Storytelling for All (Or As Many As Possible) Ages – Chris Nuttall
The youngest fan I have, at least as far as I know, is fourteen.
The oldest fan, again as far as I know, is in his eighties.
This surprised me, although – in hindsight – it probably shouldn’t. I wrote both of those series to be YA, with The Zero Blessing originally aimed at younger readers. On the other hand, I did my best to avoid many of the things I disliked in YA (and younger books) and worked hard to build up a semi-plausible pair of universes. The characters may be young – Cat is twelve – but they’re not childish.
I was still thinking of this when a fan asked if I’d ever read a book called Bras and Broomsticks. The title didn’t sound very promising, but the blurb – two sisters, one of whom has inherited her mother’s magic – sounded good. So I got a copy, read it and … well, I want that hour back. <Evil Grin>. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but the main character is very much an irritating teenage girl with stereotypical concerns (friendships, breast sizes, boyfriends, etc), the plot is depressingly predicable and the moral at the end somewhat trite. I have no doubt that teenage girls will like the story – it has some good reviews on Amazon – but it wouldn’t have appealed to me when I was a teenage boy.
This started me off thinking about other YA books I’d read as I grew up. Like most kids in my school, I read Judy Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. And yet, most of their books have not aged well to me. The one I loved most, when I was 10, was This Place Has No Atmosphere, a story about a girl who moves to the moon. This was no Heinlein novel of struggle and survival against the odds. No, it was a typical ‘teenager moves town, makes new friends, comes to terms with it’ set on the moon. When I looked back at it, a month or so ago, I found it hard to believe that I had ever loved the book. The handful of glimpses of future life do not make up for the simple fact that the story itself is just like thousands of other stories along the same lines.
And so I looked back through my old reading lists (and what part of my collection from those days remains intact.)
The books that still spoke to me were written at a number of different levels. The Worst Witch and its sequels and Hood’s Army are very clearly books for preteens; The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Little House, The Demon Headmaster and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are aimed at older children and young teenagers; Discworld, Heinlein’s juveniles and other books along those lines remain in my collection. They still speak to me, even though I am no longer part of the targeted audience. I still smile when I reread Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And why should I not?
(Is it actually a coincidence that most of these books didn’t turn out well when adapted for television or the movies?)
The books that no longer speak to me are legion. Judy Blume and Paula Danziger are no longer on my list of favourites. Enid Blyton is now thoroughly absurd; Milly-Molly-Mandy is ridiculously twee. Nicolas Fisk has not aged well. There are so many books that I have forgotten, over the years, that have made no impression on me at all. (And most of them don’t have the excuse of being jammed down my throat at school.) I vaguely recall reading a teenage romance novel when I was fourteen, but I have forgotten the details. And don’t even get me started on Twilight …
Thinking about it, most of the books I still like – and reread, sometimes – have a few things in common. On one hand, they don’t talk down to their readers. The Worst Witch is written for children, but it doesn’t treat kids as idiots. They also have likeable characters: Mildred Hubble, Christopher Chant, Matilda, Dinah Glass and even Harry Potter are likeable and, more importantly, relatable. (Christopher Chant, Harry Potter and Matilda have moments of delinquent behaviour, but they’re not openly malicious.) It’s easy to follow their stories and feel for them, even if they live in very different worlds. One can believe in them. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the stories aren’t focused on a particular age group.
The books I don’t like break some or all of these rules.
This Place Has No Atmosphere and Bras and Broomsticks, for example, feature teenage girls who are, in many ways, whiny self-obsessed little brats. The same can be said for most of the other books by the same author (the male characters have the same problem, with predicable results.) It’s difficult to like such characters, particularly if you happen to be twenty years older than them. You want to pick them up and shake them for being such annoying little morons. Other books, such as Twilight are so intensely focused on their target demographic that there’s no appeal to younger readers (who probably find it soppy) and older readers, who are aghast at all the unfortunate implications.
Thinking about it, there’s actually a further issue caused by focusing. It can and it does turn people off.
There are people who try to ban Judy Blume because she discusses – frankly, particularly for her era – issues such as menstruation and sex. On one hand, writing about this is a good thing. Children who are growing into teenagers, then adults, need explanations of what is happening to their bodies, instructions on how to handle it … and, most importantly, reassurance that they are not alone. On the other hand, these issues are often off-putting if you’re not part of the target audience. I found Judy Blume’s female-focused books to be uncomfortable, in many ways, and I suspect that many girls think the same of her male-focused books. Now, I feel that they haven’t aged well (which probably explains why so many parents want to ban them, forgetting what things were like when they were young.)
This has wider implications. Books tightly focused on a particular demographic will not always appeal to people outside that demographic. A teenage romance story would not have appealed to me as a teen, still less now. A story focused on a homosexual character grappling with his sexuality wouldn’t appeal to me either, even though I would have a great deal of sympathy for anyone caught in that position. I suspect that female readers are put off by exaggerated masculinity – although the success of Fifty Shades of Grey may argue that I’m wrong – just as male readers are put off by exaggerated femininity. If nothing else, a teenage male who reads Bras and Broomsticks will come away with some pretty silly ideas about teenage girls.
One does not need to discuss adult situations – either in the conventional sense or this – to write a children’s or YA book that appeals to all ages. But one does have to remember that focusing the book on one demographic tends to limit its appeal to other demographics …
… And that it isn’t the fault of those demographics that they don’t like the book.