If you can get past the thick fog of casual snobbery that always seems to envelop this subject, it seems perfectly obvious that a lot of the most interesting writing happening in the English-speaking world just now is being published as YA (young adult) fiction. Obvious, at least, to those who actually bother to read it, rather than those who don’t but still comment on how it is all, necessarily, unsophisticated, derivative, and shallow. Yes, of course there’s some bad YA writing out there, which is bad, and then there’s also some really good writing, which is really good—and everything in between.
While writing for teenagers wasn’t invented in the last decade or two, it has certainly, in that time, gained a visibility, a range, a thoughtfulness, even a sort of urgency, with powerful stories asking important questions in a new and irresistible array of voices. There is a generation of twentysomethings in the Anglophone world whose key texts, the books that made them readers, were books we might consider YA. And indeed, reader surveys have shown that many of the books thus categorized in fact sell to those over eighteen in greater numbers than to those below that age. Some may fear that this trend is a symptom of the way adulthood is becoming infantilized, but we see it quite differently, as an encouraging indication that there are certain things that, quite simply, the best YA fiction has lately been getting very right.
But while the YA scene in the English-speaking world shows a branch of publishing that is dynamic, burgeoning , at the forefront of exciting new literary trends, how true is this elsewhere? English-language readers have little opportunity to find out.
If very few adult titles are translated into English, the number of YA titles making the journey is even smaller. It’s well nigh impossible to find other countries where YA writing is being published in quite the staggering volume as it is in the US and UK and other Anglophone markets, but there are plenty of places where it is thriving most energetically. Yes, the Nordic countries and other parts of northern Europe, as one might expect, but other places, too—and the quality of what is being produced is phenomenal. And yet an apparent fear of translated literature is leading us to miss out on this whole world of compelling new stories and points of view. This is one of the reasons we were so delighted at this opportunity to put together this month’s issue of Words without Borders, to share some of them with English-language readers.
In selecting work for the issue, we approached publishers and agents, translators and authors, all of whom were eager to share the best writing for young people that their countries (or beloved languages) had to offer. While some were very familiar with the concept of YA as understood in the US or the UK, in other cases we had to adjust the question. Do you have any books aimed at teenagers—i.e. not children? Or, Are any of your adult publishing houses launching outstanding books written from the perspective of young characters? In addition to the obvious spinoffs of bestselling franchises, we received a number of stories where an adult narrator simply told the children in the book how the world was: the young characters were almost an afterthought. This led us to some interesting questions about the boundaries between childhood and adulthood in different countries, and indeed what it is to be young around the world. In many countries where YA does not exist as a concept, a novel aimed at teenagers often means a manuscript penned by a teenager, about his or her own life (usually written in English, in order to optimize their chances at publication). One of our selections, the novel Counting Out, by the Georgian writer Tamta Melashvili, was published by an adult house in its original country and went on to win the YA category of the German Children’s Literature Award.
For this issue we’ve selected nine pieces from nine different languages—Norwegian, German, Bengali, Mexican Spanish, Québécois French, Swedish, Palestinian Arabic, Georgian, and Korean; pieces which range widely geographically, thematically, generically, tonally. One might perhaps argue that these nine have little in common, apart from what we see as their exceptional quality, though certain preoccupations that tend to loom large in YA writing—challenges of belonging, independence, identity— do recur.
We have a funny and poignant graphic novel about teen pregnancy in Norway, and a window onto the perils of war-torn Georgia as experienced by young girls caught between tragedy and boredom. We travel back to Communist Berlin with a group of disaffected teenage boys, and travel out of time, seemingly, to an Inuit community in northern Canada. In Korea we find magic and neglect; in Bangladesh the old world of corporal punishment collides with the technological era. Gender politics gets a sci-fi twist in Sweden, while in Palestine a young girl bursts with questions about ordinary life in an extraordinary time. And in Mexico, the act of writing itself takes on a horrifying significance.
Our aim was to find voices that made us sit up and think, books that deserve a place on bookshelves alongside the very best Anglophone writers. We hope you enjoy the selection as much as we enjoyed compiling it.
© 2014 Briony Everroad and Daniel Hahn.