When is a novel a young adult novel? At the risk of glib tautology, if it’s written by a YA author and published by a YA imprint. Boundaries blur and marketing imperatives shift, making it difficult to discern from cover art alone. I’m not talking about that amphibious beast of publishing, the crossover novel, nor that fabled yeti, the oft-forecast but never realised heir to Harry Potter. No one has conquered the coveted eight-to-80 demographic the way JK Rowling did. And Potter was mid-range, anyway.
What, even, are the ground rules these days? Even the bitchiest high school dramas once veered away from swearing; now though, coy periphrasing is out and obscenities pepper the dialogue like punctuation marks.
A teenage narrator or central character is a significant but not clinching consideration. The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu (Dialogue Books, RRP£16.99), despite its YA-ish title and bold cover foregrounding the titular teen, focuses much of its witty narrative on Nnenna’s parents. There’s a cardinal rule in YA about treating parents as Other and keeping the focus on the teenage point of view. Adulthood is another country; they do things differently there. For this reason we must regretfully discount this well-written tale.
A teenage mindset does not preclude a keen awareness of the state of the world. Marcus Sedgwick is a YA writer with a glowing pedigree, and in Snowflake, AZ (Head of Zeus, RRP£12.99 — that price point for a hardback is very YA) he foregrounds a rootless 18-year-old. Ash is heading to Arizona to find his stepbrother, who’s holed up in an odd community secluded from the outside world. Dedicated to “the sensitives”, the novel deals with that vague, though genuinely debilitating illness: allergy to the modern world, taking inspiration from Sedgwick’s own diagnosis of ME. Although narrated by Ash, the wider focus on the adults around him and the seven-year timespan also rules this out as pure YA.
While Ash’s voice, with its cornball tone, feels a little hokey, Morgan Parker’s narrator sounds startlingly fresh, droll and authentic. Who Put This Song On? (Atom, RRP£7.99), based loosely on Parker’s own teenage diaries, paints a vivid picture of life as one of the few non-white students at a Christian, Republican-oriented high school. (Being set in a school, while not obligatory, is a fair indicator of a YA novel.)
Morgan, the protagonist, loves her white besties and is almost completely assimilated into their culture, but something still jars. “If I was white, I could come across as a knock-off Scarjo in Ghost World, or maybe the girl in Girl, Interrupted . . . But no one gives a shit about the black version of that.” There are many wincing, wokeness-inducing moments here, not least the excruciating scene where the class debates whether America is ready for a black president (it’s just pre-Obama), giving teen orators the chance to spout overt racism. Morgan’s relationship with her mother is also fraught — big YA tick there.
Rico Danger (pronounced Donga) in Jackpot by Nic Stone (Simon & Schuster, RRP£7.99) is another BAME heroine, still at high school and working shifts at the gas station to help her family. One day she sells a winning lottery ticket that goes unclaimed. She thinks she remembers the likely candidate, an elderly lady, and decides to track her down in the hope of netting a reward.
She enlists the help of her classmate, green-eyed hottie Zan, who would normally be out of her league. Her constant professions that “I hate hate hate him” don’t exactly convince. His family wealth comes from toilet paper, hence her designation of “Zanny Zan” as “the Sultan of Sanitary Supplies” and “the pee-pee paper prince”.
Rico’s constant sass gets a bit wearing, to be honest, and while the story develops in unexpected ways, that’s largely because the handling of the psychology of vast wealth is far-fetched. Jackpot lies on the facile end of the YA spectrum.
The best YA novelists easily stand comparison with their counterparts in literary fiction. Jenny Downham’s previous novel, the bestselling Before I Die, is a case in point. Her latest, Furious Thing (David Fickling, RRP£12.99), ticks a major YA box in showcasing ungovernable teenage emotion. Lexi smashes furniture and electronic equipment and throws stuff out of car windows when she’s vexed.
Beyond the drama, Downham skilfully shows us the vulnerability, while letting us intuit factors that Lexi herself is only dimly aware of. She’s the lightning conductor, and then the scapegoat, for dark forces in her mother’s relationship with the charming but toxic John. Above all, Downey’s writing evokes the piercing freshness of response when we experience things for the very first time. Lexi’s attempted seduction of the boy she worships is a masterpiece of shame and desire.