The Underappreciation of International YA Literature

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Read any good British YA lit recently?

As a U.K.-based book blogger, I’m constantly surprised by how few British books manage to successfully make their way to publishing houses abroad. Most of my favourite British books are unknown by my American friends, including books which are considered national treasures on this side of the pond.

In a typical Teen section of Waterstones, my favourite U.K. bookstore, over half of the books on the shelves are written by American authors. A quick survey on Tumblr found that readers of other nationalities shared similar experiences: in their local bookstores, American YA is featured prominently, while books by local authors are not featured to the same extent.

It’s not hard to understand why. Tthe American market for YA books is a lot larger than that of any other country. American YA is popular abroad because the books, films and TV shows consumed by teenagers in countries all across the world are saturated in American pop culture. It’s easy for a British teenager to pick up a Sarah Dessen novel and understand the references to American food products or the U.S. schooling system. We know that sweater is the American word for a jumper. We know that your jelly is our jam. American spellings in novels for young children are usually edited, but it’s rare to see British spellings in a U.K. edition of an American YA novel. It’s not a concern of publishers, because non-Americans grow up with Americanisms all around them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of American YA. Despite what snobbish book critics would have us believe, current young adult literature is popular for good reason. It’s a category rich with variety and originality and gorgeous, sweeping prose. I’ve read many great British young adult novels, and many great American young adult novels. I’ve read a few books from Irish, Australian and Canadian authors, and a very small smattering of books from other English-speaking countries. But what truly concerns me is that I know next to nothing about YA novels written by authors in India, or China, or France. I can count on one hand the number of books by international authors that I’ve read in translation. If the YA novels of English-speaking countries are so universally relatable that they are translated and published worldwide, why are only a miniscule fragment of the best-selling, award-winning YA novels of other countries granted the same treatment?

The explanation is simple – publishers (along with film and television producers and most of the rest of the entertainment industry) are still unconvinced that there’s a market for culturally diverse stories. While British YA might not be as universally popular as American YA, British culture is at least recognisable enough that many British series have found success abroad. What really saddens me is that there are so many other underappreciated books in the world – books that most American or British readers will never experience.

As I’ve stated, I can’t comment on those books, as much as I’d love to. I can share some recommendations of unknown or underappreciated books from my own country. Some are better known than others, but all deserve more attention overseas. I hope this list encourages some readers to take a chance on a British book – or to share their own international YA recommendations!

Noughts and Crosses (Noughts and Crosses #1) by Malorie Blackman
Malorie Blackman is a national treasure here in the U.K. and her Noughts and Crosses quartet is much-beloved by British teenagers. Despite that, it seems few non-British readers have heard of her. Set in an alternate society run by the dark-skinned ruling class, Blackman’s story of love, loss, racism and classism is a must-read. (Previously published as Black and White and Naughts and Crosses in the U.S.)

 

Before I Die by Jenny Downham
With just a few months left to live, Tessa Scott compiles a list of things to do before she dies. Released from the constraints of ‘normal’ life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Fans of The Fault in Our Stars will adore Before I Die.

 

 

Incarceron (Incarceron #1) by Catherine Fisher
A gorgeously well-written sci-fi adventure. Incarceron is a living, breathing prison as large and inescapable as the world outside, where the descendants of the original prisoners have been trapped for hundreds of years. Only one man has ever escaped the prison, but Finn, a young prisoner who dreams of life outside, is determined to be the second.

 

 

City of Masks (Stravaganza #1) by Mary Hoffman
Stravaganza follows a group of teenagers able to travel between modern-day London and an alternate-reality 16th century Italy. Drawing inspiration from actual key players and events in Italian history, Hoffman’s historical fantasy series combines magic and mystery with the stark realism of contemporary YA, as each of her protagonists is plagued by very real issues faced by modern British teenagers.

 

Raven’s Gate (The Power of Five #1) by Anthony Horowitz
Best known for his Alex Rider series, Horowitz has recently completed The Power of Five, a fast-paced fantasy adventure series spanning five books. When dark gods banished long ago rise again, five teenagers from very different walks of life, Matt, Pedro, Scott, Jamie and Scarlett, discover that they are humanity’s only chance for survival. Horowitz leads his chosen five on a whirlwind quest around the world to find each other and banish the Old Ones once and for all.

 

The Declaration by Gemma Malley
Immortality is freely available, but it comes at a price. Those who take the Longevity drugs must sign the Declaration – a promise to never procreate and risk overpopulating the planet. Malley’s The Declaration is a brilliant, heartfelt novel set in a dystopian society which is frighteningly similar to our own.

 

 

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking #1) by Patrick Ness
A dark, fast-paced story written in a unique, engaging style, Chaos Walking is an addictive and thought-provoking series. Book bloggers prettybooks and distantheartbeats are currently hosting #ReadChaos in an effort to encourage more people to read this sadly under-appreciated trilogy.

 

 

Pirates! by Celia Rees
A historical drama for young teenagers, set in the 18th century. The daughter of a wealthy merchant and a slave girl from Jamaica form an unlikely friendship. Together they go in search of adventure, love, and a new life that breaks all restrictions of gender, race, and position.

 

 

The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus #1) by Jonathan Stroud
One of Britain’s more successful series, but still sadly underrated abroad, Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy is a sweeping, hilarious fantasy series about a boy magician and his temperamental djinni companion. Bartimaeus himself is brilliantly witty and sarcastic – this series is perfect for fans of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments.

 

 

Blood Red Road by Moira Young
Young was born in Canada, but now lives and writes in the U.K. Written entirely in dialect, her Dust Lands series is a wonderfully atmospheric post-apocalyptic western about one girl’s search for a safe place for her family in a world run by cutthroats and savages.

 

 

If you’re interested in finding out more about British YA literature, I recommend visiting UKYA, a site dedicated to showcasing Young Adult fiction by British writers.

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About Author

Lucy Nisbet

Lucy is an English teacher-in-training and a self-confessed book nerd. She often buys more books than she can reasonably afford or possibly have time to read. Her Hogwarts letter is now several years too late, but she’s sure it’s just gotten lost in the post.

2 Comments

  1. Lucy Nisbet

    I agree, Suzanne – with the popularity of high fantasy stories like Graceling and other books by American authors set outside the U.S., like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, it’s clear that YA readers are perfectly accepting and interested in reading about other countries and cultures. Thanks for those two recommendations!

  2. Suzanne van Rooyen on

    Excellent article! As a South African author living in Finland, I can relate to this. There are so many great YA books written by South African (like John van de Ruit) and Australian authors (like Cath Crowley) – even if they’re not always marketted as YA books – that are barely known outside of their home countries. This is so sad! And yet, following reader blogs, so many readers seem keen to read about different cultures and different countries, so why isn’t there more diversity? I hope things start to change…