When is a Young Adult not a Young Adult?

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Newnham College, Cambridge, library

Weeks later, I’m still chewing over something that came up in the Writing for Children Event I spoke at in Cambridge recently. A quotation was put to me and fellow panellists Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb, from an article written by children’s literature critics, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig:

‘The sense of moral obligations, which governs all writing for children, has acquired a new bias. It used to entail keeping your stories as anodyne as possible; now if anything, the opposite holds true. Painful topics have become virtually de rigeur.’

Tracy BeakerI tackled the moral obligation assumption bit already, plus the truly weird idea that anyone would strive to create anodyne stories for any audience, let alone children.  As for the last part of the quotation, given that these critics were writing about trends since the 1970s, I wondered what had upset them.  The answer? Writers such as Jacqueline Wilson, it turns out, with her realistic portrayal of children from broken homes like The Suitcase Kid and Tracy Beaker.

From a social history point of view, this is fascinating. You could argue that Wilson is actually following her Victorian predecessors in depicting children in difficult, lonely situations; all that has changed is that’s she’s updated the reason for their plight from parental death (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Kim), to the present day realism of divorce and single parenthood.  KimHer heroes may go through painful predicaments but they learn to deal with and surmount them, just as the unloved and neglected orphans of the century before. Tracy’s acute sense of abandonment leads her to behave badly; but then so does Sarah Lennox in The Secret Garden, until she finds friends who actually care about her. Rather than children being disturbed by such realism, fiction can do a valuable job of making those struggling in similar situations feel less alone.Houghton_AC85_B9345_911s_-_Secret_Garden,_1911_-_cover

I’d have had more sympathy with Cadogan and Craig if their quotation referred to the more recent genre of Young Adult fiction. While not strictly intended for children, YA books are allowed to compete against children’s books in literary prizes, with the result that in the last 7 years, 5 of the winners of both Carnegie and Costa Children’s awards have been books whose plots involve dystopia, war, violence, rape, death, torture, incarceration, terminal illness, suicide and other equally cheerful themes. maze-runner-trailer-2-11Topics not so much painful as positively agonising. Of eight books on this year’s shortlist, all bar one – Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth – are classed as YA.

Our author panel at the Newnham Literary Archive Event mused on possible reasons behind this flowering of such depressing literature, much of it wonderfully written by some of the best authors around today.  My theory is that the genre has grown out of computer games, with their linear narratives involving fantasy kingdoms, fast action and blood all over the screen. But I was much taken by an audience suggestion that its roots may lie in the overwhelming bureaucratisation of the education system, allowing teenagers to escape to a simpler world where you can just fight your way out of the endless pressure of SATS tests and GCSEs.

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Fighting their way out of SATS tests

Whatever the reason, it is unfair that YA is allowed to dominate the children’s book awards, simply because there is no separate category for this genre. And I wonder if publishers realise that their biggest readership – far from being teenagers – is young people in their 20s and 30s. Go to any YA event at a literary festival and you’ll see what I mean. If Patrick Ness is appearing, you’ll probably find my sons there (26 and 29). YA fiction being read by young adults, then.

Or as we used to call them, adults.

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How Grimms’ Fairy Tales can lead to even grimmer fairy tales

It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when someone slips you a few searching questions.  I loved doing this interview with fellow (if a little, ahem, younger) university graduate and writer Amna Boheim http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/.  Who knew that early exposure to toadstools, matryoshka-red-fly-agaric-mushroom-mushrooms-forestgingerbread houses and angry kings could set you on the path to Hell and pacts with demons?  I mean, they could have led to botany, cookery and, oh, I don’t know, the Wars of the Roses.

But in my case they didn’t.

 

 

pexels-photo-185360Discover more about the tangled roots of Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst on Amna’s blog:

http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/ 

Banbury Literary Live – a magical festival

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What a terrific audience for my talk on The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst at Banbury Literary Live on Sunday!

There were 4 other talks going on at the same time, including one on a children’s story about football, so with that competition I’d have been happy if only a handful of people had turned up to mine. To my delight, a good couple of dozen adults and children were intrigued enough by the sound of Elizabethan magic and demons to plump for me. Yesss!

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John Dee’s crystal ball. British museum.

No demons/spells/charms/crystal balls actually appeared – apart from in the slides, that is – but the audience’s keenness and knowledge, especially in the case of some of the younger members, with-girlimpressed me no end. Some very perceptive questions – again, coming mainly from those under 13 – got a fascinating discussion going on magic, legends, Dr Dee and the craft of writing in general. Ah, and Ante’s Inferno got a look in too.

Thank you, Banbury Literary Live, for having me to your thoroughly enjoyable literary festival.

The Very Model of a Modern Self-Publishing Conference

Well, I hoped to learn a few things…  but the amount of useful information I took away hugely exceeded all expectations. If you want a model of an intelligently put together, well-run, stimulating conference, with something to offer everyone no matter how new or, er, not-so-new to the writing business, this year’s Self-Publishing Conference at Leicester on Saturday 7 May was it.

