet-Lit” – chick lit for a slightly younger readership. Jacqueline Wilson and Judy Waite gradually started writing for older teenagers. Several vampire and other paranormal romance books began to appear.
Other novels by Burgess push boundaries, too: Lady, My Life as a Bitch (2001) tells the story of a girl who becomes a dog and enjoys being promiscuous. Doing It (2003) is a frank examination of young male sexuality at the same time as showing the vulnerability of his three main characters. Nicholas Dane (2009) raises the issue of abuse but Burgess keeps the protagonist human. The Hit (2013) includes drugs again and violence on the streets of Manchester (yet is really about something else).
The young adult novel, after all, is a story told by one invented young adult (Burgess and many other writers of young adult literature are certainly not young adults) to another. In Junk, Burgess uses a series of close first person narratives, most of them from the point of view of two main characters. He offers us a character closeness, high stakes and risk-taking in our young people that was innovative at the time. After Junk, these were identified as traits of the young adult novel. He also offers us the young adult’s voice:
Maybe if I get off, I’ll get back with Gemma again. I know, I know. She didn’t chuck me because I was using … I was as clean as a whistle at the time, more or less. But you have to have hope.
Junk is 20 years old – and it still speaks to us. As Malorie Blackman, former Children’s Laureate, says in her introduction: “It may not be real but as with every great fictional story – every word is true.”