Contemporary Young Adult Literature That Pushes Boundaries

I recently read two contemporary young adult books back to back: Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (Bloomsbury, September 29, 2009) and Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (Delacorte, September 22, 2009). Both books are similar in that they blur the line of “reality” and leave the reader wondering what really “happened” and what didn’t. The reason for the gratuitous quotation marks (lest anyone accuse them of being unnecessary) is: this is fiction. Technically, none of it is real.

contemporary young adult, realistic ya, postmodern ya, metafiction in ya
Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and realistic YA is changing to reflect this.

Questioning Reality

But even with fiction, the reader tends to assume that most things they read are true. Just like Micah says in LIAR, people expect truth, they need it. They want to believe. Similarly, readers want to believe a narrator, especially a first person one.

That’s what makes an intentionally unreliable narrator like LIAR’s Micah so challenging and so delicious. She revels in the falsehoods she spins, sometimes with (dubious, perhaps) apology, oftentimes without.  In the case of Cameron, from GOING BOVINE, his unreliability isn’t necessarily a choice, seeing as his brain is quickly deteriorating from the variant Creutzfeltd Jakob virus, or mad cow disease. Nonetheless, his view of the world is extremely skewed. Both narrators spend their arcs in the messy gray area between what might be happening in a realistic, linear plot and what they insist is the true story.

Contemporary Young Adult Lit and Postmodernism

Two such similar contemporary young adult books coming out in the same month makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in realistic YA literature. These books don’t just tell a story, they comment on the medium of the storytelling, on the life inside the story and outside of it, on reality itself, for both the characters and the reader. Postmodernism, in terms of literary criticism, refers to art that is self-conscious, self-referential. Metafiction, also at play here, means fiction that never lets the reader forget that they’re reading something somebody made up.

Evolution of Realistic YA

I think these books are an important bit of evolution, especially when I consider the young adults who will be reading them. The question of what reality is posed here is apt for teens growing up today, whose reality is augmented by technology, the Internet, social networking and virtual worlds that seem to nestle within each other like stacking dolls, among many other things. Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and contemporary young adult literature is changing to reflect this.

Every art form has a moment when it begins to fold in on itself and comment on the established tropes, the form, the function of its ancestry. I think this point has arrived for contemporary young adult literature — at least for the rich and extremely meaty incarnation of the genre that has developed into a market powerhouse over the last ten to fifteen years. More so than before, this fall and books like LIAR and GOING BOVINE seem to be leading the charge. I’ll be very curious to see if more and more boundary-bending, metafictional YA starts to emerge. Also, I can’t wait until reactions from teen readers pour in. I want to know whether or not these stories will resonate with a generation that gets more and more postmodern, that seems to press against it like a plane nosing the sound barrier, with every passing every nanosecond.

Are you working on realistic YA? YA is my favorite category to edit, and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

8 Replies to “Contemporary Young Adult Literature That Pushes Boundaries”

  1. This sort of reality-blurring interests me. I’m going to be writing a post-apocalyptic metafictional YA for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year.

  2. You make a very interesting observation about where YA writing is going. There are so many influences on culture and what interests young people nowadays, especially all this social networking. Great post, you’ve made me more curious for what’s to come!

  3. ” . . . makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in YA literature.”


    This is such an insightful analysis. I’m so glad that you’ve put this into words. Lately, I’ve been surfing Amazon reviews and I’ve noticed that there seems to be a trend of using these as a platform to critique the author rather than of the work itself. I’m concerned that this trend of not being able to separate the author from the work is a reflection of a shrinking suspension of disbelief . . . or worse, a shrinking comprehension of abstraction.

    I hope that this sort of “reality blur” in YA literature is every bit as timely and appropriate as what the Wayans did in Scary Movie and Dance Flick.

  4. Heidi Sinnett says:

    I love that YA can be so different than conventional fiction. It is what makes young readers different from older readers…..they aren’t chained to the idea of reality. Reality in YA fiction can be anything…as long as the voice is convincing and the plot captures them from the start.

    I loved that LIAR was so set in reality for most of the first part of the book. It made the story seem plausible, so that when the “truth” started coming out, the reader didn’t have to go far to understand it. I couldn’t put it down!

    I think if more adult readers let their imaginations free, the world of writing as we know it would change dramatically. But thank goodness for YA!

  5. Love your analysis of the evolution of YA writing! I just hope that while writers work on brand new mind bending ideas the ‘traditional’ childrens book doesnt fall to the wayside as ‘old fashioned.’ As a kid my imagination was fueled by such works as The Hobbit and The Sword in the Stone and some of my favourite memories of reading were getting lost in enchanted woods with my heros, elves, dwarves etc….sometimes it seems that in today’s writing market, unless you are doing a ‘new take’ on the traditional fantasy novel (i.e The Artemis Fowl series, Terry Pratchett’s work- both of I do like) if you write a ‘traditonal’ type character into your novel you are doomed!

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