Walking the tightrope, toeing the line – YA and the duty of care

Of all the myths and misconceptions about YA, few are quite as pervasive as the idea that every YA book is one of two things: fluffy and trivial or dark and depressing. For every thinkpiece deriding adults for reading silly YA stories and therefore somehow dumbing down literature as an art form, there is another article wringing its hands that YA is “too dark”. Plenty of journalists and commentators have spent earnest paragraphs trying to decide once and for all what counts as “too dark” for teenagers, as if that darkness is something that exists only within the pages of books; that the power to shield young people from emotional traumas belongs to writers and librarians and booksellers.

Even if YA books about depression, suicide, drug use, murder, death and rape ceased to exist, these things will still happen in real life. To teenagers. Teenagehood is essentially an isolating experience, even for the most social of young people, and experiences like mental illness or personal trauma only exacerbate this. We know that young people who are suffering seek out stories that speak to them; depressed teenagers read books about depressed teenagers; suicidal teens will read books about suicidal teens, and so on. They are looking for reflections of their lives and experiences; they are looking, consciously or not, for guidance; hope; answers. Denying them this need is just another way of turning our backs on suffering under the guise of protection.

The duty of care within YA is a contentious issue in and of itself, with some arguing it is a necessity unique to authors of books for children and teenagers, while others say that writers should have the freedom to express topics without worrying about gatekeepers. It is my view that both of these things are true; the answer is, as so often, a bit of both.

The heart of the solution is, to my mind, truth. Writing is all about the truth of experience, whether or not it is in a book about a young wizard, a roof-skipping orphan girl or a teenage assassin in an imagined royal court. Stories come to life when they feel real, and this is the case for all genres and age ranges of books. It is this very thing that causes such problems in so-called “issue books”. If you are writing about suicide, how truthful should you be? Does a duty of care mean you are duty-bound to write a happy ending? Are you failing your readers if you don’t?

Suicide in YA has been something of a trend over the last couple of years, with books like All The Bright Places, I Was Here and My Heart And Other Black Holes all dealing with the subject in very different ways. They tend to fall into one of two categories:

  • Will this character die?
  • This character’s friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/family member has already died and this is the aftermath.

The former is by the far the most popular, for the simple reason that it tends to make a better page-turner. It’s also a nice formula for a twist. Ha! You thought she’d die, didn’t you? Gotcha. Oh, you thought he’d live? Surprise! Enjoy your tears.

If done right, these books can cut like a knife – in a good way. If you’ve experienced these kinds of thoughts, reading them in someone else’s mind can make you feel less alone, even as it hurts. Through the character’s experience, you can begin to recognise the possibility you have in your own life; how you could do things differently. This can change a teenager’s whole life.

Done wrong, these books can read like how-to manuals or exercises in emotional manipulation. They can feel cheap, cruel or even downright dangerous. You imagine a lonely teen, arms scarred, head full of pills and razors, reading a book about suicide and finding only hopeless darkness. If she was doomed, then so am I. This isn’t scaremongering: this is a real danger, made even worse by books that go into frankly horrifying detail about potential methods and scenarios.

I think we need books about suicidal teenagers as much as we do happy ones, but it’s true that they carry an extra burden of responsibility. Pretending otherwise is to deny the power we have as writers to an audience still learning who they are. We can do this without patronising them or denying them their own experiences. On the contrary, we can honour them with counter-narratives and hope.

It does a disservice to the depth and integrity of YA to focus so much on whether an ending is happy or sad; as in all fiction, what matters is that an ending is earned and feels true. Sometimes people live and sometimes they die, in real life and on the page; not all stories can end happily. But there’s always room for a sense of hope and it is this that can make all the difference. In darkness, even the smallest light can brighten a room.


Books on a shelf, words on a page: the books of my life

At the beginning of the year some writer friends and I set up a mini book club where we committed to reading each other’s top three “books of our lives”. These are not just books we love or mean a lot to us, but the kinds of books that feel like they get right into the marrow of who we are. Some books do that, though most don’t, and of course it’s a deeply personal thing, dependent on a number of factors independent of the book itself. Sometimes books come into our lives at just the right time, elevating the book above “favourite” to something more like sacred.

I’m excited to have the chance to share these books with my friends and also to read the books that they feel have had a similar effect on their own lives. The only downside was narrowing my own personal list down to three.

As I have more space here, I’d like to expand my list a little more. They are the books that made me feel grateful to be a reader, desperate to be a writer and more aware of what it means to be a person. They’re the books that shaped me. Aka, the books I force on people when they ask for recommendations.

1) Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut Jr 

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

slaughterhouse-5  War. Time travel. Aliens. Dresden. Truth. Satire. Hilarity. Sadness.

2) Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

“Thank God for books and music and things I can think about.”

flowers-for-algernon-by-daniel-keyes Intelligence. Lack of. Wisdom. A mouse. A man. ALL. THE. TEARS.

3) The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver 

“Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember.”

poisonwood-bible Religion. Africa. Racism. Colonialism. Post-colonialism. Wisdom.

4) Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

51PR5E6NCDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Women. Wartime. Friendship. Loyalty. Bravery. Fly the plane, Maddie.

5) My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece – Annabel Pitcher 

“My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does.”

41xR2ghaHzL Cry. Cry some more.Then recommend it to everyone you know.

6) Gilead – Marilynne Robinson 

“We fly forgotten as a dream.”

gilead1 Wisdom. Grace. Truth. Religion. America. Racism.

7) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer  

“I said, I want to tell you something.
She said, you can tell me tomorrow.
I had never told her how much I loved her.
She was my sister.
We slept in the same bed.
There was never a right time to say it.
It was always unnecessary.
The books in my father’s shed were sighing.
The sheets were rising and falling around me with Anna’s breathing.
I thought about waking her.
But it was unnecessary.
There would be other nights.
And how can you say I love you to someone you love?
I rolled onto my side and fell asleep next to her.
Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you … It’s always necessary.”

1ed03f39421c60a52c0101de2d18fcab Quotable. Hilarious. Devastating. Strange. Sad.

8) Maus – Art Spiegelman


Maus Essential. Life-changing. World-view-shifting.

9) The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner

“Wonder. Go on and wonder.”

51jXpcgG33L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Strange. Confusing. Brilliant. Caddy.

10) On the Jellicoe Road – Melina Marchetta

“What do you want from me?” he asks.
What I want from every person in my life, I want to tell him.

1162022 Everything YA can and should be.

Aaand a shout out to STATION ELEVEN, which I read a couple of months ago and adored. I would have added it to this list, but feel I should allow a grace period of a few years before calling something a “book of my life”. But Station Eleven is utterly wonderful and you must read it.

Have you read any of these? What would be the books of your life?

A little writer’s little wishlist

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog post that was very special to me, about a topic that makes me fizz with joy: my book. The response to that blog post (which I’ll just drop a link to heeere) was overwhelming, in the best possible way. It was so overwhelming, in fact, that it rendered me utterly unable to follow it up.

So now I am going to ease myself back into my blog with something easy. My dreams as a writer.

I’ve always considered myself a writer in the most straightforward definition of the word. That is, I was a person who wrote on a daily basis. My overriding dream as a writer was to move into capital letter territory: to be A Writer.

Now that is on its way to happening (EEEE!!! etc), I can indulge myself a little more and talk about the other dreams I had, before now, hardly dared let myself dream. These are the dreams that I think most, if not all, young writers hold close.

So here it is, to share with you all. A little writer’s little wishlist of dreams:

– My name on a spine in Waterstones

– A nice comment from someone who is not related to me, nor someone paid to champion my writing (though these are wonderful too)

– A five star review

– A one star review (perversely)

– My book translated into another language

– An audiobook (I *love* audiobooks)

– Fanart (I think I would actually cry)

– Questions from readers

– Emails from readers

– Tweets from readers

– Readers

The right words, the right time.

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a story about a girl.

I was thirteen at the time, and writing stories was what I did. And not just about girls. Planets that spoke to each other, mice who lived in the Underground, magic meerkats and friendly boats. Writing was my thing; it was beyond a hobby and more than just something I enjoyed. It was how I understood the world. Words had all the magic and possibility anyone could ever need. Put them in the right order, and you could create a world of your own. And maybe, if you got them just right, that world would be a place that would mean something to other people.

I’d written countless stories by the time I was thirteen – the first at age 6, in which the acknowledgements page listed all our family pets by name, including the guinea pigs – of varying length and quality. Each abandoned and finished project was a step closer to Being A Writer; my ultimate goal. My dream. A book on a shelf with my name on it. A book that someone could hold. A book that had a sentence in it that made someone’s eyes go wide with “yes. this.”

There was something different about that story about a girl, not least because it was the first full-length novel I’d ever written. There was something about the story, something about the characters, that worked. I was thirteen, but I knew that. But I also knew something else – it wasn’t right. They weren’t the right words, and it wasn’t the right time.

I tried revisiting the story and the girl several times over the next few years, but it never came together. I got better at writing. I read yet more books. I went to university, where writing came with grades and books were to be approached critically. I learned the difference between writing for someone else and writing for yourself.

By the time I graduated, I had stopped writing stories. I went to work. I learned how to write professionally. How to fall asleep on a train in the morning and still get off at the right stop. The best time of the day to schedule tea breaks. The number of people who actually care about where to put apostrophes (depressingly few). How to write presentations. How to interview people.

And all the time, I thought about that story of a girl. The story I’d never quite been able to tell. I thought about what she would be doing three, five, ten years in her own future. How many other people there were in her story. How they all had stories too. Her world grew. New characters appeared, one with a voice that felt right.

A new protagonist. A new story of a girl. A feeling I’d never quite had before, of certainty.

I wrote in the work canteen at lunchtimes and on the train home. I wrote in the ten minutes before the light turned off, then carried on write-dreaming until I fell asleep. I nestled into Starbucks sofas on the weekends. Conversations became scenes. Scenes became chapters. Soon it was 50,000 words. And then 80,000. And then it was finished.

I’m going to skim over what happened next, because the getting-an-agent process and everything after is too much to fit into a single blog. I’ll save it for another time, but suffice it to say it involves a lot of waiting. A lot of refreshing my inbox. A lot of nail-biting. And then all that agony forgotten in that one, perfect sentence: “Are you around next week to come in to my office and have a chat about representation?” (YES. YES I AM.)

What follows: editing. Revising. A crash course in the world of publishing. More editing. A few tears. A few drafts. Submission. More agony.

And then: “I would like to make an offer…”

It’s a funny thing, getting something you’ve always wanted. Realising a dream. It’s joyous and exhilarating, but it’s also scary. Like happiness vertigo. These characters who existed only in my head for over a decade now come up in conversation with people who have job titles like Senior Commissioning Editor. People I’ve never met know them better than they know me. They now have lives in the imaginations of other people. It’s wonderful. It’s terrifying.

When I was thirteen, I wrote a story about a girl. And now that story is a book. A book that will have pages and a spine. A Goodreads page. Readers. Reviews. It took a long time to find the right words and the right time for them to come together, but now it has I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

And so, the words I once only dreamed of being able to say: My debut novel, Beautiful Broken Things, will be published by Macmillan in Spring, 2016. And I am ecstatic.