I received a few books for Christmas and it made me think about how much I love reading. Which is funny, though, because when I look back there didn’t seem to be much YA in my library until about a year and a half ago. I basically skipped from Nancy Drew to Len Deighton and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (By the way, last week it was the 50th anniversary of the publication of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch. If you haven’t read it, it’s about an innocent man surviving in a Soviet gulag and it’s powerful, dystopian and uplifting. It was the first work of fiction to criticise Stalin and is credited with helping to lead to the fall of the Soviet Union – which isn’t bad for a short novel. It floored me when I was about 15.)
I read that, and The Ipcress File, and Jane Eyre, which I have recently tried to re-read and found tedious beyond belief, but at the time I found gripping and darkly sexy, and Jackie Collins (brilliantly plotted, great characters, very educational, in a 70s Fifty Shades kind of way), and George Eliot (I was passionate about Middlemarch – I still have my highly annotated copy), and Henry James.
Which was all great, and I’m sure today’s bookworm teens read a lot of similar stuff, but I doubt that any of those authors would have particularly said they were writing for a young adult. I love the debates that rage about what actually constitutes YA, and when it started. My go-to expert on this is the wonderful Luisa Plaja, who’s posted here herself, and who has read everything YA, seemingly from the dawn of time. She’ll be able to rattle off whole streams of genuine YA stuff from the 70s and 80s, when we were growing up, but it somehow passed me by or quite possibly I read it and then forgot I had. For example, I now absolutely love The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, but I think the first time I came across it was three years ago. I certainly wasn’t tuned into the American market enough, and I think I missed out.
One big exception is Endless Love, by Scott Spencer, which was made into a movie with Brooke Shields and Tom Cruise, and which BLEW MY MIND as an innocent Catholic schoolgirl, with its depiction of passionate, underage, blood-soaked lovemaking. That scene is, in fact, all I remember about it, but once I was over the shock I was very grateful to know that such things were possible, and also that I wasn’t the only highly hormonal, potentially obsessive teenager in the world who might think they were interesting – if a little, you know, gross. I’m pretty sure I borrowed somebody else’s copy and read it in secret. It makes me feel quite old to see today’s teenagers posing pictures of themselves on Facebook, lying on the beach with Fifty Shades – not that they’re reading it, but that they’re so cheerfully admitting to it. Times have changed.
Another slightly less guilty pleasure for me were Jilly Cooper’s series of stories about girls growing up and finding love: Emily, Bella, Harriet, Imogen, Octavia, Prudence and the short stories collected in Lisa & Co. I loved them because Jilly’s heroines were all kind, shy and desperate for a serious relationship, which felt very familiar, and her heroes were mad, bad and glamorous, which didn’t. Also, Jilly was, and is, brilliant at evoking a place and time, be it the English countryside just before a rainstorm, or the South of France in high summer. They were perfect escapism from school, complicated friendships and exams.
Re-reading a couple of them recently, what surprises me now, though, is how uncritically I – a career-minded girl, desperate to be a writer – accepted the limited horizons of Emily and the others at the time. YA fiction heroines have radically changed, and thank God. Katniss Everdeen is prepared to kill all enemies to survive. Poor Imogen is frightfully grateful to have the opportunity to make a secure, loving home for a slightly rogueish but adorable older man.
It’s not that I don’t still love the Jillys – I do. They’re readable and funny and full of beautiful locations and wicked, well-drawn characters. If you’re exhausted and wrung out after The Hunger Games, I recommend a quick trip to the Riviera with Imogen. But honestly, these lovely, lovely girls Jilly dreamed up want nothing more than to make omelettes and keep house for racy but tamed uber-boyfriends. I see them in a new light now, where the fantasy element that I get out of it is not so much requited love (which turned out to be a real-life possibility), but quitting your job and settling down in the country, and not worrying your pretty little head any more about things like work and changing the world.
I think that Jilly was probably one of the authors who inspired me to imagine glamorous, real-life worlds and put my characters into them. But whereas her girls went off into the sunset two steps behind their man, my girls tend to stand up to the man, and possibly over him, as they head out into their exciting, busy, hard-working lives.
The contemporary heroines I like to write about can be shy and kind, certainly, and they wouldn’t mind a serious relationship, but for each of them, her real epiphany comes not when she gets the boy (if she ever does) but when she realises she can be a rock for her friends or family, and when she works out where her skills lie, and what she wants to do with her life. Having found their inner confidence, they want to be designers, journalists, activists or photographers, and if there’s a boy involved he’s just going to have to keep up with them while they get on with it.