Proving the definition, Diane Hebley

Young adult fiction exists — that has been accepted for over two decades. Its classification depends almost solely on the viewpoint of its young adult protagonists towards their concerns: friends, family, sexual relationships and sometimes the world at large. This classification takes into account current research which maintains that young people like reading about contemporary or older characters, not younger.

However, separating junior fiction from senior or young adult fiction, which also embraces the term adolescent, is sometimes difficult. Confusion is further increased by recent Children’s book awards. In 1995, for example, Maurice Gee’s The Fat Man (1994) with the viewpoint of a 12-year-old, but with a complex narrative style and subject matter of interest to older readers, was controversially classed as junior fiction. Now it appears on publishers’ young adult lists. So how should the novels submitted for this column be classified and how do writers deal with young adult concerns?

Take Tessa Duder’s Mercury Beach. In this comic novel, the role of the protagonist is taken by two girls and two boys, led by Bingo aged 12. These four, barely adolescent, are variously talented, persistent, perceptive, motivated by a caring concern for their family members and not involved in sexual relationships. This makes a junior placement appropriate. Yet their cynical view of the world could appeal to teenage readers who can disregard the age of the protagonists in order to enjoy the dynamics driving a representative collection of mainly adults absorbed in fund-raising for their community hall. The most outrageous activity concerns the toll charge levied on all arrivals to Mercury beach. The most dramatic moments follow the Queen carnival’s highly entertaining grand parade, revealing the dark side of festival behaviour.

Iona McNaughton’s Summer of Shadows also stands across the divide with a 13-year-old protagonist. Lizzie,  passionately attached to her ailing horse, old Shadow, lives on a farm near a country town. She has a supportive mother, a crusty father and an older adopted brother whose clumsy advances encourage her to go to self-defence courses with her new friend Hannah. Sophisticated Hannah, who suffers abuse from her mother’s boyfriend, leads Lizzie at school into minor problems associated with drink and drugs. In addition, Lizzie’s old friend Jody is badly damaged by an explosion but she helps Lizzie to accept euthanasia for Shadow — a choice that makes Lizzie feel she has moved on in life. McNaughton won the 1996 Tom Fitzgibbon award for the “best children’s fiction by a previously unpublished writer”.

Classification lines are further obscured by the book awards which classed David Hill’s survival stories as junior fiction. Admittedly, Cold Comfort, like Take It Easy, is narrated without complexity and with relatively short paragraphs and chapters to make the novel accessible to less experienced readers. But the protagonists are young adults in age, behaviour and relationships. Craig, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable mountain-climber, and Lisbeth, the company owner’s sophisticated daughter, are both at least 16; Fitz, the airline’s youngest pilot, is an arrogant, randy, irascible boaster who flies his helicopter beyond the established mountain flight path in order to impress his passengers. The resultant crash begins a tale of cowardice, heroism and sheer doggedness in the magnificence of, presumably, the Southern Alps. Apart from the motivation for one incident to extend the plot, the story is convincing, well paced, generous in the teenagers’ public denial of Fitz’s selfishness and at times wryly humorous. Unfortunately, its stylised cover is unappealing and inaccurate. And why does Hill keep referring to “the fair-haired girl” when her fairness is not important to motive or plot?

On the other hand, a young adult placing is obvious for The Day After Forever, written (unusually so) by a young teenager. Erin Skiffington’s enthusiasm for her teenagers’ crises will capture youthful readers. Toni-Maree is haunted by her twin brother’s death in a drunk-driving accident; Jeff is dying of leukemia; Courtney is beaten and sexually abused by her stepfather; Eddie, with a “finely chiselled, handsome face”, (p197) finds it difficult to make friends with girls. After a lengthy introduction, tension increases when Jeff’s condition deteriorates. Friendship is portrayed as different from sexual attraction, allowing Eddie and Courtney to be conveniently matched to make this, after all, a love story with a positive ending. Although the dialogue is natural and expansive, the narrative tends towards romantic cliches and American expressions such as “gotten along great” (p13) sound odd in a New Zealand setting. However, some variation in narrative technique provides evidence of this young writer’s potential.

Other books submitted for this article sit easily under the young adult umbrella. Four of the writers involve their protagonists in genealogy, currently of great interest to many families, thus enriching contemporary stories with historical dimensions and variously introducing aspects of inherited flaw and flair.

Christine Johnston in A Friend of Jack McGuire continues the story of the McGuires from Goodbye, Molly McGuire. Libby at 16 experiences the historical weaving of family life at one remove; she is not part of the McGuire family. But she cannot escape being involved in their ghostly appearances and her little brother Ted also develops the power to see the ghosts. Thus an 80-year-old murder mystery unfolds, entwining itself through Libby’s contemporary relationships and concluding with the arrival of a McGuire descendant in the small Central Otago old gold-mining settlement.

Brian Hanfling in The Blue Mosquito opens with the crash of a plane in England in 1944. Fifty years later in New Zealand, Flora enlists the help of her three younger siblings and her solo mother to unravel the mystery concerning the Blue Mosquito’s pilot and navigator. Which of the two was their grandfather? The novel is memorable for the warmth with which Hanfling portrays his individual characters, inviting the reader to care for them too; for their witty, yet supportive banter; for humour in their everyday world; for tension and anxiety, rather than teenage angst, created without animosity or abrasiveness; and for the family’s pleasure in Guy’s extraordinary musical talent, supposedly inherited from his grandfather. Above all, an old man’s life following betrayal and lasting regret is conveyed with deftness, subtlety, and understanding.

