Going Too Far – YA panel recap

Having been called ‘a swot’ by certain fellow YA writers for scribbling notes throughout the Going Too Far? YA discussion panel at the ever-lovely Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire, I figured I might as well put together a little recap for bloggish purposes.

The panel was chaired by Elaina Ryan, CBI director and former editor at Little Island, and included David O’Callaghan (Children’s/YA buyer at Eason’s), Louise O’Neill (YA author of Only Ever Yours), Sheena Wilkinson (YA author of Taking Flight and Grounded), and Aaron Williams (‘actual teenager’, and a former teen curator for Mountains to Sea).

David O’Callaghan noted that YA books have existed for a long time, but it’s really only since he’s been kidlit/YA buyer for Eason’s (last 14 years) that the media have been this aware of it, and also that there’s edgier content now. He pointed to the relatively recent separation of ‘teen’ and ‘YA’ in Eason’s to allow for the more grown-up books to fit in there. Aaron Williams added that he’s been reading the Cherub series since age 12, and noted a particularly graphic drug-taking sequence – ‘it was grand!’ he said.

Elaina Ryan pointed out that banned books have been there for ages too – citing in particular Go Ask Alice, the allegedly-anonymous-diary about a teenage drug user. Louise O’Neill added that she’d read Flowers in the Attic when she was younger and that titles of that kind were available to teens even if they weren’t marketed as YA. She also made the point that teens often do view the world as a dark place, and rightly so – they see what’s actually going on in the world. Sheena Wilkinson noted that ‘dark’ content can be found in places other than books, for example TV soaps. Sheena’s reading as a teenager included Judy Blume’s Forever, and she wasn’t phased by the sex, but did note that Ralph was her grandfather’s name.

In terms of writing for teenagers, Sheena’s ideal and imagined reader is 14+, even though 12-year-olds may be reading. Louise didn’t specifically set out to write YA and didn’t censor herself, but also found she remembered very clearly what it’s like to be a teenager. She tried to strike the balance between not being triggering – especially as part of her book deals with eating disorders (she noted Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls as a triggering eating disorder book) – and being honest. She also pointed out that simply being out in the world can be triggering – but with a book you can put it down, and it’s a safe way of dealing with issues.

David hasn’t been shocked by anything that’s come across his desk, but had a rant about New Adult fiction – ‘sexytimes books for young adults’ – which seems very similar and predictable and not that great. Aaron spoke about growing up with a series, like Skulduggery Pleasant, and finding that it gets darker as it goes on – but it’s less shocking because you’re growing into it. He also made the point that ‘issues’ in a book can be a great thing – even if you disagree with it. The presence of something in a book doesn’t imply author endorsement.

More on intended readership – Sheena noted that now readers in their mid/late teens are finding YA books, rather than viewing these titles as too childish and not for them. The ‘John Green effect’ means that books are more likely to get into the hands of the age group the author hopes for. Louise added that while younger readers – 11ish – have read her book, they tend to focus on the romance elements and not pick up on the more disturbing implications that concern older readers. She feels that YA authors don’t set out to glorify an issue, and Sheena suggested gatekeepers in teen fiction can be a positive thing, making it a safe space rather than a place where there’s titillation around certain things. When she was researching suicide online, the uncurated information available was very graphic and shocking. On the issue of gatekeepers, David sees himself more as an advocate for the books, and noted that there’s too many people with opinions on YA who haven’t read the books. Louise noted the distinction between parents saying their kid can’t read a book versus saying no one should read a book – even if it’s not ideal, it’s a parenting thing as opposed to censorship.

In terms of editing to suit a YA audience, Louise was asked by a number of editors to change the ending of her dystopian novel and to make her main character ‘spunkier’ (‘the Katniss effect’), but she was firm on both these things (it’s an abusive environment, after all). She did tone down certain scenes which were a little too graphic but found that the pared-down versions were actually more powerful, implying more rather than stating outright. Sheena spoke about the issues with language (cursing from a West Belfast lad, heavens!) in Taking Flight, which despite being an award-winner was disapproved of in some schools – Elaina, her then-editor, noted that it hadn’t struck her, and Aaron pointed out that bad language is usually there for a reason and makes a world more authentic, that if it’s not there it’s more problematic. For her second book, Sheena said, ‘I decided I was allowed two fucks’.