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Caroline Sanderson

Keynote speaker Caroline Sanderson, Associate Editor of the Bookseller, set the tone. Self-publishing was no longer the poor relation of traditional publishing; instead, it’s producing books of top literary, design and production values. Of the titles that have caught her eye she showed us 8 self-published ones, in a range of genres, whose striking cover designs match the high quality of their contents, all of which deserved as much recognition as the best of books produced by more traditional methods. Her enthusiasm was echoed by Professor Alison Baverstock of Kingston University in the plenary session later in the day, whose research into the effect self-publishing has had on the book market in the UK has led to some fascinating results.

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Alison Baverstock

In particular, Alison demolished that old, tired slander: ‘self-publishing is publishing without an editor.’ On the contrary, her researches show that authors independently seeking critiques and other editorial services have opened up a whole new area of employment to delighted freelance editors, no longer solely dependent on traditional publishing companies.

Arranged around these two addresses were four individual sessions to choose from and that’s where the difficulty started. How to select from the several talks on different aspects of writing, editing, designing and promoting offered for each session? At least my first choice presented no problem: I’ve long wanted to know about audiobooks and the chance of an hour’s instruction from James Peak, owner of Essential Music, was too good to miss. He did a brilliant job – with a kind of engaging scattiness – of describing the process, including tips on how to save money by reading your book yourself – gulp. I filled four pages of notes.

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Excellent bookshop!

Then came the Historical Fiction session, and – gulpissimo – my first ever experience of speaking at a conference, rather than just making notes and eating cake. Luckily a maximum of 5 minutes was expected from me and the panel audience listened kindly to my dos and don’ts when writing historical fiction for children, agreeing that this was now a sadly neglected genre compared to the great days of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault, Roger Lancelyn Green and Henry Treece. Helen Hollick, heading the panel, gave illuminating insights into the historical fiction market for adults, both in the UK and the USA, while Lucienne Boyce’s contribution was a truly awe-inspiring lesson in serious, detailed research, from Real Books In Libraries (away with Wikipedia!) to original magazines, newspapers, site visits and railway timetables.

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With Helen Hollick and Lucienne Boyce on Historical Fiction Panel. Photo: Debbie Young

Two more sessions followed lunch (which included macaroons!* Bliss).
Mike Bodnar’s
amusing talk on Self-promotion for Self-publishers provided a wealth of ideas, some standard, some cheerfully quirky, on how to get your books flying off the shelves (actually, trundling steadily would do for me); while Clive Herbert of Nielsen’s explanation of metadata and ISBNs proved much more interesting than you might guess from those rather scary words, and gave information that every author, however published, should know.

In between sessions it was great to mingle with other attendees, eat cake, make new friends and meet lots of lovely Matador people whose names I knew well but who I’d never spoken face to face with before. All in all, congratulations to Troubador for hosting a super conference and looking after us all so well, not least with the many refreshments provided throughout the day, right up to delicious, restorative canapés at the end (wine too but alas I was driving).

And did I mention there was cake?**macaroons1

*The First Rule of the Enid Blyton school of writing: tell them about the food. 

** See note above.

 

5 best reads of 2015

Interesting to see what’s happened to my reading tastes this year.  I read far more children’s books – all highly regarded – than any other genre but only one stood out for me. Of my other 4 top reads, 3 are memoirs of lives, extraordinary, all of them, for very different reasons. Perhaps sometimes truth isn’t just stranger than fiction but a good deal more exciting.

Stet by Diana Athill

Stet

If I were to make one New Year’s resolution (which I don’t, being far too weak-willed), it would be to read more Diana Athill. Having read a number of her short stories, I knew I’d be in for a treat with this memoir of her long, distinguished career in publishing. She writes beautifully and sparingly, looking back with a clear, unflinching eye. Her description of what it was like working for the brilliant but volatile Andre Deutsch is hilarious, while several other colleagues and authors do not escape her sharp pen. Frustratingly, when she describes the second worst career mistake she ever made (something to do with V S Naipaul), she leaves dangling the teasing question of what the worst one could have been… did she tell J K Rowling not to quit the day job?

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

So much praise has been heaped on this book I feared it would prove to be a disappointment – especially when the premise seemed so weird. A mystery centering on the art of making tiny pieces of furniture for doll’s houses? I dreaded another My Name is Red,  which I found unreadable (fans of Orhan Pamuk, feel free to pelt me with illuminated manuscripts now).

To my joy, The Miniaturist proved very readable indeed. Inspired by a magnificent 16th century doll’s house in the Rijksmuseum, Jessie Burton has concocted a dark, gripping tale of young Petronella Oortmann leaving a poor but sun-filled childhood in the Dutch countryside for incarceration in the gloomy house of a prosperous merchant in Amsterdam. To give her something to do, her new husband tasks her with furnishing a doll’s house, as if control over an imitation of real life could compensate for none in reality. Yet even that small power is gradually eroded by the unknown miniaturist, whose exquisite creations reveal an uncanny, almost supernatural knowledge of details of the family and household and the threat hanging over them all… Brrrr.

