If you’re looking for a creepy horror book to sink your teeth into this winter, I can highly recommend Under My Skin by Juno Dawson. This book reminded me why I read horror when I was a teenager, except it was infinitely better than anything I read back in the day.
At 17 years old Sally Feathers is just like a lot of young women her age, desperate to make it to the end of school in one piece without any major traumas. Her routine and ordinary life is changed when she encounters a mysterious tattoo parlour in the seedier side of town and is instantly drawn to an image of the beautiful Molly Sue.
Sally images having a secret Molly Sue tattoo on her back will inspire her with the confidence to get a part in the school musical, and perhaps talk to that hot guy who’s dating one of the cool girls. What she didn’t bargain on is Molly Sue having other ideas.
This is an exquisite YA book exploring deeply disturbing ideas of power, loneliness, confidence, identity – all through the medium of carefully crafted and interesting characters in their high school setting. I loved this book and how the strong voices and personalities of the characters shone through the fast moving plot.
Atmospheric and dark, but full of personality and courage, this book is the perfect read for a warm night inside on these dark nights.
Meet Jack Rothman. He’s seventeen and loves partying, makeup and boys – sometimes all at the same time. His sex life makes him the hot topic for the high school gossip machine. But who cares? Like Jack always says, ‘it could be worse’. He doesn’t actually expect that to come true.
But after Jack starts writing an online sex advice column, the mysterious love letters he’s been getting take a turn for the creepy. Jack’s secret admirer knows everything: where he’s hanging out, who he’s sleeping with, who his mum is dating. They claim they love Jack, but not his unashamedly queer lifestyle. They need him to curb his sexuality, or they’ll force him.
As the pressure mounts, Jack must unmask his stalker before their obsession becomes genuinely dangerous.
This book could be one of the most important books published in recent years, if it manages to spark the debates that it is perfectly placed to talk about. It is full of humour, is uplifting, is packed with social commentary, it talks about sex and relationships, and it’s also a thriller – it has everything.
But let’s focus on the thing that everyone wants to talk about…
It is “graphic” in it’s descriptions of sex, depending on your frame of reference, because it depends on what you’re used to. I mean, I’ve read Oscar Wilde’s Telany – this books ain’t got nothing on that! I didn’t find it especially graphic but it is a book for teenagers, and has teenagers characters and going into it readers should be aware of the graphic nature of some sexual descriptions. If that isn’t your thing, don’t read it.
Some reviewers have commented that they didn’t find the book realistic, because “sensible” teenagers don’t behave like the characters. I know trashing teenagers is a bloodsport that so many people love, but let’s give it a rest. Just because you like sex does not mean you’re not “sensible”. Just because you drink or go to parties does not mean you’re not “sensible”. Yes, many of the characters do some questionable things that that occasionally regret in the morning (who doesn’t regret a raging hangover the next day!) but that is part of growing up and learning. It’s a part of learning that even us “sensible” adults are still doing in our 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond. At work I am surround by young people, in their late teens and early twenties. These are “sensible” young people who are studying at one of the best universities in the world, and while I have no idea of the intimate details (to the level of this book) of what they get up to in the privacy of their rooms, I can guarantee you that this book accurately represents what some teenagers are like.
Not all teenagers are the same, they are not one homogenous block and do not all have the same interests, desires, pastimes. They do not all need the same level of support.
Many MANY teenagers will not like this book (as, judging by some reviews on Goodreads, many adults will not either), but let’s stop pretending that teenagers aren’t like the characters in this book, and that many young people won’t identify with them.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but it seems it has to be time and again, that you don’t need to identify with a character – and agree with everything they do – in order to enjoy a book. You don’t need to be like Jack in order to love this book (I managed it). There is so much more to this book than just graphic sex scenes, so I’m going to move on now.
This book repeatedly brings up the subject of consent, and works through the layers of it really well. It talks about not being pressured by society to have sex just because everyone else seems to be doing it. It talks about not being pressured by a partner to do anything that you’re not 100% comfortable with. It talks about how sex should be a constant dialogue, making sure that you are both comfortable with what is happening at all times, and how it’s okay to stop at any point if you don’t feel comfortable.
There are moments when some characters don’t behave with much thought for their safety, such as getting so drunk they don’t remember how they got home. I’ve already addressed above how situations such as this do happen as part of human growth (and don’t just happen to teenagers), and I found parts like this realistic and in keeping with the characters personality and approach to life.
A key aspect of this books success is that it somehow manages to preach a message, without feeling like the reader is being told what to do or think. The advice columns that Jack writes do feel like lessons, but they’re kinda supposed to due to what they are – the rest of the book manages to give the reader a sense of who these characters are, and the ways in which they mess up and try to fix things again, without it coming across like the author is giving a sermon.
Don’t be too gay
The most important aspect (for me) is how this book addresses homophobia – including the internalised homophobia of some gay characters. This was an absolute breath of fresh air in a book, and something that needs to be said loud so we can start to talk about it.
Too often, LBGTQ+ content is sanitised before it is allowed to be put out into the world, and this seems especially true in the past, and true of YA content. I hope that we are now turning a corner when we can be more honest about the lives of LGBTQ+ people, and our voices can be heard. However, we are far from out of the straight woods yet. In 2018 a gay film won an Oscar after it stripped out all but the merest hints of sex (yes, I know many people think Call Me By Your Name has a lot of sexual content, but read the book and then come and talk to me about how let down we were by the director). There is a sense in much LGBTQ+ media that we have received acceptance from the world when it comes to love, but only if we don’t talk about sex, only if we don’t conform to stereotypes, only if we are indistinguishable from everyone else in the straight cis world. Honestly, it’s exhausting! It effectively puts LGBTQ+ people back into the closet, where they cannot be the true authentic versions of themselves. What does this have to do with Jack of Hearts (and other parts)? Well, that is something at the heart of the book, it is at it’s very core and runs throughout. Jack puts himself out into the world as someone who conforms to a lot of the stereotypes people have about gay men, and he struggles against both straight people and some gay people who think he “is giving gays a bad name”. Jack is being asked to change who he is, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of a society that would rather gay men are quiet and never have sex (or certainly never talk about it).
