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  • Izak de Vries

Joanne Macgregor: YA is more of a guide to the envisaged age range

Photo from author’s websiteJoanne Macgregor publishes for a wide age range. Turtle Walk and Rock Steady are about high-school children. I asked her a few questions about writing for young adults. In the USA #IreadYA week is being celebrated. Now I am curious: In Afrikaans (and therefore in English-speaking SA too) we are more likely to talk about youth literature than young adult literature. Is that a shortcoming? Definitely a shortcoming by publishers who should fall in with the “YA” genre/age label that is standard in the rest of the world. Interestingly, the YA writers in SA (people like Jayne Bauling, Edyth Bulbring, Fiona Snyckers, SA Partridge, myself, etc.) all call ourselves YA. We do “YA in SA” events, interviews, etc. I have never heard another author say they write “youth literature”. Writing for this market is very difficult. Why are you doing so? I don’t write YA exclusively – I have some books for younger readers, and my adult psych thriller came out this year. But I think it’s safe to say that YA is my first love. I love how the genre demands that my “voice” and story be immediate, fresh, pacy, urgent, alive, emotional and true. The writing must be honest, and it’s a privilege to write about the firsts (first love, first betrayal, first heroism) that typically lace these stories. I also like the coming of age element of the stories and the fact that I can interweave deeper themes and character development than is the case with stories for younger readers. There is a difference between children’s literature and youth literature. How would you explain it? Since I don’t know exactly what is meant by “youth literature”, I’ll speak to the differences as I understand them between YA and children’s literature. YA tends to have a teen protagonist who is of high-school age. It deals with identity exploration and development across all areas (physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual, political, social, vocational, etc.) and the protagonist grows in a coming-of-age arc across the story. The story focus is often more inward (the self). In kids lit, the protagonist is usually younger, the story is more simple, and the characters “learn a lesson”. The story focus is usually outward (events and other people). In children’s lit, the ending generally includes a happy return to the status quo – goodies win, baddies lose, right and wrong are clear, and the protagonist “goes home” (usually literally, but also symbolically) with a new appreciation for her family, parents, friends, home, planet, etc. In YA, the protagonist grows (but doesn’t necessarily “win”), evil may survive to fight another day (or even continue to prosper), right and wrong are revealed to be ambiguous – the world and its people exist in shades of grey, and the protagonist leaves home (usually both literally and symbolically). It’s all more complex and ambivalent and often darker, because it throws the protagonist into the demands and conflicts of the real world – even when this is disguised by the story of genre. (For example, The Hunger Games, at its core, is about being tossed into forced involvement in a closed and unfairly stacked environment with a bunch of other mean and dangerous teens, and having to survive – sounds a lot like high school!) So YA books can deal with issues like illness, abuse, drug use, death and grief, rape, politics, mental health, LGTB issues, and the like. I think YA makes the reader think, in addition to giving her great entertainment with “all the feels”. There are also, obviously, some technical differences: YA is longer, can use more sophisticated vocabulary (including occasional swear words), usually includes some degree of sexual element (ranging from vanilla first kisses to some pretty graphic stuff), can include more explicit violence, and many more interconnected plots, sub-plots and characters. If you have to recommend three YA books, which would they be? This is like Sophie’s choice! I would have to say the latter books of the Harry Potter series (from book 4 on), The Hunger Games by Susan Collins, Saving Francesca by Australia’s Melina Marchetta and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvader. I would just like to add that YA is more of a guide to the envisaged age range of the reader, rather than a genre. So it qualifies the actual genre. For example, in the books cited above, we YA Fantasy (Harry Potter), YA Dystopian (Hunger games), YA contemporary (Saving Francesca) and YA fantasy-romance (Scorpio Races).

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