How do you define ‘young adult fiction’? Is it just a marketing category, or do all YA books share certain commonalities?* It’s a question that makes the rounds on a regular basis and, as there seem to be as many definitions as there are readers, the resulting conversation is never stale. Then again, I might just feel that way because I’ve never been able to nail down my own personal definition of YA without trotting out the old “I know it when I read it” pony.
I’ve been thinking about this on and off since reading Niall Leonard’s Crusher, which has been published for and marketed to the teen audience. It’s narrated by and stars a teenage boy, and it’s likely to be enjoyed by teen readers. And yet... as I read, I never got that YA feeling. Rather, Crusher felt like an adult crime novel with a teenage protagonist**. What’s the difference, right? Well, that's what I'm trying to figure out.
Read Bookshelves of Doom on Rae Carson's 'The Crown of Embers.'
The sticking point certainly wasn’t the premise: Seventeen-year-old Finn Maguire comes home from a crappy day at work, finds his father dead at their kitchen table and immediately becomes the prime suspect in the murder. Due to his frustration with Detective Prendergast’s pig-headed ineptitude—he won’t even consider Finn’s innocence and seems completely disinterested in, you know, justice—Finn begins his own investigation. That combination of tropes—Intrepid Young Sleuth Searching For A Parent’s Killer—has been used again and again in YA fiction. That’s not the issue.
Crusher has plenty of profanity, sex and violence... as do oodles of other teen novels, so that isn’t the issue either. Finn is a loner, has dropped out of school and has an understandably world-weary voice, but there are plenty of YA protagonists who also share those traits.
Here’s where I think Crusher diverges from my definition of YA fiction: There are no firsts, and there is no coming of age. When the book begins, Finn has already joined the adult world. He’s already dealt with major loss (when his mother abandoned him), is way past experimenting with mind-altering substances and he lost his virginity years ago. As he’s no longer in school, he’s working full-time—pretty much supporting the household. When his father dies, there isn’t a big reckoning about responsibility, finances or authority. His dealings with adults are all on adult terms; while he doesn’t get a whole lot of respect from them, that’s less about his age and more about his demeanor. In a nutshell, Crusher isn’t a crime story that also portrays an aspect of the teen experience. It’s a crime story, period.
While Leonard is a debut novelist, he’s not a debut author—he’s written for some fantastic television shows, most notably Wire in the Blood—and his television background is evident in Crusher. The dialogue is especially strong and the action sequences are cinematic. But it often feels like Leonard is directing his characters to emote, rather than describing what they are actually feeling. While I’m sure that the book will find an audience, it’s likely that Leonard will get more attention due to the identity of his wife than due to the content of this book—he’s married to E.L. James, which makes him Mr. Fifty Shades of Grey.
*I’m not asking rhetorically, by the way. I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below!
**Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Let's be honest. If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is most likely being tragically unproductive due to the shiny lure of Pinterest.