Young Adult Fiction is one of the smallest yet most important parts of the children’s book market. Aimed at readers in their early to mid teens (a time when research shows that half of this audience stops reading fiction and never starts again) Young Adult Fiction serves as a bridge to adult fiction. It also has its own very specific concerns, providing a vital place for reflection and escape during adolescence, the most difficult phase of many people’s lives. A recent conference, ‘Turning Point’, focused on these themes. Conference organiser and writer, David Belbin, explains. <!--break-->
Young Adult Fiction (henceforth, YAF) is the least economically significant area of children’s books, one where it is hard for writers to earn a living. Teenagers predominantly borrow rather than buy books (and most borrow them from school libraries, which aren’t in the PLR* scheme). Many authors feel they are working in the dark, doing an important job with little recognition.
I’ve often spoken to writers about the need for a conference devoted solely to YAF – what it is and where it’s going. When I was appointed to a part-time job running the Creative Writing MA at Nottingham Trent University, I realised I had to put up or shut up. The conference would be aimed at writers and those involved in raising the profile of YAF rather than teenagers themselves. I didn’t want to promote a specific agenda, but to start a discussion.
I invited a range of currently active writers whose main work is aimed at teenagers. Tim Bowler, Celia Rees and Robert Swindells would be out of the country, but wished us luck. The rest accepted at once, showing how much they all believed in the need for a conference of this kind. Turning Point was run on a shoestring to keep the price accessible to all. I relied on press coverage and the internet for publicity. Friends and acquaintances forwarded my email about the conference to their whole YAF address book. At the second attempt, I got an Arts Council Grant to pay the speakers. The only paid advertising was a flyer (at a generously discounted rate!) in the last issue but one of this magazine.
A Nottingham venue
On 27 November 2004, nearly two hundred people gave up their Saturday to visit Nottingham for the UK’s first national conference on YAF. Dozens of writers (many well known) came, with librarians and editors making up the majority of the rest. There were also agents, reviewers, booksellers, teachers, academics and NTU students. The day was recorded for transcription. What follows is a digest with examples of what was said rather than an attempt at a definitive account. (A speaker’s best known title is given in brackets when they are first quoted.)
The first session
Graham Marks (How It Works) chaired the first session on ‘What Is Young Adult Fiction?’. Nicola Morgan (Fleshmarket) talked about the teenage brain, explaining why teenagers have an exaggerated appetite for risk. Teens experience upheavals in the prefrontal cortex, the area that deals with higher thinking, morality and reactions to emotion. They need fast-moving fiction that takes risks, allows them to question, go to the edge and face their darkest fears. Nicola compared YAF to lacrosse, where there are ‘no boundaries, but it’s self regulating. The readers themselves will tell you when you’ve gone too far.’
Kevin Brooks (Martyn Pig) told us that he used to think that there was no difference between YAF and adult fiction, but had changed his mind. He (like, I suspect, many of us) still feels like a teenager inside – in his case, a fourteen-year-old: ‘And it’s caused me quite a few problems.’ Dr Alison Waller offered an academic perspective with a brief history of YAF. She talked about ‘the adolescent novel of ideas’ that tries to grow the mind a size larger. She said that YAF should not be considered a genre (it encompasses too much) but a literature: ‘Children’s fiction has been described as a “peninsular” off the main body of literature. Teenage fiction is often regarded as an outcrop on that peninsular. It’s an invigorating place to be, but it’s a bit rough out there.’ Graham Marks suggested that YAF ‘gives you an amazing amount of freedom’. YAF might be a fusion, or hybrid, but why does it need labelling, when the very label puts off the target readership?
The categorising conundrum
The categorising conundrum was one of the recurring points of the day, with Anne Cassidy (Looking for JJ) speaking in and chairing a session on ‘Raising the Profile’. Julia Eccleshare (The Rough Guide to Teenage Books) argued that YAF already has a high profile. The Guardian, where she is Children’s Books Editor, reviews a YAF novel most weeks: ‘Good books surface, they find their own way. There is no conspiracy against YAF.’ She pointed out that there was a shortage of reviewers who had read widely in the field (perhaps editors could approach some of the librarians in the audience). David Fickling (publisher and editor of Philip Pullman and Mark Haddon, amongst others) said that marketing may or may not be the answer but the really important thing is to concentrate on the quality of the writing and publishing for teenagers. In an aside, he suggested that the area in most need of serious critical attention was fiction for emerging readers aged six to eight.
