A review (of sorts) and musings on a strange (to me) phenomenon

I’m normally clueless about what is and isn’t fashionable but even I have glommed on to the fact that YA (short for young adult literature) is very ‘in’ and not just for young readers. Most adults I come across are either reading it or writing it (seriously it seems that you could fit all the world’s authors who aren’t writing a YA series into a medium-sized elevator). I don’t really ‘get’ this new fashion but that’s not surprising as I am just not a fashionable gal. However when one of two choices for my book club this month was a YA novel (here in Australia it was published as YA, in the US it wasn’t) I chose to give it a go, at least partly to see if my ‘why would I want to read stuff written for teenagers?’ paradigm is causing me to miss out on some great reading.

The book is Helen Grant’s The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. As opening lines go “My life might have been so different if I had not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded” was a good start at drawing me in. The story which follows is narrated by Pia Kolvenbach, who at 18(I think) is telling of events that took place when she was 10-11 years old (a neat way of getting around the fact her narration contains the occasional word or concept that a 10-year old is unlikely to express). She lives in the small German town of Bad Münstereifel with her German father and English mother. It is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone else and so it seems unthinkable that a child could disappear. Therefore when fourth grader Katharina Linden vanishes one Sunday, the parents and authorities of Bad Münstereifel start to worry. When a second child goes missing a few weeks later real panic sets in.

After her grandmother exploded Pia became something of an outcast with only one friend, Stefan, who is a fellow outcast for reasons that I must have missed. The two embark on a rather leisurely ‘investigation’ into the disappearances which mainly involves visiting one of the town’s elderly residents and listening to his stories about the town’s history, usually a mixture of fact and legend with a healthy smattering of ghosts and demons thrown in for the children’s amusement and/or moral edification.

I enjoyed the gentle humour of the book, such as when Pia is doing a school project on ‘where she comes from’ and when she gets to the bit about what products that place is known for she asks her mother what Middlesex has a lot of, to which the reply is ‘roads’. I enjoyed the character of Pia too, she is a likable and thoughtful kid whose tribulations are realistically depicted. At one point someone in the town is ‘identified’ (through rumour and innuendo) as the person responsible for the missing children and a mob mentality takes over most of the adults. Depicting this from a child’s perspective, who takes the words they hear more literally than an adult would, is both realistic and thought-provoking. The book also touches lightly (but intelligently) on the theme of a young girl growing up and having to do some adult-like things for the first time.

Overall though I feel a bit ho-hum about the book and in the end I still don’t really ‘get’ the allure of YA for people who aren’t young adults themselves. In summary I was mildly entertained but thought it a bit slow and I spent a lot of time wondering what the adults where thinking and doing while Pia and Stefan bumbled around. What was going wrong with Pia’s parent’s marriage? What were the police doing about the missing children? How did the teacher who let a child get kidnapped from under her very nose cope with the guilt she must surely have felt? Based on this experience I can’t really imagine making a habit out of reading this kind of thing.

In trying to get a handle on the phenomenon of adults reading YA I came across this blog post giving 5 reasons why one adult reader loves YA and started to realise why this particular fashion just doesn’t do it for me. The blogger lists 5 things she loves about YA three of which I don’t really get into (close/first person point of view, plot tropes such as high school dynamics and life as a series of firsts), the fourth of which I do like but didn’t find in this book (fast pacing) and the last of which (kick-ass female protagonists) I love but find plenty of in the ‘adult’ literature I read.

I’m glad I tried this book, it was quick read, I didn’t hate it by any stretch and I have satiated my curiosity about this relatively new phenomenon. But I won’t be hurrying to read any more.

What about you? Are you an adult reader of YA books? Do you get something out of them that is missing in ‘adult’ literature? Am I missing the point entirely?

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14 Responses to A review (of sorts) and musings on a strange (to me) phenomenon

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this review. The YA genre really is growing exponentially, and on one note, I am very happy about that. Anyone who gets young people reading and talking about books is doing a good thing, in my opinion. My personal taste doesn’t go to YA, to honest. But I truly respect a well-written YA novel, and I appreciate the genre for those who find their niche there.


  2. Dorte H says:

    You can cram me into that medium-sized elevator. I would never buy a YA novel unless a huge bunch of friendfeed folks recommended one, and write one? Nope, I don´t think so. I didn´t even get the attraction of being 17 the first time, and I did not read YA then either. Perhaps it is something i your DNA? Both my daughters stay away from any novel with protagonists of their own age. Great children´s fiction or crime with children as narrators is fine, though.


  3. @Margot, I agree that respect is owed to authors who can write good YA – I imagine it would be very difficult to get it right for such a fickle audience as teenagers!

    LOL @Dorte – I must admit that 17 was not my favourite time of life either 🙂 You might be lonely in your elevator…it seems everywhere I turn big name (and not so big name) authors are turning to YA.


