Young adult novels are about friendships, struggles, futuristic realities, school, destiny and opposition; the things every teenager and beyond needs to start questioning and puzzling out for themselves. But because these stories told from a teenager’s point of view and are often woven with fantasy elements they’re often looked down on by society as ‘just silly things for kids’.
“Adults really enjoy young adult novels, but they feel like they need to read them in private or cover the front page with something because the books are ‘for teenagers’,” said YA writer Edyth Bulbring. “’Young adult’ is a really new classification that was created because nobody knew where to put books written about young people,” she added.
But young adult books, Bulbring and fellow YA writers Mamle Kabu, Zimkhitha Mlanzeni and Sally Partridge say, don’t necessarily hold back on the things they talk about. “You can’t hide truths from young people. There are no age restrictions on books, and so I try to push the boundaries of what you can do. You can go to really dark places,” Partridge said. “Obviously, people try to push back on this freedom,” Mlanzeni added, “They’ll ask you to put in a black character just to ‘get representation right’ or ask whether the character has to actually kiss her girlfriend – can’t it just be implied? But young adult books shouldn’t just write stories that aren’t about reality and things that are real – teenagers will find these things in life one way or another, and if they don’t learn from books, where will they learn?”
Kabu said that despite all the resistance thrown around by South African authorities, we ‘have it really good’ compared to her homeland of Ghana. “[In Ghana], young people need to show they’re very, very good or make people believe they’re very, very good,” she said. In this conservative society, parents will never talk to their children about things such as crime, sex, drugs, disease or how to oppose things in the government they see is wrong. “Teenagers are struggling with issues and insecurities. These books that raise these issues [in whatever roundabout way] makes it easy to talk about it with parents,” Kabu asserted.
Books let young people see other young people grapple with these issues and come through them victorious. They can live through the character and find a solution – if not the one the character finds then one they found through saying, ‘hey, that girl was so stupid to do that. If I’m in that situation, I now know I’ll do this instead’,” said Bulbring. “These issues are out there every day. The most beautiful thing about writing is at the end of the day you can give [the readers] hope. If you see one person understand something better or be given a bit more hope that they, like the character, can change things then you realise ‘I’ve done something right. I’ve done something good’,” Mlanzeni added.
And these are views that young readers agree with very firmly. “A lot of the things are taboo and dark, so parents think they can’t relate. But it’s just like in the newspapers. It’s just putting them in words you want to read,” said Jo-Lee Davids. “People don’t talk about [these things] in public. So these books are sort of guidelines for life,” agreed classmate Shana Lewis.
“These books draw you in; compel you and shed light on your life,” said classmate Sherri Barrett, “Books help you to escape, but they also help you to know what you believe and what you value,” added Sam Rivers. “You measure yourself up to the characters and go ‘I’d do this, but not this. I’m like this, and she’s like me, and she’s great, which means I can be great’. They’re role models and they’re in your head, which makes them intimate. Which is why they teach you lessons that never go away.”