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.