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The world of teenage fiction

Young adult books have changed considerably since the days of classics like The Catcher in the Rye. Ramona Depares speaks with three Maltese writers about the direction the genre has taken.

While Young Adult (YA) literature is no recent invention, it took bestsellers like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy and, even earlier, Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga, to put the cool back on the bookshelves.

Certain themes become mandatory. Challenging authority, the discovery of sex and identity, the drive to change the world...

Injected with a good dose of glamour, today’s YA offerings could not be more different than tomes like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which are credited with first defining the genre.

The international trend in favour of YA literature has affected even the Maltese publishing scene, with at least three writers releasing new works within this genre in recent months.

Two of these writers – Loranne Vella and Simon Bartolo – are established names. Their previous, co-authored Fiddien trilogy, whose third instalment was released two years ago, gained a strong following both with lovers of the fantasy genre and with the younger readers. The third writer, Ivan Bugeja, released his debut novel only some weeks ago.

All three works focus on a particular moment in the life of the teenage protagonists, which is to be expected with a YA story – but what are the defining characteristics of the genre?

For Ġimgħa, Sibt u Ħadd author Bugeja it is definitely a case of age over plot devices; the main characters need to be young adults, it’s as simple as that. This is a sentiment echoed by Vella, whose Magna Mater presents a Malta turned on its head, with temperature extremes that swivel between -4°C and 30°C and with gangs of teens congregating at a (now domed) Msida skatepark.

However, Vella adds that the genre is marked not only by the age of its protagonists, but also by the structure and the plotline development, which must both reflect reality from a teenage point of view.

“Certain themes become mandatory. Challenging authority, the discovery of sex and identity, the drive to change the world and make things happen, the belief that youth is eternal, fear of moving towards adulthood and so on. This is a time when teenagers are leaving, usually very willingly, their childhood behind but have yet to form a concrete idea of what they want to become as adults.”

Bartolo, whose dystopian novel Deformity also presents us with a world climate gone mad (albeit with a storyline that is not based in Malta) agrees, adding that YA novels tend to be more commercial than complex. Teenagers view the likesof heroes like James Joyce’s creation Finnegans Wake as too much of acommitment, he says.

“YA novels are all about a good story that engages the reader.”

One issue that leaps out when discussing teenage novels is that of author responsibility. Given that, in Vella’s own words, certain themes – like sexuality – are mandatory, to what extent does a YA author feel responsible when it comes to choiceof language and the “moral implications”of story?

For Vella, the reply is “substantially”, which is why she prefers not to target her books specifically to children or teenagers. Bartolo, however, believes that this is not his main concern as a writer.

“My job is to provide my readers with enjoyable, challenging, thought-provoking books. That’s all. Which isn’t to say that I will use any language, no matter how coarse, to make my books ‘cool’. However, if authors were to constantly auto-censor their writing, their books would end up feeling artificial and probably unreadible.”

In Deformity, he says, he only uses an expletive just the once during a rape scene, which he believes is a natural setting for that sort of language.

Bugeja, on the other hand, believes that there is a responsibility towards the readers regardless of the age bracket. He adds that he is constantly aware of “what words to use, what words not to use, how words correlate to each other, and the context in which the words are used”.

A good percentage of the more successful YA books – the Harry Potter series springs to mind – wind up finding equal favour with grownups as with the younger readers. Has this trend also spread to Malta, particularly keeping in mind that in the these three books the main characters wind up facing adversities that are typically associated with adults, more than teens?

Deformity and Magna Mater both make reference to rape scenes and borderline poverty lifestyles. Ġimgħa, Sibt u Ħadd includes a secondary story line related to domestic violence.

Topics of this nature tend to attract not only the teenage market and all three authors agree. Vella tells me that MagnaTM Mater elicited more feedback from adults than from teenagers, a development that the author found quite surprising.

“However, there appears to be a clear divide between adults in their 20s and 30s and those who are over 40. MagnaTM Mater seems to have been a hit with the first two categories, but less so with the third.”

Considering that the novel makes reference to a highly technological world where social media almost takes the form of a Matrix-like entity – hence the reference to the Magna – this is perhaps, not so surprising. Bartolo encountered similar reactions with Deformity: he recounts how a Czech colleague had his copy “sequestered” by his wife.

“Yes, seems like the book is enjoyed by grown-ups too. Though there are adults who say that they found it a tad over the top in places. Teens remain the intended readers and they’re fine with over the top.”

Bugeja’s account of a Maltese summer that goes horribly wrong for a particular group of teens has also attracted adults, albeit maybe for a different reason than the other two. Gimgħa, Sibt u Ħadd, in fact, contains a definite nostalgic feel.

“Adults enjoyed letting their memoriesgo back to the ‘good, old years’, whilethe younger generation are more concerned with the contemporary element of the story.”

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the appellation YA is not enough to keep adults away from those shelves.

Maybe it’s a case of truly universal issues that touch a chord with readers of all ages. Or maybe it’s just that the teenager in us never truly dies.

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