ASK an adult what young adult fiction is about and, unless you have happened upon someone who actually reads it, you will probably get answers along the lines of: dating, sex, drugs, parent problems, sports, school. ... Put all the answers together and you will still have only part of the truth. The ``young adult problem novel'' flourished in the 1970s and continues today in the many novels in which a not particularly interesting teen-age narrator relates, in a flat, supposedly conversational style the range of problems with which he or she has coped in a summer or a school year. Read 10 of these and you will be unable to recall which problems go with which narrators. Not that it matters much, since the books themselves are more or less interchangeable.
Fortunately, however, there is much more to young adult fiction than forgettable novels like these. Stray to the young adult section of a bookstore or library and you will find historical novels, mysteries, science fiction, fantasies, and a full range of contemporary subjects. Many young adult novels are good; some are extraordinary. Take the time to read a few of the best, and your ideas about young adult fiction will never be the same. Chances are you'll be impressed and intrigued.
Mystery fans would do well to look for Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke (Knopf, New York, 1987). In the pre-Sherlock Holmes London of the early 1870s, 16-year-old Sally Lockhart is confronted with a mystery the great detective himself would have relished. Pullman gives us a memorable cast of characters, including some truly nasty villains drawn from London's seamiest slums. The historical atmosphere is convincing, the plot intricate, the pace relentless, the conclusion unexpected and satisfying.
Theodore Taylor chooses the American West as the setting for his historical novel, Walking Up a Rainbow (Delacorte, New York, 1986). Historical novels for young adults are rather scarce and this one is a gem, brimming with danger and adventure, completely believable, yet told with the wry humor of a tall tale. Susan Carlisle narrates most of the story, which involves her arduous journey to California and back home to Iowa to sell her flock of sheep to pay off her late father's debts. You'll be rooting for Susan every inch of the way. Even ifyou would never dream of reading a Western, this novel is impossible to resist.
Family life has always been one of the staple topics of young adult fiction, but in her unusual, densely woven novel, The Tricksters (Margaret K. McElderry Books, Macmillan, New York, 1986), Margaret Mahy gives the old subject several new twists.
The Hamilton family has gathered at their vacation home, Carnival's Hide, along the coast of New Zealand, for a midsummer Christmas holiday none of them will ever forget. Enter the sinister, but oddly charming tricksters: Ovid Carnival and his twin brothers Hadfield and Felix. They say they are related to the original Carnivals of Carnival's Hide, but 17-year-old Harry suspects she has somehow conjured them up from the pages of the wildly romantic novel she's been writing.
Or are they ghostly manifestations of Teddy Carnival, the young man who drowned here long ago? Mahy creates an eerie atmosphere worthy of a classic gothic novel and suspense worthy of a first-rate thriller.
As for fantasy fiction, it seems that all too much of it is published nowadays. Many fantasy novels are heavily derivative of J.R.R. Tolkien and have little new to offer. What Robin McKinley does to perfection in The Blue Sword (Greenwillow, 1982) and The Hero and the Crown (Greenwillow, New York, 1984) is take some of the standard elements of fantasy and with her uniquely personal vision make them fresh and delightful again.
McKinley's young heroines are thoroughly likable and she has another gift that lifts her books far above the ordinary. She writes about animals as no one else can. Anyone who has ever felt a special bond with a cat or dog, or who has wished to feel such a bond with a horse, will find much to like in her books. Fantasies as captivating and as memorable as these come along only rarely.
You'll find quality and variety in young adult fiction. What you generally won't find is the attitude of sophisticated despair that often permeates adult novels, especially ``serious'' ones. You also won't find many young adult novels in which you can't bring yourself to care about any of the characters.
Which is not to say that these novels are overly sentimental or blindly optimistic. They're not. But the best of them have everything you expect in a good novel: inspired writing, well-conceived plots, three-dimensional characters. Standards for good fiction are the same regardless of its intended audience. Hunt for the best of young adult fiction and you'll see how well it measures up.