To patrilineal confusion and World War II experiences, Kate de Goldi in Love, Charlie Mike adds modern war, betrayal, despair, love and glimmering hope. Christy is 16, more complex than Flora in her aim to be “a midwife to the truth … a messy affair”. (p9) She falls in love with Sonny, a soldier and her supposed second cousin, with whom she sleeps (condom use is not considered) before he is sent to Bosnia where his confused sympathies lead him into trouble. Other characters are at times larger-than-life. Christy’s mother is remarkably long-suffering; “menopausal” Dad works out his distress through maniacal antics associated with his “inherited” love of tennis; and Irish-Catholic Brenna jauntily blasphemes her support for Christy. Yet “loopy” Gran, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is as poignantly funny as Margaret Mahy’s Sophie in Memory and 13-year-old Finn, Christy’s brother, is engagingly supportive through his wit and perception. Dialogue is racy and sinewy but often harsh and excessively crude. Though the crucial accident to Pops challenges belief, rapid time-shifts and letters to and from Sonny in Bosnia skilfully enlarge narrative complexity. To solve the mystery of Sonny’s behaviour and of her grandfather’s identity, Christy journeys with Gran from Christchurch across the Alps to the West Coast. This train journey provides the novel’s impressive structure, a framework for strong emotions and a metaphor for this difficult stage in Christy’s life. A pity the cover doesn’t match the girl to the text. (p55)

William Taylor in Circles uses alternating parallel chapters as his structure. Sixteen-year-old Tom Costello, home alone while his parents are overseas, finds a letter written by his great-great-grandfather. Young Tom describes his troubles at school and home, showing a delight in drinking, smoking, shooting and swearing. Old Thomas describes his early colonial life; his parents’ death; the kindnesses that began the family fortune; treachery among officials; his wild living; his passion for Te Rangimarie, mother of his son and heir; and his love for his wife, the Contessa. So, like Flora and Christy above, young Tom discovers his true ancestry. As well, the girl who attracts him is descended from Te Rangimarie’s sister. On his parents’ return, truth about past land deals brings solutions to present problems. Taylor’s admirable achievement is the re-creation of two lifestyles, past and present, enjoyed by two consanguineous, likeably roguish characters. But some inconsistency lies, for example, in the doctor’s speech patterns where he berates young Tom for using “Can I…” instead of “May I…” yet he himself misuses standard double-pronoun constructions.

Two other writers for young adults focus on difficulties in contemporary relationships, drawing on Shakespearian tragedies for enlargement.

Vivienne Joseph in Worlds Apart, despite plot summaries for readers who may not know Hamlet, gains depth and power from weaving a class study of the play through Cara’s grieving. Cara’s brother Aaron has inexplicably committed suicide. Her parents seek solace in despairing ways, her classmates in a new town subject her to bullying and a new friend she meets on the beach, a boy squatter in a nearby bach who makes advances to her, almost kills himself through an overdose. Cara movingly finds release from her despair “in the acceptance of something that couldn’t be changed”, (p115) in the strength of self-assertion and in the power of the written word.

Julie Williamson in A Summer to Remember quotes from King Lear, but quotation comes over-easily to 14-year-old Tania, who isn’t a drama buff. Nevertheless, lines from act III make an effective contrast to the contemporary narrative. Tania’s central problem comes from her inability to accept her mother’s new partner, Paul — an admirably patient, considerate man, a model for any adult in a “reconstituted” family. Tania’s fledgling steps towards peer acceptance lead to unpleasantness involving drink and male advances. Like Christy above (but without de Goldi’s metaphoric power), Tania takes the train to the West Coast where she is further upset by her painter father’s new relationship. Back home, she finds family awareness increased when her grandparents arrive from England, her grandfather another victim of Alzheimer’s. Through the connivance of Paul and a new friend, Stephen, Tania learns to enjoy simple activities with her grandfather, finding hope in acceptance.

Set differently in a fantasy world, Sherryl Jordan’s Secret Sacrament goes beyond family relationships into political intrigues. Pre-industrial Navora is founded on conquest, trade and oppression, particularly of the Shinali tribe. Protagonist Gabriel denies his rich Navoran family’s heritage in order to study healing. An Elected One at the Citadel at 18, Gabriel falls in love with the beautiful Shinali Ashila, falls out of favour with the corrupt Empress and is condemned for treason. In the ensuing sword-and-spear carnage over land confiscation, a young Shinali leader is crucified, endorsing Roman-Judaic undertones. All Jordan’s fantasy hallmarks are here: dramatic central characters; sensuously described settings in firelight and shadow; jewels and gorgeous garments; magnificent stone architecture and lowly tent dwellings; herbal treatments (some have contraceptive properties); interpretations of visions and dreams; and a deep belief in the power of the mind. Gabriel displays the Gospel “greater love” of self-sacrifice and Jordan’s positive attitude to love and life is reaffirmed in Ashila’s vision of her tribe’s future nationhood through Gabriel’s child.

Different again is Jane Westaway’s short story collection, Reliable Friendly Girls (1996), skilfully covering many issues with wry humour and insight into the minds of teenagers and showing a deep concern for the vulnerability of their relationships.

On the whole, although young adult fiction benefits from an umbrella classification, identification for readers (but not limitation) is often better served through association with the protagonist’s age. These entertaining novels offer readers hope and support through positive responses to teenage concerns. And, according to Children’s Commissioner Laurie O’Reilly in a recent Sunday Star-Times, support for the young is of greatest value.

Diane Hebley has written several books for children, with husband Gary as illustrator, has a doctorate on New Zealand children’s fiction and is a tutor for the Christchurch College of Education and Massey University.

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Posted in Comment, Literature and Young adults
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