Next up for discussion was hopeful vs hopeless endings – often the definition of YA is that there must be some hope in the ending. Elaina pointed to recent Carnegie Medal winner The Bunker Diaries (Kevin Brooks) and asked the panel if hopeless endings fit within YA. Aaron said yeah, absolutely – and when you’re young sometimes things do feel like the end of the world, so hopeless endings can echo back to you and feel very real. David finds there are other things worse than bleak endings – ones where the author pulls back from letting anything too bad happen (Harry Potter, Twilight). Sheena spoke about how the rules of the world affect how you view hopeless endings – with Louise’s book a dark ending fit the world, but with Brooks’ work there is still some uncertainty about the rules of the world.

Do Irish books go far enough? Getting better but not there yet, seemed to be the consensus. Over to questions, and kidlit critic Robert Dunbar noted that a lot of the books referenced had been recent and overhyped ones (which can be less interesting, he feels, than others – citing in particular Aidan Chambers). He also raised the issue of content that’s not necessarily taboo but might go over a young reader’s head, citing the level of knowledge of myth etc needed to fully get David Almond’s latest. Sheena pointed out that many adult readers wouldn’t ‘get’ that stuff.

Finally, why do some books get categorised as YA? Louise felt hers was put into YA because the characters were young but also because it’s a healthy market; David noted the danger of books that don’t quite fit into kidlit/YA making their way into that category because it’s doing well.

Ultimate consensus: we’re not particularly worried about YA fiction being too dark or scarring teenagers for life, and view books as a safe space to address difficult and potentially upsetting issues. There was a tiny bit of preaching-to-the-choir, I think, but not having to constantly deal with the ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?’ angle did mean that the discussion was allowed move on to a more reasoned analysis of particular texts.

Personal thoughts: I would have loved to have heard more about older edgy YA (Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Aidan Chambers, Norma Fox Mazer, even 80s Jacqueline Wilson, etc) for context purposes, and also perhaps discuss the narrowing gap between the UK and US YA markets. Then again, I would have gladly sat there for twice the length of time discussing these things. Finally, YA people are lovely – there were many familiar faces there and it was marvellous to catch up. Next Mountains to Sea takes place March 2015, if you’re planning ahead!

Book-review post!

And now, for some YA titles.

Kody Keplinger – A Midsummer’s Nightmare
Whitley’s spending the summer after high school graduation with her beloved father – and his new family, which includes the guy Whitley hooked up with on graduation night. Although there’s a romantic plot running through this, there’s also a lot more about Whitley’s relationship with her dad and how unfatherly he’s been to her, which she starts to see, and also some good stuff on slut-shaming and attitudes towards girls and sexuality. (Keplinger blogs wise things about the latter.)

Deirdre Sullivan – Primperfect
The third and final Prim book is as funny and touching and think-y as the previous instalments in the series, with Prim now sixteen and having trouble with Joel – who can’t forgive her for something awful she did to Karen (even though Karen is a wagon) – as well as dealing with love and friends-in-love and terrible terrible things that happen at parties with too many drinks. Relatable and readable.

E Lockhart – We Were Liars
Many thoughts. Oh so many thoughts. Trying not to have spoilers for The Twist, which did work for me. The logistics of the incident that makes The Twist be a thing, however, irritate the hell out of me and feel implausible and stupid, and that took some of the delight out of this book. But. It is still gorgeously written, and the privileged world of this rich family with their private island, and the outsider-boy that Cadence, the narrator, falls in love with, is captivating. Interwoven with Cadence’s attempts to understand what happened two years ago – the accident that led to her chronic migraines and selective amnesia – are stories, fairytales and Shakespearean, that shed light on the family dynamics. It is beautifully done. And then there’s the frustration of the reveal of what really happened that night. So. I think this makes it onto my favourites-of-the-year list, but not without some serious footnoting. (Also, why were they called Liars? Why? It is a brilliant title but not relevant to the story. Frustration!)

Cathy Cassidy – The Chocolate Box Girls: Sweet Honey
The fifth Chocolate Box book – but not the last – focuses on Honey, now in Australia staying with her dad and his new partner, trying to start over after all the trouble back at home. But she misses home – and after several books of Honey-as-villain, it is lovely to get inside her head and see what she thinks about things, and who of her sisters she’s protective of, and what happens when she’s forced to confront someone who’s been making her life hell through hacking into her social media accounts. Everything you’d expect from a Cathy Cassidy book – real problems, and hopeful-but-not-sappy solutions.

