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Children’s literature, like adult literature, goes through trends and themes; that means that things that seem fresh and new will one day feel dated. That’s why reading novels like The Once and Future King or Tuck Everlasting can be a challenge to young readers because despite the engaging story and well-written material, the book itself comes from a particular point in publishing, and we have moved away from that. This is also why, for instance, we can point to book series like The Babysitter’s Club and Animorphs as being a unique feature of the 80s and 90s. In fact, many monthly, ghostwritten series appeared in that particular era because it was profitable and easily marketed, where now publishing has shifted away from that model.

This goes along the lines of genre, too, particularly in Young Adult novels. This is most readily and easily seen in YA, in fact, because publishing for this demographic is so clearly delineated and because adaptation is so prevalent, which throws these books into the public eye. The first Twilight book came out in 2005, giving us almost ten solid years of Twilight (a difficult thing to consider), followed relatively quickly by the sequels. This started a spate of paranormal romance novels, where young women were falling in love with werewolves, fallen angels, and fairies by the dozen, and occasionally young men were falling in love with witches – to the point where Paranormal Romance was an accepted genre in bookstores in the Young Adult section. Then in 2008, the Hunger Games launched another trend: dystopia and dystopian romance, which while relatively popular in adult literature of the 1940s, was actually a genre that hadn’t gotten much attention in 70 years, but caused a push in young adult literature.

Now we have seemed to move on to realism with novels like The Fault in our Stars, and Fangirl, or really, anything by Rainbow Rowell. The interesting thing about young adult literature and the trends that emerge from within the genre is that they don’t mimic adult publishing at all. That might be the natural suggestion, but in fact most young adult novelists are not looking at adult work for inspiration, but rather, refreshing the genre from within. This makes young adult work, in essence, some of the most innovative literature being released today, even with the advent of “copycat” writers – that is, writers who capitalize on whatever trend is being marketed aggressively at whatever time they choose to publish. 

This innovation, or rather, the shifting of trends in a relatively quick and seamless manner is, in my opinion, comes about because of two specific reasons. The first is authors themselves, particularly authors like Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and John Green, who are not ashamed (even as bloggers and writers try to shame them and their readership for writing for children and young people) to write exclusively, or maybe in the case of Neil Gaiman as least intentionally for young audiences. Pullman himself has said that people need to stop asking him when he’s going to start “writing for real people,” comparing it to asking pediatricians when they’re going to start treating adults, as if there is something only half-formed and childish about serving a younger population. That implies that these writers understand that literature formed for young people is inherently literature formed for young people and does not need to mirror adult literature or “prepare” young people for adult literature, but rather accepts the genre as a literature world into itself.

The second reason would be the market: young adults, particularly in the United States and Britain, tend to have independent funds, tend to be adventurous readers, and tend to shape their own reading preferences independent of school or adult influences. These factors combine to allow teenagers to shape the market to what fits their needs independent of adult influences. Additionally, when a book for teenagers catches on – like Twlight or The Hunger Games, it’s often read by adults as well – parents who want to know what media their kids are consuming, librarians, college students, postgraduate students, young professionals – usually because popular books are adapted into popular movies. And in an effort to recreate the lightning in a bottle effect of these immensely popular novels, publishing houses then publish a spate of similar titles, hoping that it will cash in (which works to varying degrees). 

As realism picks up the question is, naturally, what’s next? This is by no means any kind of cycle – but one wonders if the fantasy overflow of the late 90s will repeat itself with fairytale recreations and circular fantasy, or if we’re looking at a completely new reworking or an old genre (sci-fi, perhaps? Or a blend of the two like Cinder). But whatever it is, young adult literature and the trends that follow are certainly likely to be surprising in many ways, for both the authors and the readers.

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Many people have heard of Laurie Halse Anderson – her book Speak was one of the most influential young adult novels of its time, and she’s been fairly consistent in constructing believable young protagonists, particularly girls, in slightly impossible but altogether completely real situations. While I would argue that her protagonists, outside of Speak’s Melinda, blend together in a tangle of smart-but-troubled-young-women and have the same sardonic, cynical approach to the world outside their immediate needs, she nevertheless gives voice to young women in satisfyingly complete ways.

Her latest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory, deals with trauma and memory, and the intersection of the two particularly when it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which the protagonist’s father suffers from and arguably, the protagonist herself also has to deal with in her own recollection and memory. It’s a very cleverly structured novel, and worth the read (particularly by young adults who have military families, as the military aspects are dealt with a great deal of respect).

But what I found interesting was the heavy-handed meta aspects and the parallels that she drew. While no one would accuse Anderson of subtlety (Melinda’s inability to speak reflecting silence for rape victims, or Lia’s anorexia as a statement on vanishing) when it comes to the issues she addresses, The Impossible Knife of Memory seems to push meta to an extreme, to the point where in a scene in a book with an unreliable narrator, a character repeatedly demands to know what is an unreliable narrator is. However, it’s the revelation of the main character’s unreliable memory, and her attempt to literally save her father during a childhood incident where she nearly drowns, that seems to have the least subtle implications of all: Hayley spends the entire novel drowning in her attempts to save her father.

While it’s an admirable examination of the dynamic between children of PTSD sufferers and their parents, a critical eye has to be drawn to the heavy-handed meta that Halse employs. Hayley’s attempts to save her father are more than enough, and it begs the question as to why the drowning incident features, other than to drive the message home. This also brings up the question of meta in realism, and it’s place in these kinds of work. I’m not saying that this sort of writing is unacceptable, and that metaphor should be reserved for sci-fi or young adult dystopia (where it is often used with an even heavier hand, in most cases) I would argue that in realism, it should be done with a more deft hand to prevent forcing the reader and emotionally manipulating the novel. Further, the coincidence of it is suspect and convenient for the story (but doesn’t serve the characters): her father suffering from a seizure in a pool, and his daughter diving in to save him, paralleled with her father’s mental and emotional breakdown, accompanied by his daughter’s continual attempts to prop him up without help. Is it necessary for the narrative to be complete?

It’s brings up a good question in young adult novels: how heavy do authors really need to make the meta, for it to be understood? In a world where students read The Scarlet Letter and are then introduced to Hawthorne’s clever symbolism (a connection Halse herself makes in Speak) is less more, and is more just impossibly overburdening the camel until that proverbial (and metaphorical) straw breaks it’s back?

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