Helen Donohoe on the importance of YA Fiction


What makes YA fiction stand out? Helen Donohoe writes about the magic of this genre in this blog post… 

‘Young adult fiction teaches us, inspires us and gives us something beautiful and meaningful. It’s popular, perhaps because it gives us a bracing guide to the dysfunctional realities of adult life. A sort of escort into the abyss of so called maturity.

Whether it’s something we seek consciously or unconsciously, all humans need help with a strategy for living. That need is heightened when we’re young. Questions of identity, place in the world, values, deep seated fears and desires fizz with intense energy when you’re exploring them for the first time. Indeed, long before publishing invented the label of young adult fiction, there have always been wonderful books exploring the perilous states of youth and early adulthood.

From Huckleberry Finn to Holden Caulfield to Jeannette in Oranges are not the only fruit, right up to twenty first century protagonists such as Starr Carter in The Hate U Give, we see complex, intriguing characters that personify human challenges around choice, values and conflicting feelings.

Because, for the perceptive, passionate, curious and confused young adult protagonist, every decision, no matter how minor, feels cataclysmic, life changing and irreversible. It’s that intensity that brings adult readers to young adult fiction too – the chance to relive those burning feelings all over again.

And young adult literature doesn’t shy away from tough subjects such as mental health, LGBTQ, drug use, sex and pregnancy, bullying, death and terminal illness. It tackles them head on, with no nervy apologies. Because these issues are real. And experiencing these complexities of life vicariously through literature is a sincere way for the reader to gratify natural curiosities and fears. Diverse characters can bring reassurance too. YA fiction can help readers identify common ground between themselves and characters, gaining comfort in the knowledge that, no matter their situation, they are not alone.

And not being alone in our existence is important. Given the levels of division and conflict we are currently living through, fiction helps us to empathise with people who are not like ourselves. Young adult fiction exposes readers to characters that they may never come across in real life, along with the tools to explore an understanding of people that are different, rather than a condemnation. This in turn leads to space for the development of new beliefs and challenges to existing opinions. Dystopias, for example, encourage us to see the world beyond ourselves.

Young adult novels externalise evil as an enemy that can be seen and understood. Like Lord Voldemort, we are given monsters that can be defeated, an evil that can be vanquished. Although, increasingly the evil in young adult fiction is the adult world itself. In the Hunger Games it’s an adult world of political and economic repression. In Divergent it’s an adult world that demands conformity, at the expense of the individual. In The Maze Runner it’s an adult world that has escalated to such technological complexity that we are all lost within it.

So young adult fiction is more than just a story to the reader. It challenges their perception of the world and offers the opportunity of self-discovery from the security of a book, answering questions such as ‘What do I believe in?’ and ‘What type of person do I want to be?’

In many ways, young adult fiction is the most serious literature in contemporary culture. Its serious intent expresses itself in ways that many critics struggle to comprehend, but some of the bravest stories right now are being told in the young adult form.

At this moment in time, when so much of our public and political reality stinks, we should be thankful and embrace the opportunity that young adult fiction gives us for our own personal exit strategy.’

Helen Donohoe’s debut novel Birdy Flynn was published by Oneworld in 2017. She recently completed the MA in Creative Writing (Novels) at City University, London, winning the PFD Novel Writing Prize. Her other written work has ranged from peer-reviewed papers through to blogs for The Huffington Post and New Statesman and contributions to collection such as For the Love of London (ed. Conrad Gamble). She is also the author of the young person’s book World Issues Today: Terrorism and regularly visits schools to talk to young people about writing.

Published 1 April 2019