Books

Here’s Why Young Adult Fiction Is Essential

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Editor's Note:

Virginia MacGregor was brought up in Germany, France, and England by a mother who never stopped telling stories. She was named after two great women, Virginia Wade and Virginia Woolf, in the hope she would be a writer and a tennis star. Today she writes contemporary fiction. Her latest work, the young adult novel Wishbones, is now available.

When I was growing up, Young Adult fiction didn’t exist, or not officially, anyway: I skipped straight from Winnie the Pooh and Roald Dahl to Jane Austen and the Brontës. This wasn’t so bad – I read some great books, many of which stretched me at a young age. But looking at what is available for young adults today, I feel deeply envious. I was an anxious teenager, riddled with self-doubt, with body-image issues, haunted by unrequited love, uncertain of who I was or wanted to be and, in many ways, deeply lonely. I know, without a doubt, that my life would have been better and brighter had it been populated by the amazing YA stories out there today.

YA fiction is, for the most part, written exclusively from the point of view of young people: This is important as it gives them a voice, not only in fiction but in society. There is something immensely powerful about reading a story told by a character your own age and going through your stage of life.

What’s more, YA stories tackle, often fearlessly and with incredible imagination, some of the most important issues facing young people today.

In my debut YA novel, Wishbones, I look at what it means to be a child caring for a dying parent broken by loss; at eating disorders – including those which afflict boys; and at gender issues. I also tackle the more everyday issues that face young adults, issues like coming face to face with our parents’ shortcomings; falling in (and out) of love for the first time; not being quite sure who we are anymore – or of who we’re going to be come.

At my UK book launch for Wishbones, I spoke about how the state of teenagehood is commensurate with the state of homesickness: a longing for another place and time (childhood) alongside a sense of not yet fitting into the new world in which we now live (adulthood).

And so, at this difficult stage in life, what is called for most is understanding. Empathy is one of the most powerful functions of novels and nowhere is it more important than in YA fiction. There is something hugely healing about reading a story in which we see our emotions and experiences mirrored in characters we can love and admire and, above all, identify with. Being understood is what young people yearn for – I suppose it is what we all yearn for, but the feeling is particularly acute when we are growing up. And the key is that this empathy is found not in the form of a lecture from a well-meaning parent or teacher or how-to book, but in the form of stories: rich, powerful stories that entertain and amuse us, which are not afraid to go to dark places, which make us laugh and cry and dream. Fiction, like art and music, holds magic – and it goes deep.

YA fiction therefore becomes a safe (and sometimes fun) place in which to experience the grown-up life into which we are being initiated, in a way that often feels in our control. YA fiction is a rehearsal for life itself.

As well as offering young people empathy, YA fiction, at its very best, offers hope. Making that transition from childhood to adulthood is slippery and complicated and frightening and often lonely. But it is also beautiful because it’s the chrysalis through which we grow into our full selves. In that wonderfully intimate and sustained experience of reading fiction, we feel a hand guiding us but, more importantly, holding us and telling us that it’s going to be okay – more than okay. That if we embrace and have the courage to shape it, if, like the protagonists we most admire, we learn to be actors in our lives rather than reactors to our circumstances, the life awaiting us will be full of beauty and magic and joy.