I recently bought and read a book called The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I had previously read The Shadow of the Wind by the same author and had enjoyed it immensely. This book advertised itself as ‘young adult’, which was quite a change of genre, but as I’m interested in books for younger readers I thought I’d try it. It’s a kind of thriller and a kind of ghost story, but I found it very disappointing. Neither the location nor the characters were sufficiently developed to enable me to get thoroughly into the book and the parts that some reviewers thought scary seemed overdone and ridiculous to me. However, it did leave me with some questions about young adult books in general that I want to discuss.
First of all, the genre is somewhat nebulous. Some authors and publishers seem to mean ‘teenage’ by the term – perhaps trying to lure teenage readers by calling them young adults. Some seem to mean they want to target readers between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and specialise in ‘coming of age’ stories. Yet others seem to apply the term to anything that is ‘lighter’ reading, stories that are shorter or less complex than what are presumably ‘fully adult’ books. Zafón says he wrote the kind of story he would have liked to read as a teenager but hoped it would appeal to all ages. I find all this confusing. The only conclusion I can tentatively come to is that publishers regard the term as a marketing tool.
Secondly, even if the target audience is young, I am not at all convinced that the readers deserve some of the stories handed out to them. Personally, I was reading ‘fully adult’ books at quite a young age, particularly the classics, and was perfectly capable of coping with quite complex plots, language and structure. I also had sufficient general knowledge to handle references to well known historical, geographical or scientific facts, etc. However, younger readers do not always have the experience to empathise with older characters and might prefer heroes, heroines, and even villains to reflect their own lives and emotions. This would be true, I suppose, of films and shows, too, so a middle aged detective (for example Poirot, or Morse) might appeal to fewer young readers or viewers, though I admit I enjoyed Poirot when I was a teenager. The main protagonists in Zafón’s story were teenagers, which actually made them less interesting to even the youngest of adult readers, particularly because the average adult would know quite well that most teenagers would be physically incapable of the heroic feats they were portrayed as engaging in. (A group of teenagers must confront a ghostly monster and try to defeat it.) I suspect most teenagers would know that, too. I accept that a lighter kind of novel is probably better without too many sub-plots or a cast of hundreds, and that a short novel can do without an overabundance of descriptive detail or philosophical meanderings, but I do think that plenty of people, both teen and adult, want light reading that still respects their intelligence. And I do think that teenage heroic figures need to be realistic, even within a fantasy or paranormal tale.
Thirdly, I was annoyed, in The Prince of Mist, and in some other YA books, by the over-simplification of the language. It is not necessary to avoid complex sentences or ‘difficult’ vocabulary even with older primary age students so they certainly shouldn’t be dismissed from YA novels. I am not sure whether Zafón or his translator was at fault but I found the results irritating and staccato. I have, however, found the same level of simple sentences in some books directed at an adult audience (including the Swedish Wallander detective series), so maybe it’s just a style I dislike. If a series of books are actually intended for people whose reading skills are limited, I suppose some publishers might advertise them as YA to avoid stigmatising readers. But that leaves other young readers short-changed. And I’m pretty certain the Zafón book was never intended for this category.
So these were some of my thoughts: I did, as a teenager, want stories with comparatively fast-paced action, but when I read Les Miserables (I was about twelve) I just skimmed the philosophical asides and carried on with the story. Zafón’s story had such fast-paced action I was unable to suspend disbelief. The only time I have ever needed a dictionary by my side (for fiction) was when I read (as an adult) Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and that was because I didn’t know, and wanted to know, some of the mediaeval architectural terms used. I think we cheat young readers if we don’t give them the chance to come across unusual words. There are stories, such as retellings of fairy tales, that demand spare language and simple sentences, but modern thrillers, in my opinion, do not.
I then began to wonder whether my own fantasy detective series is a YA series and whether I should, when I eventually publish, market it as such. It deals with coming of age, with starting a career and learning new skills, and with the beginnings of romance. In that sense, it’s about young people and likely to appeal to them. The individual novels aren’t long epics – they average about seventy thousand words. They aren’t particularly complex, because each deals with one specific crime or series of crimes. There is, admittedly, a teenage dragon. But should I be concerned about what age group I am writing for? I started writing the series for myself, not for anyone else. And should I worry about the language? It isn’t especially difficult but I haven’t tried to keep it simple. Something I have tried to do is to keep sex out of the stories, other than by implication, because I am not personally fond of finding explicit sex in what starts out as a lightweight detective novel. That’s really where the series differs a lot from some of my other work. It’s the only way in which I think I have leaned towards a YA series, apart from the subject matter.
I have enjoyed some YA books enormously. Others leave me less than impressed. This, I think, has been true ever since I was a teenager myself. What I don’t know is whether I should be using the term to describe what I have written – for marketing purposes – or whether I should simply ignore the entire issue. I certainly would not like to think my books were directed solely at teenagers, though I am fairly sure they would appeal to older teens and younger adult readers.
I’d love to have your views on the subject and I know some of you have written in the YA field. Can we define it? Should we? And is it a minefield or is it somewhere stories can find a comfortable home?
Meanwhile, to anyone who loved The Shadow of the Wind for its convoluted plot, detailed locations, three dimensional characters and beautiful language, be warned – The Prince of Mist is probably not for you!!