I was so lucky to get to both days of YALC – an amazing celebration of young adult literature, set up by the wonderful Malorie Blackman.
This was the first event I attended after struggling through the unbelievable – and spectacularly dressed – queues. It was very much standing room only to hear Blackman, Patrick Ness, Sarah Crossan and James Smythe discuss dystopian fiction. Its appeal to teenagers, they felt, is that it reflects the darkness and fears many teenagers experience. Not having books that explore dark themes, said Ness, abandons young people going through terrible things. (Utopian fiction, in contrast, would be intensely boring. Blackman had read Dante’s trilogy. Hell was by far the best, she told us.) Touching on the controversy created by the awarding of the Carnegie medal to Bunker Diary, all were adamant that books for young people should not all end hopefully. Realism is more important. Blackman declared that if she’s not offending someone, somewhere she is not doing her job properly. Interestingly, most of the authors never set out to write dystopian fiction, instead writing the stories that grab them, preferring not to be defined by genre. The panel firmly rejected the notion that YA is in itself a genre – a rejection shared by many subsequent speakers.
Next up was a fascinating discussion about graphics and adaptation with Emma Vieceli, Marcus Sedgwick and Ian Edgington, chaired by an impressively clad Sarah McIntyre. Between them, they have produced a huge array of original graphics and adaptations ranging from Shakespeare to Horowitz. All are delighted by the diversity now in graphics. Sedgwick started writing graphics to get rid of writers’ block. Until then he had no idea of the rules governing their publication. Exceeding word counts in standard fiction is not a problem but increasing the page count in a graphic massively impacts on costs. Edgington held up his 200 page draft adaptation of Noughts and Crosses, telling us his publishers will have a heart attack when they see its length. Blackman has been an excellent author to collaborate with, he said. All view good communication between writer and artist as essential. Sedgwick does not mind if elements of his books get lost in adaptation, so long as their heart is retained. Vieceli works with lots of authors and also writes herself, with the intriguing result that the artist and the writer parts of her are often in conflict.
It was great fun hearing Blackman, Sedgwick and Ness again, along with Charlie Higson, Andy Lane and Steve Cole, on the subject of writing Dr Who stories, something all of them had clearly loved doing. The opportunity to create fictional universes was a particular appeal. Blackman also relished ‘chucking in lots of technical stuff’, and turning Dalek norms on their head by having one telling a story to a child. She longs to write a television Dr Who episode. In response to a question about the lack of diversity in Dr Who, the panel were clear it would not work to write a Dr Who story specifically to be inclusive – it would have to come from the story. Blackman talked too about the need for diversity in terms of writers, cast members and production staff.
This was the panel for ‘Bring me my dragons’. Frances Hardinge, Amy McCullough, Jonathan Stroud, Ruth Warburton and Marc Alpin were highly entertaining on YA fantasy. Like several of the panels, they explored the concept of YA literature, and rejected any notion that it is a genre, or that it is only for teenagers. In the words of McCullough’s publisher, ‘YA is a state of mind, not an age range’. Readers of YA, they felt, are united not by age, but by a willingness to ‘unpick their world’. There is a gratifyingly large range of YA heroes, most with the capacity for change. None of the authors write with an ideological manifesto, however fantasy YA often raises questions, for instance about loyalty and trust. For Hardinge the story always comes first, not moral issues, but inevitably these crop up, and fantasy is a great place to explore them. The authors all write what they would have liked to read as teenagers.‘I’m too sexy for this book’ was definitely a highlight. James Dawson donned his new Queen of Teen crown to introduce panellists Cat Clarke, Non Pratt and Beth Beekles. He loves the positive, non-judgmental way they all write about sex. All write realistically about it because that’s what they wanted to read as teenagers. Only Dawson has ever has been asked by publishers to remove any part of their sex scenes. Beccles, many of whose readers are 11 or 12, does make sure that her writing is not too graphic. Like authors on several of the panels they are totally against age-banding on books. They discussed the taboo around sex in YA books, and the paradox that it is often deemed less acceptable than violence, which, unlike sex, is damaging and destructive. They pointed out that books about sex are a much safer source of information than internet pornography. Dawson tries to engage parents rather than seeing them as enemies – in two books he includes guidance for parents on how to use them with their children. Librarians were identified as potential gatekeepers, under pressure from parents and sometimes from senior managers to limit the availability of books with a sexual element. There were tales of school librarians booking these authors for visits but having to restrict what they could talk about. Pratt made a clarion call for every school to have a librarian, to help teenagers make reading choices that are right for them.The discussion about crossover fiction with Matt Haig, Anthony McGowan, Meg Rossoff, Nick Lake and David Maybury was lots of fun. Like other panels, they debated the defining characteristics of YA. The key one, according to this panel, is not the protagonist’s age, but their perspective. In YA the perspective is that of someone going through the tunnel of adolescence rather than looking back on it. Rossoff cited Hamlet, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and lots of Dickens as coming of age literature. YA is about questioning – it’s a place to explore big themes. There wasn’t unanimity over whether there are any restrictions in writing for teenagers. Some of the authors had come under pressure to change certain scenes and to remove swear words, while Haig feels freer writing YA than writing adult fiction. Like many other speakers at YALC, he made clear that YA is not a genre, that teenagers are very open to reading across different genres, and that ‘good things happen’ when writers blur boundaries. Rossoff pointed to the interesting fact that over half of YA sales are to adults, which led to an impassioned debate about ‘good’ reading versus ‘escapist’ reading. McGowan came under light-hearted fire for suggesting that reading The Brothers Karamazov before you die would be of more value than reading Twilight for the nineteenth time.This was the final discussion I went to, ‘Sisters doing it for themselves’. Sarra Manning introduced speakers Tanya Byrne, Holly Smale, Julie Mayhew and Isobel Harrop as not only the best line-up of the entire convention, but also the one with the most X chromosomes, most oestrogen and most boobs. I loved their mix of literary heroes: Petrova Fossil in Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, Matilda, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Stephen King’s heroines and Dick King-Smith’s Sophie. In their own writing all draw on their experiences and feelings as teenagers, though that does not always mean their protagonists are like them. Emily in Byrne’s novel Heart-Shaped Bruise in no way resembles her author. All the panel like to create characters who have vulnerabilities and who make mistakes. Perfect characters are not only unrealistic, they potentially add to the pressures girls are under to be perfect. Smale wants to celebrate all aspects of being female through her characters. She and others try to downplay looks as important. Byrne limits the physical descriptions of her characters, and avoids judgmental and subjective adjectives like ‘attractive’. I was fascinated that both Byrne and Mayhew create Spotify lists for their different characters to help get into their heads.
I wish I could have attended more events, but this was all my brain could cope with, though I did have just enough energy to take in the lovely book wall. A terrific weekend. It was great to meet lots of friends and colleagues, and inspiring to hear wonderful YA creators and to see such hoards of YA lovers.