Commentary: Life – An Exploded Diagram


By Mal Peet

My problem is, I’m way too literal. When someone tells me that a book is Young Adult, I sort of believe it. And right, wrong or indifferent, for ME a Young Adult novel has to primarily revolve around a young person’s experience. Some YA historical fiction reads like adult historical fiction.

An adult historical fic can start with the protagonist at birth or even before the protag is born and I’m fine with that. I’m not okay with that if it’s a YA historical fic. Feel free to argue this point with me, but I’m not likely to budge. I like my YA about young adults!

So, in a nutshell that’s one of my issues with Mal Peet’s, Life: An Exploded Diagram. One of them.

In all fairness, the Worldcat summary of Life says:
In 1960s Norfolk, England, seventeen-year-old Clem Ackroyd lives with his mother and grandmother in a tiny cottage, but his life is transformed when he falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy farmer in this tale that flashes back through the stories of three generations.

So I’m warned that the story is told through three generations. But then it shouldn’t be YA. It makes me wonder if it was classified YA because they felt it was more easily marketed that way.

Okay, moving on…

Even if I ignored that the story was told over three generations, the other issue I had with Life was that the heart of the story “how Clem’s life is transformed when he falls in love with a daughter of a wealthy farmer” was lost in the detail of the Cuban missle crisis. The detail about the USA’s standoff with Cuba over nuclear arms should have been woven into how it impacted the characters. Instead, there was far more detail about the crisis, how it started and played out than I wanted. And the impact it had on Clem and Frankie felt like a side story rather than the main story.

I’ll put it this way, I can tell you more about Clem’s parent’s relationship and its quirks more than I can about Clem and Frankie. Their overall relationship felt…rushed. There was no good reason for Frankie to be attracted to Clem, but she was. And I took it on face value. But as soon as I was ready to throw myself totally into their romance that pesky nuclear arms crisis kept interfering.

As historical fiction goes, it’s a nice body of work. Had someone booktalked it to me alluding to the fact that an adult Clem is re-telling his life story – I would have probably lapped it up. I would have still had an issue with the level of detail about the arms crisis, but I would have come at the book in a different frame of mind. As it were, this was presented as YA. In that regard, it didn’t work as well for me.

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2 Responses to Commentary: Life – An Exploded Diagram

  1. I have had the same thoughts about what is being marketed as YA fiction these days. Like you, I think that a book that is YA should be about the experiences of young people (10-19 roughly) and told from a youthful perspective. I think that the “YA” designation really is about moving books these days.
    I recently read a book that was marketed as YA where the protagonists were in their twenties and having experiences and making choices that have nothing to do with the life experiences of a younger demographic. The story was intriguing enough in it’s own right, though I think that an older audience might be more demanding about plot. It makes me want to write a post called, “It’s ok for your book not to be YA.”

  2. paulahy says:

    Your point about an adult being more demanding about the plot is why it’s frustrating to me when a book feels like it’s being forced into YA. It’s as if some people think they can skimp on plot, character development etc for YA and that’s simply false.

    For me it’s mental – I come at books from a certain place be it what the jacket flap established or how the book is categorized. When it doesn’t deliver, even a good book (like Life was) will earn my disappointment. Life simply wasn’t YA to me. Good book, just not YA.

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