Are books for young people a literature in their own right? by Elizabeth Bentley

Last autumn I was privileged to watch an online interview with Aidan Chambers, on his new book. This is not another of his distinguished novels, but a more academic discussion of what he calls youth fiction: The Age Between: personal reflections on youth fiction

Aidan Chambers wrote perhaps my favourite book, certainly of those written for young people, This Is All, the last in his Dance sequence. (I was sitting next to a very nice American at a library conference and told her how much I loved it, only to find she was Nancy Chambers, his wife. Pure coincidence, but so thrilling for me. I have a signed copy, of course.)

But he had already won both the Carnegie Medal and the American Michael L. Printz Award for Postcards from No Man’s Land, as well as the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, so his children’s literature presence is undoubted. 

This new book is a fascinating discussion that covers how he views the life stage he writes for and how that can be defined as the emergence from childhood through to the achievement of adulthood, roughly 13 to 25. Which, as he points out, is close to the youth age group defined by Shakespeare: “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.” (The Winter’s Tale). So this view of youth is not new, and in fact nor is writing for it, which as Chambers points out, had already begun in the 19th century. 

The chapters include an account of how he first started writing for youth, as a secondary school teacher, faced with students who were reluctant to read, partly because there was so little available that was both accessible and related to their lives.  His chapter on The Catcher in the Rye (adult male author) and Bonjour Tristesse (youth female author) reflects on the differences between a book written in the first person about a youth, and a book written in the first person by a youth. (Sagan comes out of this rather better than Salinger, though Bonjour Tristesse has never been adopted by youth in the way Catcher was.) 

A “history” chapter looks at some of the famous books from the 19th century, in particular Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Little Women, highlighting the difference between them of telling the story from an adult perspective (Tom Brown) and from that of the young characters (Little Women), followed by a whole chapter on Huckleberry Finn, written in the same period but which moves decisively to telling the story in Huck’s voice. Chambers makes it clear how highly he rates this achievement by Mark Twain, as well as illustrating how much effort Twain put into achieving it. 

The book also contains an analysis of the changes of both mind and body that occur in youth, using the latest research, and relating them to the implications that has for the author writing for them. And his understanding of the young goes far beyond the prosaic, describing the elements of joy, love, sex, and spirituality that go to make up the young psyche.

He sees the very fact of youth being on the threshold between childhood and adulthood (liminality) as significant in and of itself, as they struggle to make sense of themselves and the world around them. I particularly liked his discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank in this context.

The final section of the book, Narrative Strategies, discusses how authors he admires, such as Twain, have tackled the issues of writing youth fiction, and then how his own work demonstrates how narrative serves the themes he wishes to cover. This is both the most demanding, at least for me, and the most interesting section. He examines how using the first person limits narrative possibilities, and how it can be extended to widen those possibilities, using the example of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which he wishes he had known before writing his earlier novels. He then moves on to the use of the third personas exemplified by Cormier’s The Chocolate War, which tells the story from multiple viewpoints, but all in the third person, allowing an authorial voice to be voiced where appropriate. 

And then Chambers moves to an illuminating discussion of some of his own writing, with an extraordinarily detailed analysis of the narrative structure of Breaktime in terms of the “network” that built to form the whole. I have no background in literary criticism or analysis, so I didn’t find it the easiest of reads, but it was so rewarding to understand what had gone into just one book. Not that Chambers says he was necessarily aware of all those elements and layers as he was writing, but that once finished he could see them. He explores the relationship between himself as storyteller, his “fictive protagonists” and the ways of telling that produce the narrative.

He finishes with his proposal that youth fiction is a literature in its own right, with a need to establish a canon so that it can be studied and appreciated not just in terms of its popularity with young readers, which may be ephemeral, or its practical use in supporting the curriculum, or its value in bibliotherapy.

While reading around for this article, I came across some essays by one of the distinguished writers for youth, Peter Dickinson, which may be found here: Another great essay on this topic is by Melvin Burgess: should like to commend these to you in addition to this book by Chambers. Like him, Dickinson and Burgess both take writing for young people very seriously. 

It would be great to see similar contributions to the discussion from some of our current authors. Perhaps they are already doing so, in which case it would be good to see any recommendations you can give.

I do urge you to try and get hold of this book, and decide for yourselves how valid Chambers’ arguments are! I think you will find it illuminating.

Chambers, A. (2020) The Age Between: personal reflections on youth fiction. Fincham Press, University of Rowhampton

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