Anne Cassidy was having none of this. She had just won the Booktrust Teenage Prize (the only national prize specifically for Young Adult Fiction) and she received a warm, spontaneous round of applause when the award was mentioned. After the Booktrust award ceremony, she told us, ‘many people asked if Looking for JJ was my first novel. It is my seventeenth.’ Anne talked about failures of promotion and urged the publishers present to create a lobby group aimed at getting short teenage book slots scheduled on television next to soap operas.
Julia Eccleshare worried that ‘cross-over novels can lead to books really written for adults that sell YA readers out. YAF should be written for young adults first and foremost.’ David Fickling pointed out that teenagers are savvy customers and time isn’t the problem today, choice is. We’re competing in a multi-media world where the novel is just one source of stories: ‘Even more ways to find stories will come along, you can be sure of that.’
The Death of the Issue Novel?
The most popular session, ‘The Death of the Issue Novel?’, was directly concerned with writing. Beverley Naidoo (The Other Side of Truth) suggested it was no coincidence that, just as booksellers were telling publishers ‘issue’ books are the kiss of death, we have a government going to war without justification. None of the panel liked the term ‘issue’ novel. Beverley said she would be happier with Nadine Gordimer’s term ‘witness literature’: ‘a genre of circumstance, or time, or place’. For Beverley, the big issue is the imaginative transfiguration of reality in the process of writing.
Keith Gray (Malarkey) gave a brilliant riff, impossible to sum up, on the instructions for using a new ladder. YAF should help readers to think for themselves. He didn’t like being categorised and felt the ‘issue novel’ phrase was stupid. Bali Rai (Rani and Sukh) warned that the death of the ‘issue novel’ would be a serious blow to cultural diversity in the UK. YAF should address the fabric of people’s lives. The problem, Bali pointed out, was that the word ‘issue’ had a distinctly educational whiff to it, bound to put teenagers off.
Chairing the panel, I said that an issue can’t be the engine that drives a novel. Character and story always come first. An author only discovers what a novel’s really about when they sit down and try to write the best book they know how. As writers, we shouldn’t flinch from uncomfortable truths. We should be proud that YAF acts as a home for writers with a serious moral agenda. The panel was united in its praise for Elizabeth Laird’s A Little Piece of Ground (discussed by Michael Rosen in BfK No. 143) as an example of the kind of novel we wanted to defend and see promoted, not killed off.
Melvin Burgess (Junk), in his keynote speech, drew together many of the day’s themes, adding anecdotes and detailed discussion of his novels in a freewheeling, entertaining end to the day. We all know we are writing for the 13+ age group, yet when he started out YAF wasn’t really for teenagers. Even now, when we’re invited into schools, it’s mostly to see Years Seven and Eight (11-13 year-olds). 14+ readers are only beginning to learn that there are YAF books they might want to read. While ‘books are never going to be predominant again, at least they’re cheap to produce.’
Melvin owed his career to librarians, but a true teenage literature, he argued, is one that teenagers go out and buy for themselves. The reason teenage boys don’t read is that there are few books for them: ‘It’s impossible to overestimate this audience. They’re enormously sophisticated about stories, but they’re not that well provided for.’
A starting point
The conference was, the evaluation forms said, a roaring success, and everyone wanted another. (So do I, but organised by someone else!) For me, the day marked not so much a turning point as a starting point. It proved there is an audience and an appetite for serious discussion about YAF. The librarians and writers in the audience were passionate about it and I’m sorry I haven’t had room to include some of their contributions. The publishing people, many noted, listened intently but didn’t contribute to the discussion. All agreed that school librarians are doing a great job, but publishers have the difficult task of taking YAF to the next stage. They need to get YAF into the appropriate general or genre fiction section of bookshops as well as into the teenage ghetto. They need to package and promote the novels so that older children and teens will want to read them. If we have to have categories, perhaps publishers and booksellers can come up with a different name for the fiction for older children (10-13) with which YAF is often confused… or a cooler name for YAF itself. Maybe book chains could present YAF alongside ‘adult’ novels, from Salinger to Sebold, that appeal to teens, rather than putting it by the children’s books section, where teens don’t want to be seen.
It was an ‘inspired and inspiring day’ wrote an influential school librarian. It was also a challenging one. The task for authors is to write a Young Adult Literature that both reaches and transcends the Young Adult audience, with stories so captivating they keep the world reading. A tall order, but one we’ve grown big enough to take on.
*PLR (Public Lending Right) is a system of payment to authors resident in the UK. Once registered, they qualify for a share of a sum of money allocated annually by government. This is apportioned according to the estimated number of public library loans.
David Belbin’s latest novel is Denial (Hodder, 0 340 87392 2, £5.99 pbk). His website is www.davidbelbin.com