Thursday, 23 June 2011

Not Quite a Review but Nearly: Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet.

Well, has this book got me thinking...

Before I get into what is undoubtedly going to be a right little tirade, let me put one thing very clear: this book is extraordinarily written and heartbreakingly beautiful. It is a superb work of imagination, research, knowledge and craftsmanship. I have finished the novel feeling as though I know and understand every character and where they come from. A part of me yearns for the tranquil nostalgia of an earlier time, when women wore aprons, young boys rode bikes wherever they liked and strawberry picking was a standard summer pastime. It has a truly explosive ending. 

You will find this book currently on 3for2 tables in the children's sections of Waterstones and it is published (gloriously I might say) by Walker Books, a specialist children's publisher. 

But does it belong in the children's/teen section?

No. No, it does not. 

What struck me continually throughout reading this novel is that, however much I was enjoying it, I felt pretty adamant that it was an 'adult' book. And trying to articulate why I felt this way has led me to some conclusions over the nature of YA writing. 

Meg Rosoff once told me that she doesn't write 'for' teens, but 'about' teens. I'd hold this up as being a very important linchpin to my following argument, that essentially, reading YA fiction should trick you into thinking that you are a teenager again, whatever your age, and that it is this quality that identifies a book as being YA in the first place. YA writing isn't 'for' teenagers, it is 'about' teenagers, and should remind you what it is like to 'be' one. 

Whether you are reading a paranormal romance, a contemporary 'issue' novel or a high school comedy, what signifies a book as being YA is that instant feeling of knowing exactly what it is like to be a teenager. It is an art form. Not everyone can do it. I am attempting to do it, and I have enough respect for the genre to be understanding if my work never makes it into print. Writers from across the pond (yes, I mean you John Green, Ellen Hopkins, Maureen Johnson et al) in my opinion tend to do it significantly better than the British, but there is great momentum building up in UK publishing, spurred on by such terrific writers as Ms Rosoff and Patrick Ness, to only name a couple.  

The trick of making your brain feel sixteen again tends to mean that the best YA fiction is written in the first person and in the present tense, but it can work beautifully if written well in another POV or style. I don't want to deny anybody from considering themselves a YA writer or reader just because a book is 'different' from the rest. I encourage diversity in literature, so long as it is accomplished and actually works! For me, as a passionate reader of all things teen, and a buyer for a large children's department, the first thing I look for in a new YA novel is that gut reaction, that bubbling in my brain that makes me go 'oy vey' and perhaps even makes me fall in love for the first time all over again. Adult readers of YA do so with a yearning to return to that point in their lives where everything was new, exciting and dangerous. Actual teenagers read it because it speaks directly to them, and not at them (as teachers, peers and parents may be doing at the time). 

So I return to Life: An Exploded Diagram.

Why is this not YA?

Because it sentimentalises life. It makes the heart yearn for something that is gone and can never come back. You are never transported directly back to the instant of being, but coaxed there through the whimsy of the aging (and perhaps unreliable) narrator. It is a story of a grown-up remembering, not a teenager being. 

It is a beautiful book, and I would enthusiastically recommend young people and less-young people alike to read it because I can guarantee you will be going on a fantastic literary journey (and you'll learn freaking tons about the Cuban Missile Crisis!). But it does not belong on the teen shelves. 

Perhaps you disagree with me, perhaps your experience of YA is vastly different from mine - I do really want to hear from you because I believe that this is a topic many agents, editors and publishers (and booksellers!!!) are quibbling over. 

Yours forever,



  1. I should also add that I am now going to have a bubble bath and indulge in Maggie Stiefvater's new book, which apparently involves man-eating water horses races!!!

  2. Is this the inevitable result of the crossover culture in YA? Because there have always been plenty of adult books written from a child's perspective, but informed by a very adult sensibility. But they stayed in the adult fiction section. It must be tempting for publishers to realign those books in the YA demographic to try to pick up both markets.

    Still Mal Peet's British council entry revels in the idea that he doesn't play the YA game: His books to date prove that successful literature for young readers doesn’t have to be didactic, or have overtly youthful themes, or even centre on young characters.

  3. I think Mal Peet's books are brilliant, but have never understood why they are classed as YA when they have adult main characters and are far better than your average adult thriller. But then there are quite a few YA books which I think are more written for adults..they do seem to do very well at award time.

  4. Hey Nicole, brilliant rant :)

    For me the rule of thumb of the difference between YA and Adult novels featuring teens is this: YA novels look forwards... from teenage perspective into the future. Adult novels hark backwards... from adult perspective into the the teen years of the past.

    Doesn't really matter what the teens are doing, how they're behaving or where on earth (or out of it) the novel is set.

    Novels aimed at teens should always be looking to the future because that's where they're headed. Novels aimed at adults, about teenage years should be reminiscences because that's where their heart lies.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with Eve, and I loved reading this post. Thanks!

  6. Nicole, Nicole, Nicole. Why are you so keen to shove books into pigeonholes? This book is no more an adult book than my books are, or Ness's. It's no more a YA book either. It's category-smashing -- and no less an important book than other category smashers like Duck Death and The Tulip, or Shaun Tan's The Arrival. Or Pride & Prejudice or Henry IV (classic YA).

    There are no rules about being a YA writer. You don't have to sign a pledge or learn a secret handshake. Some first person present tense books are great, most are awful. Some future-looking books are brilliant. Most are dire.

    A book about being young that's highly intelligent, beautifully written (as you said) and evokes what it feels like to be 16 with joyous versimilitude can be whatever it wants to be. Teens will love it. So will adults. Not the same teens who love Shiver (god help me!). And not the same adults who love The Da Vinci Code (ditto). But plenty of good passionate readers.

    No pigeonholes, please, Nicole. Leave them to the politicians. Really great books are few and far between, and most of the time they challenge us all and break all the rules.

    And that's my final word on the subject. For now....!

    p.s. Look who two of Peet's biggest fans are -- Patrick Ness (see also his blurb on Peet's book) and me (