Deb Caletti – The Last Forever
Read this, read this, read this. One of my favourites of Deb Caletti’s books, this is the story of a girl who’s just lost her mother and who meets a beautiful boy and whose goal is to keep her mother’s plant alive for as long as she can, because it’s the only thing of hers she has left. This is about loss and love and hope and growth and death, and a seed vault at the edge of the world, and it manages to handle all that without ever getting overly didactic or repetitive. A joy to read.

Book-review post!

This was apparently my ‘oh my god, mysteries are a thing!’ era of reading…

Louise Doughty – Apple Tree Yard
Confession: I had never read Louise Doughty’s fiction before, though I adore her writing-related non-fiction work, and this left me craving more. Our heroine is on trial for something – we’re not quite sure what, but it has to do with a little place in London called Apple Tree Yard. As the story unfolds, we discover that she’s been having an affair with the other individual on trial, a mysterious man who seems to be some kind of spy, who from the very beginning had a way about him that suggested a strange background (always one eye open for surveillance technology). There is nothing terribly unusual in the events of the story necessarily – it’s a love affair that leads to a crime of passion, or so it seems – but oh, god, it’s gorgeously done. The details are exquisite and it’s just an absolute joy to read (which is a strange thing to say, perhaps, about a book with so much darkness in it).

Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham – Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line
TV tie-ins are often woeful, but this one benefits from being co-written by the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, whose background is in novels. The book picks up not so long after the movie ends, and seemed a fairly so-so read until it brings back a character who didn’t appear in the movie – raising the stakes in a really compelling way. The characterisation is well handled, and the dialogue is spot-on; the only thing is that you’d miss Veronica’s snarktastic inner monologues. Looking forward to reading the next one.

Declan Hughes – All The Things You Are
A could’ve-been-actress returns home from a trip where she may or may not have slept with her old lover, and finds her house empty of almost all its possessions, her husband Danny, and her two children. The house is about to be repossessed, and it’s clear she’s been lied to – but she’s also convinced she’s been left a sign that she can still trust him. (The snarky part of my brain feels that if this had been written by a woman, she’d be proved utterly wrong and the story would go in an entirely different direction.) And then the dead body of the family pet appears in the back yard. It’s not the last corpse the reader will encounter in this twisty-turny mystery, but despite the body count, the main focus of the story is on untangling the past and the secrets kept by Danny ever since a boyhood act of arson. Sharp dialogue and convincingly flawed but empathetic characters made me zip through this musings-on-identity-dressed-as-thriller.

Megan Abbott – The Fever
Megan Abbott writes about teenage girls fabulously. Her latest relates a strange seizure-inducing illness affecting a bunch of friends, and the secrets that unfurl in their school and town as it spreads. I didn’t love this as much as Dare Me (which has cheerleaders, for god’s sake), but the portrayals of teenage friendships and rivalries are smooth and compelling. Based on a real-life case of mass hysteria, it’s one of those books that’s about extraordinary things that illustrate so many of the ordinary everyday strains and tensions of being a teenage girl in today’s society. More of this please?

Children’s novel competitions roundup!

Blatant copy-and-paste from last year’s post about this:

Just a quick round-up of some (British-Isles-based) competitions running at the moment aimed at unagented (and/or previously unpublished) children’s/YA writers, in case it’s useful to anyone out there.

With any of these, do read the submission guidelines carefully (especially in terms of what and how to submit), and – as you would if submitting to agents/editors – it’s best to have a book finished and revised before submitting, even if all you need to send in is the first 5,000 words. (Your opening chapters set up the book as a whole – and if you haven’t finished it yet, it’s tricky to tell if they’re doing that to the very best of their ability.)

  • Irish Children’s Prize with A.M. Heath – judged by literary agent Julia Churchill and editor David Maybury, for Irish or Irish-resident writers working on children’s (any age) or YA fiction who do not yet have an agent. Deadline is October 20th, and they want to see the first 5000 words (or full text if shorter), plus a brief description and a one-page outline.
  • New Children’s Author Prize in association with the Literacy Trust and Bloomsbury – UK only, full novel needed (20,000-40,000 words, aimed at 8-12-year-olds) plus synopsis. Deadline is September 30th.
  • The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition – this one has been going for years, and is open to international writers too. They’re looking for the full manuscript of a novel suitable for children (so, somewhere in the 7-18-year-old range, no younger), ideally 30,000-80,000 words. Deadline is October 31st.
  • The Bath Novel Award – open internationally, and while it’s not strictly speaking for children’s fiction, they do welcome YA submissions. They’re looking for the first 5000 words plus a one page synopsis, and the full manuscript (50,000+ words) will be requested if longlisted. Deadline is March 31st next year. Self-published works are also eligible.

