Sick, sad or in need of comfort? Young adult fiction can be the perfect balm | Books

There’s something about a mild case of the flu that instantly sends me back to my childhood.

Usually, when illness strikes, I go to my parents’ house, pull out my teddy bear-shaped heat pack, and dramatically lay down on the couch, periodically asking for mac and cheese or cups of tea.

There, my favorite indulgence is taking a bath while regressing to my childhood library. It’s packed with my oldest and most beloved classics – Winnie the Pooh, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and the Famous Five.

After I hit my mid-twenties, my favorite teen young adult novels gave me the same pleasure. 2000’s seminal romance The Princess Diaries is a favorite, as is Sarah Dessen, both expressing the specific, all-consuming sentiment of a 15-year-old crush that is never achieved again.

When I fell ill this winter, however, it was the first time I had been sick and alone in a foreign city. I couldn’t go home with my old books and felt vulnerable in a new way. I stared at my library. I love The Bell Jar, but do I want to read it when I’m feverish and sweaty? Nobody makes me feel like Toni Morrison, but with a head full of snot?

Instead, I did what any reasonable adult would have done: I put on a mask, a comically large jacket, and went to a bookstore.

Thus began my obsession with young adult fiction, a category traditionally marketed to teens and tweens ages 12-18. In two days, I finished the entire Heartstopper series – a graphic novel and queer romance recently popularized by an extremely cute Netflix program.

I had dug my toes into it, and now I was ready to take the plunge.

A few days later, I went back to the bookstore, a little embarrassed, and bought all the works of fiction that Heartstopper author Alice Oseman has written. Solitaire – published when she was just 19 – was great, but I especially loved Radio Silence, a book I wish I had read as a teenager that skilfully navigates mental illness, school pressure and friendships.

Jeanmarie Morosin, head of children’s publishing at Hachette – which brought Heartstopper to Australia – says it didn’t surprise her that Oseman’s works appealed to older readers.

“For me, why young adulthood is such an emotional punch is that it brings you to a time before you’ve made all the big decisions in your life, when everything is in front of you and everything is dramatic,” she said.

“As an adult, you had loves that worked or didn’t work out, you chose your career – but it takes you back to that exciting time of being on the verge of becoming…you won’t have never again.”

“It takes you back to that exciting time of being about to become,” the screen adaptation of Heartstopper premiered earlier this year. Picture: Netflix

The books have changed since I grew up too. In those I read when I was in the target demographic, the romances were between a boy and a girl and characters of color took a back seat; they certainly weren’t talking about issues of gender and racial discrimination, like Starr in my next buy, The Hate U Give.

“YA was ahead of its time. It’s almost a problem if it’s not diversified,” Morosin says.

“It is a testimony and a reflection of the realities of the teenagers who read these books, of their expectations and the way they will express themselves about them. The publishers were catching up with this request.

“People grew up and didn’t see themselves reflected in books and art. By producing books for everyone, you create a safe space.

The most beloved authors of my childhood were Jacqueline Wilson and Cathy Cassidy – funny and warm British writers who heartily told stories of young girls in working-class families, unafraid to write about adoption and divorce. .

Wilson won the Guardian Award in 2000 for The Illustrated Mum, a beautiful novel about two sisters struggling with their mother’s mental illness and the messy way families love and care for each other.

She’s still writing books two decades later, at 76 — and so is Cathy Cassidy.

Cassidy described her own love of books for young readers in the Guardian’s list of her top 10 feel-good novels, which included Jerry Spinelli’s modern fairy tale Stargirl, Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom and my favorite, The Secret Garden. .

“We all love a book that makes us all feel warm inside, happy to be alive, even though it’s often touching, bittersweet stories,” she said.

Editor Morosin agrees: there is “comfort” in a familiar and beloved tale.

“You re-read them because you know what’s going on,” she says.

“It sounds corny, but…if I can give a kid that comfort and that nostalgia for the rest of their life, what a privilege.”