My mother’s book group has been going for seventeen years. Every six weeks, six lovely women meet and eat wonderful food and discuss wonderful books: the food is always wonderful; the books aren’t quite so consistent. Last Monday I joined them as they discussed Costa award-winning MAGGOT MOON, the first children’s or YA book they have ever read as a club.
I was really looking forward to an evening spent eating and discussing a book I love, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. But was it what I expected? Not quite.
When I first read MAGGOT MOON, I was working at a children’s bookshop; my colleagues and I, already huge fans of Sally Gardner, eagerly awaited the proof turning up on the doormat. It was passed around more quickly than cake during the 4 o’clock slump, and we were all completely wowed by it.
The book clubbers were wowed by it as well – everyone thought it was written in a beautiful, understated way and some felt Standish was one of the most unique voices they’d read in a long time. However, what they focused more on was MAGGOT MOON being a children’s book, and what that meant these days.
Between these ladies they have fifteen children ranging from 7 to 30 years old. For some it has been a long time since they read anything that could be classed as a children’s book (with the probable exception of Rowling, Pullman and/or Haddon). For others they haven’t discovered the YA genre that MAGGOT MOON is part of yet. More than this, as my mum assures me, when she was a teenager the idea of a teen or YA genre barely existed, certainly not in the densely populated and incredibly diverse way it does today.
What seemed to strike them was how dark some of the themes and scenes are: certainly if one expected MAGGOT MOON to be written for a nine or ten year old, you might be a bit taken aback by some of the content. However, as a YA novel it is startling, beautiful and totally original.
Unexpectedly for me, it led us to discuss ‘appropriateness’ or ‘suitability’ in books – be it language, characters, or plot. I’m going to come clean and admit that I’m a firm believer in letting children read what they want. My parents didn’t monitor what I read when I was younger, and though that meant I read things ‘too early’ or seemed unsuitable for my age (reading Melvin Burgess’ JUNK at 10 was weird mainly because I had no idea what was going on), it also means that I’ve carried on reading things ‘too late’ all my life. I am constantly discovering more must-read books, be they for adults or children, all the time.
At school young teens study adult books – ANIMAL FARM at twelve, OF MICE AND MEN and LORD OF THE FLIES as GCSE set texts. I remember studying THE CRUCUBLE at thirteen; we may not have understood the anti-McCarthy message (even after we’d been told all about it), but at my all-girls school we certainly understood mass hysteria, groups of malicious girls and gossip. We took from it what we could understand and what was relevant to us and at the same time had our eyes opened, our minds stretched and our curiosity peaked.
It was comparing MAGGOT MOON and other YA titles to books like this that helped us arrive at something resembling a conclusion. One of them put it really well when she said that the goal posts in children’s fiction have changed. YA literature is, in my opinion, growing and producing some truly remarkable books, which are able to crossover (there I said it) into the adult market.
However, what’s really special about it these type of books for me is that they are being produced and marketed specifically for teenagers – they don’t need an adult to try and fit them to a teenager’s life by explaining them. Instead this type of YA novel tackles difficult themes that are important and relevant to teens as they begin to see the world through more mature eyes.
More than this, they communicate something beyond themselves in language that doesn’t patronise or make assumptions about their reader. It is sophisticated, rich – literary even. It is this element of MAGGOT MOON that the book club ladies found so remarkable. It is this aspect that that lead my mother to say ‘teenagers today are so lucky’. (I wonder what teens would say to that…)
So what do you think? What do you think the YA genre is doing for teen reading?