I’ve recently been revisiting The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Much of the prompt for this comes from a class I’ll be teaching in a couple of weeks about writing young adult fiction, though I admit a part of me was interested to see how it felt reading this complex, challenging book from a fresh perspective. When I first read it, I didn’t quite know how I felt about it; but I knew it had made me think.
In the time between that review and this, I moved back into academia and my thoughts have become increasingly concerned with two distinct things: that is to say the representation of the female body, and the representation of power in children’s and young adult literature. I tend to lean towards the younger end of the market, in my reading, theory and creative work, and have recently had a project accepted to look at the representation of the preadolescent female body in children’s literature (but more of that anon). For now, it’s worthwhile wedding that idea of ‘power’ and ‘body’ with The Bunker Diary as I think there’s something interesting there – and something that reflects on the state of play in children’s and young adult literature today.
A brief sidebar before we get going: I lump children’s and young adult literature together here, not just for word-count kicks, but also for theoretical clarity as I believe the issues I’ll talk about impact upon both. I do acknowledge that they are substantially different beasts. It’s not ignorance nor theoretical laziness, trust me.
Recurrent research over the past few years has shown that the young adult literature tends to be bought by those who are not young adults. (55% of YA books bought by adults – 2012; 70% of YA books bought by 18+ – 2018; Approximately 55 of YA readers are adults). Though, as ever with research, it can be made to say pretty much whatever you want it to say – or indeed, perpetuate what you want it to perpetuate, I find these articles symptomatic of a quite present challenge in children’s and young adult literature. (I also find them symptomatic of a crisis in placing research in the public sphere (countered by the work of such excellent scholars as Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold) but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Young adult literature isn’t being bought by the people it’s being written for. Is that a sweeping statement? Undeniably so, but it’s one made with a deliberately provocative edge and indeed some factual base. Sales of Young Adult literature dropped 21.5% in the UK in 2018 (source), and that’s a big drop to deal with. I don’t think it’s one to immediately go to Defcon One over, but it is one to consider as a symptom.
I keep returning to that idea. Symptoms. Things that symbolise something else. I think that something else is the idea of power – particularly about the body – and I think that children’s and young adult literature is reaching something of a critical turning point in its development. I grant you this is my own theoretical obsession, and notions of power are no new discussion in this sector. But I think we’re yet to understand the situation of power in the development of children’s and young adult literature – and the influence that will come to play upon the next phase of publishing. We’re on the crux of a change, and it’s up to us to understand what we want that next phase to be.
Change is no new thing for children’s literature. The notion of a Golden Age is fairly well established and accepted – to the point where it’s got a section on Wikipedia. There’s the similarly established and accepted idea of a Second Golden Age – located somewhere about the mid-twentieth century, and as I argued in my thesis, we’re currently somewhere in the middle of a third – defined mainly by the characteristic of ‘permitted transgression’. This is essentially ‘it’s all about power’ dressed up in fancy speak. The children’s and young adult literature of this period allows children to be transgressive. It works to actively encourage such. But it also places that act of transgression within a series of situations that tell the adult – us – that it’s not actually transgressive at all. It’s in a book, it’s contained, and it only lasts a few pages, and then the adults come in and help sort everything out.
It’s about power. Control. Figuring out who’s in charge, and why they’re there. And I think lower sales of Young Adult books, less film tie-ins (this is fascinating by the way on the crises surrounding the Divergent series), and less young adults reading these books, is all symptomatic of that. Power. Until we recognise who has a horse in this race, and start to actively challenge, subvert and remake those power structures within children’s and young adult literature, I suspect that we’ll continue to see movement away from the part of publishing that is ripe, desperate and yearning to explore those very things.