In 1936, when the Carnegie Medal was first established, Young Adult books didn’t exist. Not in the way they do now. Children were expected to progress from The Water Babies and Peter Pan via Treasure Island and Little Women to Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice and all the way to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. All right, there would have been other titles, not just the classics (and maybe not the Gibbon) but you get the idea. With one or two exceptions – The Catcher in the Rye (1951), for instance, and Lord of the Flies (1954) – this situation continued pretty much until the 1970s/80s, leaving a gap in a reader’s teenage years crying out to be filled. I remember in my early teens struggling to find books that appealed; for me the question isn’t so much ‘why did YA fiction appear,’ but ‘why did it take so long?’
Well, appear it has, bringing to the fore a great flowering of talented writers: Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman, Meg Rosoff, Siobhan O’Dowd, Melvin Burgess, Patrick Ness, Susan Cooper, Suzanne Collins, R J Palacio, John Green – the list is enormous (I don’t include JK Rowling, not because I don’t admire her – I do, hugely – but the Harry Potter books remain fundamentally children’s books, even if they get more demanding as the series goes on). Subjects tackled are tough, reflecting harsh realities in human nature and the world young people are growing up into: racism, cruelty, drug addiction, cancer, homelessness, war, brutality, rape, torture…. Gulp. Determined not to patronise their readership, YA writers often refuse to resolve these bleak problems into a happy ending, leaving the reader with a strong sense of, well, bleakness.
The YA age range is considered to be 12 – 18 years. In my experience, these books are devoured by people in their twenties and thirties. Nothing wrong with that. Yet it’s an indication of the maturity they demand in their readership and I do wonder how many 12 year-olds can bear so much reality. Some can, clearly. But my guess is that the majority aren’t ready to let their childhood go quite yet.
Fine, they don’t need to read them. There are plenty of excellent books for MG (9 – 12 years) readers. But here’s the rub: as long as the Carnegie Medal considers children’s and YA fiction for one single award, it’s perfectly possible that YA books with very adult themes will dominate the shortlist. Which is what happened this year, when only 2 out of the 8 titles qualified as actual children’s books http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/carnegie/current_shortlist.php. Moreover, as Mark Thornton of Mostly Books points out in his excellent discussion of the issues http://www.mostly-books.co.uk/2014/06/abduction-abuse-brutality-hope-abingdon.html , it’s the 12 year-olds and under who tend to make up the shadowing teams, reading all shortlisted books, as teenagers are buried deep in GCSE work. It feels bizarre to make all these enthusiastic young book lovers read works intended for an older age group.
So how about it – TWO Carnegie medals. More work for the judges perhaps, but not a huge amount. The longlist wouldn’t change. It would just be a matter of choosing 6 titles, say, in each category, instead of 8 titles over a wide age range. It might even be easier, as judges would no longer be forced to choose between books intended for such different audiences.
Which brings me to the whole question of how you categorise a book that comes somewhere between the two: a story with quite complicated and intriguing subject matter, full of mystery, challenge and supernatural menace, but (thankfully) short on war, dystopia, brutality… but I’ll leave that for next time.
(First published 30 June, 2014.)