Bridging the Gap: Moving on from YA fiction to Adult and Classical Novels

Rosie works in a bookshop whilst studying English at Cambridge and has noted a common tendency of young adults to stick to Young Adult (YA) and teen fiction. Here are her tips on advancing reading skills for GCSE age or younger teens:

Having worked (and essentially grown up) in the children’s section of a bookshop I have a huge fondness for Young Adult fiction. It’s often the most progressive and daring new literature, not to mention crucial in shaping each new generation of readers. But, I’ve also noticed that children in Key Stages 1-3 are encouraged to read above their age range so that are constantly challenged. In this way their reading ability advances and they move onto increasingly more complex works. Although this system seems obvious it fails to pay enough attention to teenage readers. YA or ‘teen’ fiction is a broad term that can too easily be used to cover all of secondary school. If a book is accessible for enthusiastic 12 years olds, how can it also aim to cover 18 year readers who are about to begin higher education? Moreover is the simplicity of the writing not patronising for older readers, thus increasing their chance of getting bored? It’s important to acknowledge what YA adult readers are capable of and to encourage them to read fiction that we may refer to as ‘adult’ whether this is contemporary or classic texts. Not only is this essential in order for teenage readers to improve their reading ability, it is also ultimately extremely rewarding.

Grappling with longer and more demanding texts results in a deeper appreciation of story-telling as well as boosting confidence. Once you can manage a few ‘adult’ books the world of reading opens up and you will find something that may completely change your perspective on life. I am not claiming that YA fiction is not worthwhile reading. But for keen readers it’s necessary to encourage their abilities by their mid-teens and for those wishing to study humanities being widely read is essential. The progression to more complex writing doesn’t have to be immediate and it should be enjoyable if a little more challenging. I’ve suggested some of the best books at bridging the gap between YA and adult/classical fiction while still guaranteeing exciting and gripping stories. The following categories are to help guide you to finding what you like but the brilliant thing about these recommended titles is how many themes and genres they incorporate.

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Coming of Age Novel (Bildungsroman)

-      Novels exploring growing up might have teenage protagonists but they’re certainly not limited to the YA section. The Catcher in the Rye is a classic example of the Bildungsroman format. (That means it explores the emotional development of a young character and their anxieties as they find their place in the world).

-      Another one to try is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, it follows the path of a young intersex person attempting to take control of their own identity. It investigates immigration, heritage and gender in the modern world but weaves in Greek mythology furthering the sense we are following the protagonist on a truly heroic journey.

-      A beautiful piece of writing in this style is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s a phenomenal early 20th century novel revolving around the life and struggle for freedom of a young black girl in deeply segregated America. This is moving adventure that features an astounding exploration of the relationship between women and nature with characters so real you can practically hear their voices.

 Sci-Fi and Dystopian

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-      Dystopian has quickly become one of the most popular genres in young adult fiction with hugely successful series such as The Hunger Games or Divergent coming to define our idea of what young people read. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant book for the shift from YA to adult fiction with a compelling story but a more sophisticated reading level. She’s also written a huge amount and is a great author to get stuck into.

-      If you like action packed Sci-Fi then move onto Ready Player One by Ernest Cline a perfect example of a text that straddles the YA and Adult categorisation.

-      Or you could give the original dystopia a go with Orwell’s 1984. This may seem a little tricky at first but you’ll soon be fully immersed into the alternative world presented and notice the origin of cultural ideas such as ‘Room 101’ and ‘Big Brother’.

Romance

-      Possible my favourite genre but then I’m a sucker for love stories. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a sadly unappreciated novel by Anne Bronte in the epistolary style (written in the form of documents, in this case letters between friends). It reveals with extreme suspense the dramatic life and love of a mysterious woman who lives in a long abandoned mansion.

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-       O’Pioneers by Willa Cather and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton are two brilliant American novels I would also recommend. Both are complex but elegant portrayals of love and have excellently crafted plots-although I’d advise you to have tissues at the ready!

-      YA fiction also has a wonderful reputation for LGBT+ fiction which is well-deserved. These are really important books for young people to read but it’s interesting to give the older texts a go, perhaps thinking about how presentations of queer love have developed. You could pursue this interest with Claudine at School by Collete.

-      Or try Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; a breath-taking love letter to Vita Sackville West (Woolf’s lover). An incredible story of an androgynous, cross-dressing, time-travelling poet it plays with everything from art to gender. It is particularly suitable if you are a fan of David Leviathan’s hugely successful Everyday with a similar explore of love and identity.

-      If you’re particularly interested in this area you could also venture into Orange are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson which is viewed as extremely significant in the queer canon.

Mystery and the Supernatural

-      There’s lot of older and classical fiction with the similar suspense of YA bestsellers such as We Were Liars. I promise Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca will have you on the edge of your seat, never has my heart pounded so much while reading a novel! I won’t give too much away but it follows the marriage of a young woman who is overshadowed by her husband’s deceased ex-wife. With the terrifying Mrs Danvers and the atmospheric setting she begins to feel Rebecca, though dead, is well and truly the mistress of the house.

-      Beloved by Toni Morrison is a fresh take on the genre set just after the American Civil War. It revolves around a family only recently freed from slavery who have ghosts of all kinds to grapple with. It’s a moving story that merges historical fiction, mystery and surrealism into a haunting tale. For something more traditional The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a short horror for fans of the classic supernatural style.

-      If you’re eager for an author that’s fast paced, funny and always one step of head of you dive into Patricia Highsmith starting with The Talented Mr Ripley.

Something a little bit different….

-      These books are modern texts that avoid easy categorisation-and therein lies the fun! You will definitely encounter Zadie Smith if you enjoy reading but make sure not to miss NW or The Autograph Man for ingenious characters and a unique narrative style.

-      Angela Carter is a wonderful author whose electric writing has captivated many. Pick up Nights at the Circus for a dizzying adventurous novel filled with Victorian circuses, angels, bears, showgirls and the Tran Siberian railway.

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