Forever X by Geraldine McCaughrean

Forever X

Not a new book – published in 1999, in fact, and possibly out of print.  I hope not. Geraldine  McCaughrean is a terrific children’s author who writes in a wide range of genres – historical, contemporary, fantasy, myth, literary classics – excelling in all of them.  This delightful, slightly bonkers tale of a car breakdown which lands Joy and her family in a hotel that celebrates Christmas all the year round moves from surreal beginnings to a warm, funny, very human story about overcoming family difficulties.

 

I Will Try by Legson Kayira

I Will Try

Researching Malawian history, I stumbled on this extraordinary book and had to download it to my kindle. In 1958 a 16 year-old boy, inspired both by the motto of the Livingstonia Secondary School in Karonga and his own thirst to learn, decided he was going to study in America. Not having any money or other means to get there, he walked through Nyasaland (Malawi), Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan, where in the library in Khartoum, he found a directory of American universities and chose the first one to meet his eye: Skagit Valley College in Washington State. Astonished US consular officials helped him take up the scholarship that Skagit Valley, who must have been astounded by such motivation, promptly offered him, and he started his degree course a mere 2 years after setting out on his journey.

Kayira’s clear, detailed account of every step of the way is very readable, and his difficulties in adapting to American culture amusingly and touchingly drawn. A memoir added in 2012 by his widow, Julie Kayira, sketches out his subsequent life as a gifted writer and successful civil servant. An extraordinary achievement, by any measure; yet I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the family left behind in the village in Malawi.

Lifting the Latch

Lifting the Latch

You know how, when a friend presses a book on you ‘because you’ll love it’, you almost don’t want to read it; you already have a stack of unread volumes teetering by your bedside and weren’t looking to borrow another one just now. So you put it aside and, coming across it 3 months later, open it guiltily, intending to skim it before returning it to the poor friend who by now wants it back… and then are absolutely hooked. So hooked that the last thing you want to do is read it quickly; you want to take time to absorb every tiny detail, every ring of Montgomery Abbott’s voice that Sheila Stewart has captured so beautifully.

Born in Oxford in 1902, Old Mont recounts his life growing up in a tiny cottage in Enstone before spending a long, hardworking life bound to the land, as a farm labourer and later on, shepherd. I expected a prosaic read with some interesting historical detail: what I got was a vivid, lovingly-observed memoir from a man whose greatness of soul left me with no words to describe it. Old Mont’s voice bursts from the page with such warmth, freshness and a vision frequently poetic, that I can’t tell where his account ends and Sheila Stewart’s masterful shaping of it begins. Mont’s good humour, kindness, appetite for hard manual labour (and I mean, hard) and sheer stoicism in the face of some really awful bad luck (minor setbacks and heartbreaking tragedy are met equally with his cheerful ‘Us’ll get over it’) had me often in tears. Of all the books read in 2015, this is the one that has stayed with me most and I can’t stop telling everyone about it.

Which just shows that my friend was spot on.

How to Host a Diabolical Book Launch

IMG_6732Cor, what a weekend! Blackwell’s Bookshop hosted a FABULOUS launch fest on Friday for The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst. Much Feasting and Fun and a Foison (oh dear, I’m running out of Fs) of books sold.  It was a huge pleasure to see so many friends and particularly children enjoying Hetty Gullifer’s devilish canapés (Gullifer Eats) P1020410and listening in awed hushsomeness to extracts from the book given by two very polished young readers. No Faustian pacts were made (at least I hope not), though I couldn’t help noticing that some of the guests had adopted Mephistopheles’s signature colours of scarlet and blaP1020475ck in their dress.

Uncanny, eh.P1020321

Then lovely invitations from two of my favourite websites to contribute an article. First, a guest blog on Childtastic Books all about the ideas behind The Tragickall HIstory of Henry Fowst.  Then, How to Write a Book on Muddy Stilettos (nothing to it, er, nothing to it at all. Cough cough.)

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Phew. A well-earned rest beckons.

What do you mean, it’s only Tuesday?

The Countdown Begins….

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A momentous thing happened this weekend.  I passed the text and covers for The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst for press.

See, I said it was momentous.

OK, not in the greater scheme of things.  But that point when you stop correcting and rewriting (even at page proof stage – shocking, I know) and decide that yes, you could go on tinkering for ever, but with editors, friends, relations, readers and the nice man delivering a package who clearly wished he hadn’t ALL telling you it’s fine, and you sign it off – yes, that.

When you watch your book sail beyond your reach into the hands of publishers and printers and wait for it to emerge in numberless copies, bound, gleaming, and with that wonderful smell of new paper and ink. Gulp.

But despite the butterflies, I can’t wait.  This stunning cover (designer, Pete Lawrence; artist, Hilary Paynter) – showing the moment 13 year-old Henry stumbles on a mysterious, ancient diary in the school library – expresses so well the magical atmosphere of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst  that I’m longing to see it wrapped around the finished copies.

The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating.  With publication day on 28th August, I’m banking on hordes of readers returning from their holidays having devoured every book in sight and casting round hungrily for more.

Happy scoffing, dear readers!