  4. Laura Root says:

    I think that there’s quite a crossover in the fantasy and “dark romance”/vampire series between adult and YA. E.g. some of Terry Pratchett’s recent books such as the Tiffany Aching series are classed as YA, and the Stephanie Meyer et al vampire series. I recently pointed out to one of my colleagues that her new supernatural themed book was a Teen book despite her picking it from the Adult Fiction section 🙂


  5. Maxine says:

    I don’t consciously read YA fiction, but I’ve read books that I found out subsequently were “YA” (or teenage fiction as it is called in the UK). The best one of these is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon – told from the perspective of a boy detective (a theme treated well, as in What Was Lost). One of the nice things about that book was the shift in perspective (unreliable narrator) and another was the maths (chaos theory) -eg the chapter numbers.
    Another book in this category is Maisie Dobbs by Jaqueline Winspear, which I found quite superficial when I read it, as it covered serious and deep matters, then later found that it was originally intended as a YA book but had been sold initially as a “regular” book.
    The Harry Potter books are interesting in this regard, as they are written for teens (ish) but do evolve into very dark, tragic themes. I adored those, against my initial wish and judgement — just got sucked in, owing to reading them to children, listening to tapes (superb reading by Stephen Fry) in the car on holidays, etc.


  6. @Laura yes there does appear to be more crossover in some genres more than others – to be brutally honest I can’t think of anything I’d like to read less than a book for teens with paranormal themes – but that’s just me 🙂

    @Maxine I haven’t read the Mark Haddon book because by the time I got around to it I’d heard too much hype…I shall pick it up one day. I didn’t know that Maisie Dobbs was intended to be YA – that might explain why I didn’t think much of it either.

    The Harry Potter books are a bit of an exception to my own rule for me, I too read them with kids (someone else’s) – or at least I did in the beginning, by the time book 5 came out my god daughter was over the entire thing but I did read right through to the end for the sake of completeness – have to say though I skimmed large portions of several of the books (except when read for me by Mr Fry because…well he could read me the phone book and I’d be content).


  7. kathy durkin says:

    I haven’t read much YA fiction at all, am not attracted to it. Sometimes books aren’t meant as YA by writers, but then are marketed that way by the publishers after they’ve been pitched to adults, in order to get more readers. So I’ve seen adult books marketed as YA after they’ve been out for a month or two. So one can’t always tell on this. But it doesn’t appeal to me.
    I also haven’t cared for the Maisie Dobbs books, tried one, that bored me; it was superficial, no real substance. I didn’t finish it and haven’t tried that series again. Glad to see I’m in good company on this.


  8. OK, I’ll be the one to defend YA and even kid lit. I started reading them again when I had a baby and my sleep-deprived brain couldn’t pay attention to anything lengthy or complex but I still wanted to read. I discovered a number of great series (mostly mysteries but also fantasy) that I wished had been around when I was a kid — so I’ve just kept on reading them. It’s probably also partly that I’m finding good things for my daughter to read someday.

    On the other hand: can’t stand the whole vampire/dystopian/crazy people trends that are completely dominating the YA section of my bookstore right now. To each her own, I guess.


  9. Keishon says:

    Oh yes, I read YA literature. I love authors like C.K. Kelly Martin, Sarah Dessen and Melina Marchetta is in a class by herself. Most of those writers write romance with some family dynamics in the mix and social/peer pressure, etc. Sounds boring but these ladies make it seem fresh and different and they can tackle some serious issues like, abortion, death, etc. Truth is I love angst. I love YA because for me they tend to be more socially and racially diverse. Also a lot more risky. I love Megan Whalen Turner too and she writes historical fantasy. First book, The Thief is almost juvenile in prose, plot but the successive books in the series are much more complex and dark. I’ve been debating with myself if reading/reviewing YA novels at my website would clash with crime fiction but like a friend told me earlier when I asked, it’s my blog. I can write what I want on it but still…YA shouldn’t be passed up on the thinking that it’s only for young teens. Not always. I’ve often run across a title or two that could be a little too emotionally mature for younger teens. But for YA, I usually stick with historical, romance or mysteries, maybe some fantasy but not a whole lot.

    What do I get out of them? A good story. YA is really just another label to me which means it doesn’t signify much of anything.


  10. @Karen I’m sure I would feel differently about YA if I had kids of the relevant age…I must admit to thinking my youngest niece would love this book. And I did have a similar thought that it would have been great to have such choices when I was that age – I was reading ‘adult’ books long before I probably should have been because there simply wasn’t much written for teens back in the cave-person days when I was a youngster 🙂

    @Keishon I’m thrilled to hear that you get so much out of these books, and perhaps I am being too harsh (though I have to say angst is not my thing at all). I think you should review and discuss whatever you like on your blog too – it certainly wouldn’t stop me enjoying your blog. In fact some of my favourite blogs discuss books I’ll probably never read – I like being exposed to different ideas and thoughts, even if the books are not my cup of tea. And every now and again I do step outside my normal reading to sample something that a passionate reader has recommended 🙂


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  13. smiksa says:

    I don’t think Helen Grant could make up her mind about the nature of the audience she was writing for. I didn’t suspect it was meant for a YA audience until I saw that she was thanking her publishers for their input and one named was Puffin


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