Some things

Some things I’ve been up to:

  • writing bits and pieces, including some poetry
  • section-editing and reviewing for the CBI annual recommended reads guide, out in October for Bookfest
  • talking about young adult fiction (does that count as news?)
  • teaching on the CTYI summer programme – Popular Fiction and Anthology of Writing – which was, as ever, a most excellent way to spend six weeks (though I have no idea what’s been happening in The Outside World)
  • reading (details of which will be forthcoming in future book reviewy posts)
  • rewatching Gilmore Girls (because my brain has been too fried to cope with new television, and this show is just so pleasing)

I can’t quite believe it’s August. I’m still on the academic-year schedule in many ways, so this feels like the time to start making plans for The Year Ahead. Goals and plans and charts and fresh new notebooks and hopes and dreams and unladdered tights. But because the past six weeks have been super-intense (as they should be – you’re doing something wrong if working at a summer camp doesn’t leave you wrecked) it also feels very much like a time to cling to summer and that sense of rest (I hear some people are good at identifying this kind of thing?) before it evaporates.

So, yeah. August. How’d that happen?

Book-review post!

Read mostly in springtime… YA(ish).

Cathy Cassidy – The Chocolate Box Girls: Coco Caramel
The fourth book in this series about a group of sisters focuses on animal-mad Coco, while still giving us plenty of information about the other characters. One of the things I like is getting to see how problems aren’t necessarily immediately solved in Cassidy’s world (we see, for example, Summer still dealing with her eating disorder and how this affects the entire family, along with Honey’s ongoing dramas), as well as that sense of feeling slightly out of step with your peers. Coco is more concerned with saving the world than boys and hairstyles and makeup, and even when she finds a boy who shares her passion for horses, it doesn’t quite become a romance.

Cat Clarke – A Kiss In The Dark
I am not entirely crazy about this book, though it does many of the things I love about Cat Clarke’s other books – namely, have teenagers who lie and deceive and are in many ways (horribly realistically) awful to one another. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just note that the pretense that fuels most of the first half of the book feels implausible, and the events of the second half left me feeling uncomfortable. A novel I expected to love much more than I did.

Paige Harbison – Anything To Have You
Two best friends fight over the same guy. In alternating sections, they relate the events both before and after a night that changes everything – the night that Natalie hooks up with Brooke’s boyfriend and ends up pregnant. This is another one that I wasn’t crazy about – Brooke is presented as so unpleasant that it’s clear we should be rooting for Natalie, which leeches some of the drama out of this (why can’t they both be decent humans and have this be a little more complicated?), and Aiden is presented as this prize of a guy when actually his behaviour isn’t that decent at all. Liked the themes, not crazy about the execution, basically.

Abbi Glines – The Vincent Boys
Oh, ‘new adult’, you do wear me down a bit. This is one of the key NA titles cited in all those articles about the field, and it’s… fine. Nice. A nice story with some moderately sexy bits about a girl who likes a guy who’s the cousin of her actual boyfriend, and about small-town ideas about people and their families.

Non Pratt – Trouble
Apparently I went on some kind of books-about-teenagers-having-sex spree around this time? Hmm. Anyway. This debut novel handles a situation I haven’t seen much in YA fiction before – what happens when you’re the new, male friend of the girl who gets pregnant? The novel switches between Hannah, known for being ‘easy’, and Aaron, the new boy at school with a secret of his own and a sense that he needs to redeem himself as a good guy, as they become friends and Aaron decides to step up and claim to be her baby’s father. The real father – Hannah’s stepbrother – is staying silent. This book has an awful lot going for it, and the one thing that did kind of spoil it for me – and this is spoilertastic, sorry – is the reveal that actually Hannah hadn’t slept with anyone before her stepbrother, thus saving her from being ‘a slut’ or something, I suppose, and teaching us all a valuable lesson about not listening to rumours (instead of saying something about how it’s actually okay for girls to like sex). It’s certainly worth reading – great writing and voice and characterisation – but that missed opportunity hit me hard.