There is, I think, a misconception among publishers that the so-called young adult market requires a significantly different way of writing. At one level, those who specialise in childhood development try to impress us with studies of vocabulary growth along an age profile. Children know this number of words at different ages. Their ability to comprehend complexity in sentences develops at this age. This is bringing the appearance of science to bear for educational purposes, indicating aspirational norms for each cohort moving through the schooling system. Different forms of test are then used to measure the extent to which language and comprehension skills are being developed.
Frankly, I have no time for this. Average numbers for words held in vocabulary fail to reflect the actual distribution of results. Many children have vast numbers of words at their disposal. Others lack the environmental stimuli to develop a comparable resource. By imposing targets on the education service and then testing students against those targets, you are dumbing down. Instead of challenging children to learn ever more words with new and stimulating lesson plans, you expect no more than these core words at the given age (remembering, of course, that every age is spread over a twelve month period).
As a marketing genre, I suppose it is convenient to package some books as being suitable for children to read because of their content. Nanny publishers make value judgements based on the prevailing cultural norms and decide that children should be protected from some themes. Except that, when you review what is currently shown on television as suitable for children, you find it is often dark and violent with all kinds of interesting sexual subtexts in play. Then through the lack of parental supervision or as a response to peer pressure and natural curiosity, children gain access to “adult” content through libraries, VCDs, DVDs and the internet.
I find the idea of “young adult” patronising. Children develop at their own pace. If the content is sufficiently interesting, they will be motivated to read. If the vocabulary occasionally stretches them, that is good because it is teaching them new words. Let us take nothing away from the authors who write the best of what appears under this label. Within the limits laid down by the commissioning editors and marketing departments, most do a magnificent job. There is some excellent literature out there that just happens to be packaged in a strange way. In fact, this labelling is often counterproductive because many adult (and some child) readers harbour a prejudice that anything classified as “for children” must be beneath their interest. Yet marketing departments continue to build their dedicated imprints, probably hoping that, in due course, these readers can be weaned on to genres with more adult sensibilities. This is somewhat ironic because, if they are already readers, they should be reading anything that looks interesting rather than something packaged by genre.
All of which brings me to Secret Histories: A Repairman Jack Novel by F. Paul Wilson (Gauntlet Press, 2008). As a fan of Wilson’s writing, I was interested to see some of Jack’s backstory. One of the principal fascinations of reading is to explore the author’s vision for the main characters. Repairman Jack has been a stalwart for eleven books. Now we get to see him as a child. Appropriately, Jack is growing up in the Barrens so we remain firmly in the more general mythology underpinning The Adversary Cycle. But Wilson (and the publisher Gauntlet Publications) have decided to label the book as “young adult”. I think I shall probably excuse Gauntlet as an innocent bystander in this decision. It is more likely that Wilson’s eye is more firmly on breaking into the growing YA paperback market, hoping for crossover sales into the full Repairman Jack series and Adversary Cycle.
The nearest model I can come to as a perfect approach is The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale. This is a magnificent piece of writing that looks very firmly at adult issues through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy and his younger sister. It won the Edgar Award for best novel. If any proof was needed that you can write an adult book from the pont-of-view of a child, this is it. Yet, Wilson has decided to pull his punches just enough to creep under what he perceives the bar to be for entry into the YA category.
Frankly, I think this was a mistake. The style is self-conscious. One of Wilson’s consistent virtues as a writer is that his prose is very simple and direct. It sucks a reader in and bustles along at a steady clip. He makes it look so easy. Except in this case when he is consciously trying to make the writing simple and direct. More worryingly, there is a sense of editorialising at several points where self-imposed language constraints and plotting decisions lead to pallid results. All the cast of characters that you would expect does put in an appearance, but it all lacks the genuine feel. This all feels like Jack as a very weedy beanstalk. If only Wilson had created a Lansdale masterpiece to add to the Repairman Jack canon. As it is, it looks as though we have two more books to go to get Jack all growed up. The only thing I can find to say is excellent about this book is that it is mercifully short. YA’s attention spans are short, you see.
This probably for the die-hard fans who want to delve into the “origins” story.
For all my reviews of books by F Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
By the Sword
The Dark at the End