After rambling through some contemporary young adult titles in the past few months, I suddenly had an urge to return to an old favorite, The Giver. Rereading Lois Lowry’s iconic dystopian tale confirmed a feeling that has been building in me for quite some time now: young adult books were better in the nineties. Sure, the nineties had some misses–like Angus, Thongs and the Full Frontal Snogging–but it also has its treasures, especially if you fudge the edges of the nineties to include the late eighties.
For one thing, having quality prose still seemed to really matter back then. Lowry’s writing rings in its perfect simplicity, understated and compact, but without a single unnecessary word. It has a style and a class which few of today’s titles care to match.
Then there is the issue of romance in young adult fiction. A romance angle of some variety–preferably the beloved triangle–seems all but mandatory in today’s YA. One has to wonder if publishers would consider The Giver if it appeared in their mailboxes, given the almost absence of romantic intrigue. While I agree that love is an important element in young adult fiction, present-day insistence on slapping a potential sweetheart into the mix by page 20 can trip up the character development of the hero/heroine. I’m particularly nostalgic for the rough-and-tumble feminist heroines of the late eighties/early nineties seen in the writing of authors like Robin McKinley, Garth Nix, and Tamora Pierce. The romance feels so much more meaningful and genuine when you first develop the world and the characters.
Young adult literature also doesn’t appear to have been as fad-driven in the 1990s. There was no dystopian craze when Lowry published The Giver and supernatural hadn’t kicked off yet. This could be because young adult fiction was not yet the economic titan that it is today, which allowed books driven by quality to trump those made primarily for their commercial potential. With the sizable fortunes some writers have amassed–Stephanie Meyer, Julie Kagawa, etc.–young adult fiction has become the “get rich quick” genre.
Like The Giver, many other nineties titles are driven by deep issues which seem to find less expression in today’s YA. Books like The Giver spark thinking, questioning, and conversation. They make you wonder about life and society in ways you hadn’t considered before. Much of this raw power, seen in titles like The Giver, is over-distilled by factors like strong romance plot lines and commercial necessities which have altered how authors approach young adult writing in the present.
In sum, both publishers and writers need to take a moment, step back, and re-examine their roots.