Bridge of Clay and YA Novels
What are the parameters of the YA novel? Is Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay still YA? I asked myself this as I read this gorgeous novel. If you’re writing a novel that focuses on the protagonist(s) during the teen years, you might wonder if this automatically makes it a Young Adult work. Looking at Bridge of Clay helps us to understand that the answer is no. Whether a book is YA depends on much more than the age of the characters. Though the parameters of the YA novel have changed over the years, this truth remains: teens read to find themselves in books (as do we all).
Over the past two years, I’ve collected a stack of YA novels that I haven’t had time to read because real life has been interfering. (Full confession: I actually have about two hundred unread books on my book shelves at home, but most are not YA and most have been there for more than two years. You are a reader/writer, so I know you have the same addiction/hoarding problem and that your sympathies are with me.) Bridge of Clay was published in the US in 2018. I picked it up because I loved The Book Thief and figured it was a good bet that I’d love this one, too.
I was right on the bet—and next week I will talk about some of the things Zusak does in the novel that make it such a moving reading experience. But I’m puzzled about why it has been marketed as YA. I asked some other teacher librarians. Two have Bridge of Clay in their high school libraries, but no one (including them) has read it. Another read it and loved it, but doesn’t have it in their grade 6-12 library. The last, who is retired, read it and loved it. He noted that Bridge of Clay is marketed as an adult book outside the US. (He wrote a review of the novel here.)
Bridge of Clay Overview
The outline of the story: Five Australian boys are deserted by their father after their mother dies of cancer. They become pretty wild, are a rough and tumble lot. They are desperate for meaning and for love. “We swore like bastards, fought like contenders, and punished each other.” There are, of course, secrets and the author shifts and sifts through time in order to bring them out. In order to fully understand their lot and the outcome, we need to encounter many weird pets, a piano, problems at school, running in a self-punishing manner, Greek tragedies, horse racing, girlfriends, the deadbeat dad, the dad in the days when he was a better man, the history of the mother all the way back to the Soviet Union, and finally the building of a mortarless bridge.So, yes–it’s a long book, wandering book. As it’s not my objective to write a review, have a look at the Washington Post’s Ron Charles’ take for a thoughtful one.
The Parameters of YA Change (a bit)
I spent many years as a high school teacher librarian. I’ve read many hundreds of YA novels, booktalked more than I could count, and have reviewed some of those I’ve enjoyed. I’m currently writing a contemporary YA novel.
Having spent so much time with YA fiction, I’ve recognized some changes over the years. In my earliest foray into YA, I found that parents were absent, emotionally absent, or, if present, often the cause of all the conflict that made the novel interesting. All the novels centered on teen problems–family issues, drug addiction, emotional or physical abuse, school problems, bullying. In an Atlantic article on what “YA” means, Michael Cart, well-known expert on YA Literature, is quoted as saying that YA traditionally discusses “problems, issues, and life circumstances of interest to young readers aged approximately 12-18.”
It’s still true that, in some way, the kids in YA are being tossed to the curb. Whether the book takes place in contemporary life, in another world, in the past or the future, teens have troubles and usually lack competent helpers. The Hunger Games is a truly horrifying (and riveting) example. But all the way back, decades ago, I can remember simple setups using the above mentioned issues–Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, The Chocolate War, The Outsiders, Summer of My German Soldier. Periodically, more nuanced adults appeared. An example is in Judy Blume’s Forever, (even though elements of the novel read like a cautionary guide on STDs and pregnancy). Deliver Us From Evie by M. E. Kerr, the 1990s story of a gay girl living in a small conservative and judgmental farming community, includes parents who are ahead of the fictional parenting curve.
Current Parameters Include Adult Emotional Complications
Yet, it seems to me that more recently YA books have gotten more emotionally complicated. Either that or by sheer luck I am just reading more complicated ones. There will always be a place for the long, repetitive bloody hell of books like those in the Divergent series. But when I read a novel like The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, I think it’s more nuanced. We have the set-up with the main character expecting to move through all the teen drama cliches, but the author flips these over. And the parents flip with them. Their lives are also complicated, and they are trying their best. Sometimes, as in this novel, that’s all a lot of fun. In the Atlantic article mentioned above, Michael Cart, also says that these days, young adults encompass the ages between 10-25 years. When we consider that people up to the age of thirty are regularly reading YA fiction, we can see why adults are now portrayed differently than they had been in earlier works.
Why Bridge of Clay is not YA
Yet, even with the changes to YA fiction, I don’t see Bridge of Clay as belonging to that group. I’m afraid to say this because I think someone will conclude that I find teens mentally dull, incapable of working through (or of loving) a difficult piece of literature. This is far from the truth. I’ve spent too many years around teens both as an English teacher and a high school librarian to be able to ignore the deep thinkers. August by Bernard Beckett comes to mind when I want to recommend a weirdly philosophical book.
My issue more or less boils down to this: When readers select books outside their age category, it appears that adults read ‘down’ to an earlier age. Teens don’t read far ‘up.’ This makes sense. All adults were once teens and before that, children. They have the real life experiences that are the topics of the books. They may still be trying to work out some of their childhood and teen issues. Think of the popularity of Wonder with adults, which really is a middle grade book. If teens read to find themselves in books, they might not be able to do so when the characters are significantly older. (Be honest: did you want to read about a midlife crisis when you were sixteen?)
So–it’s not that there aren’t teens who would connect with this wonderful novel. But I think they are the same ones (the few, in my experience) who read mostly adult fiction.
The Lesson for the YA Writer
This is my point for YA writers: if your novel has adults looking back over the entirety of their lives, and if they are reflecting on it with adult sensibilities; if you are coming at the action, characters and theme through an oblique message and style, you probably aren’t going to have many YA readers. You are writing an adult novel.
Quite possibly a very good one. Bridge of Clay is an example of that circuitous walk through youth into adulthood.
Note: On my writing blog, I continue to look at some of the things that Zusak does that make his writing so lovely. (Less about the book and more about the words, sentences, and use of figurative language.) I’m not going to post that here as this blog is more about the books, but if you are interested in discussions of writing, please subscribe to VictoriaWaddle.