I hope this book finds its way onto the YA shelves of bookshops, libraries, and schools – as well as into the hands of adults who will love it just as much. It’s an important book that needs to be read.
Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) is out in the US and UK in eBook on 30th October 2018. It’s out in paperback in the UK in February 2019. You can preorder now:
I recently spent an afternoon in the amazing Gay’s The Word and came home with a fantastic selection of 8 books to recommend you all. There were a few I went in deliberately to buy, but most gathered from browsing. I think I walked backwards and forwards around the shop a hundred times trying to decide what to leave behind, it was such a hard decision. Eventually we came home with a shoulder-aching haul that are my picks for September:
Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England by Neil McKenna Non-Fiction/Biography
28th April 1870. The flamboyantly dressed Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton are causing a stir in the Strand Theatre. All eyes are riveted upon their lascivious oglings of the gentlemen in the stalls. Moments later they are led away by the police. What followed was a scandal that shocked and titillated Victorian England in equal measure. It turned out that the alluring Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton were no ordinary young women. Far from it. In fact, they were young men who liked to dress as women. When the Metropolitan Police launched a secret campaign to bring about their downfall, they were arrested and subjected to a sensational show trial in Westminster Hall. As the trial of ‘the Young Men in Women’s Clothes’ unfolded, Fanny and Stella’s extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores were revealed to an incredulous public. With a cast of peers, politicians and prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives, “Fanny and Stella” is a Victorian peepshow, exposing the startling underbelly of nineteenth-century London. By turns tragic and comic, meticulously researched and dazzlingly written, “Fanny and Stella” is an enthralling tour-de-force.
Hild by Nicola Griffith Historical Fiction
Britain in the seventh century – and the world is changing. Small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. Edwin, King of Northumbria, plots his rise to overking of all the Angles. Ruthless and unforgiving, he is prepared to use every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Into this brutal, vibrant court steps Hild – Edwin’s youngest niece.
With her glittering mind and powerful curiosity, Hild has a unique way of reading the world. By studying nature, observing human behavior and matching cause with effect, she has developed the ability to make startlingly accurate predictions. It is a gift that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.
It is also a valuable weapon. Hild is indispensable to Edwin – unless she should ever lead him astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can see the future and lead men like a warrior.
The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai Fiction
In Sri Lankan myth, a person who dies may be reborn a “hungry ghost”–a ghost with a large stomach that can never be filled through its tiny mouth–if he has desired too much during his life. It is the duty of the living to free the dead who are doomed to this fate by transferring karma from their own good deeds. In Shyam Selvadurai’s masterful new novel, Shivan, a troubled young man of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese ancestry, is preparing to travel from Toronto, Canada, to the land of his childhood, Sri Lanka, to rescue his ailing grandmother and bring her back to die. But on the eve of his departure–as Shivan meditates on his turbulent past, recalls his gradual discovery of his homosexuality, and wrestles with his complicated relationship with the wily old woman–he discovers just how much his own heart’s desires are entwined with the volatile political, racial, and sexual mix of Sri Lanka’s past and present. In the end, Shivan must decide: will he rescue his grandmother, or join her? The Hungry Ghosts is an unconventional exploration of the immigrant experience; a tale of family ties and the long reach of the past; and a heart-wrenching look at how racial, political, and sexual differences can tear apart a country, a family, and a human being.
Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin YA Historical Fiction
In the summer of 1926, sixteen-year-old Garnet Richardson is sent to a lake resort to escape the polio epidemic in the city. She dreams of indulging her passion for ornithology and visiting the famous new amusement park–a summer of fun before she returns for her final year of high school, after which she’s expected to marry a nice boy and settle into middle-class homemaking. But in the country, Garnet finds herself under the supervision of equally oppressive guardians–her father’s wealthy cousin and the matron’s stuck-up daughter. Only a liberating job in a hat shop, an intense, secret relationship with a daring and beautiful flapper, and a deep faith in her own fierce heart can save her from the suffocating boredom of traditional femininity.
The Charioteer by Mary Renault Fiction
Injured at Dunkirk, Laurie Odell, a young corporal, is recovering at a rural veterans’ hospital. There he meets Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly. The men find solace in each other’s friendship, which slowly develops into a covert, chaste romance. Then Ralph Lanyon appears, a mentor from Laurie’s school days, and now a naval officer. Through him, Laurie is drawn into a tight-knit circle of gay men with few illusions about life, and for whom liaisons are fleeting. He is forced to choose between the ideals of a perfect friendship and the pleasures of experience.
First published in 1953, The Charioteer is a a tender, intelligent coming-of-age novel and a bold, unapologetic portrayal of homosexuality
Fighting Proud: The Untold Story of the Gay Men Who Served in Two World Wars by Stephen Bourne Non-Fiction/History
Unearthing the stories of the gay men who served in the armed forces and at home, and bringing to light the great unheralded contribution they made to the war effort. Fighting Proud weaves together the remarkable lives of these men, from RAF hero Ian Gleed – a Flying Ace twice honoured for bravery by King George VI – to the infantry officers serving in the trenches on the Western Front in WWI – many of whom led the charges into machine-gun fire only to find themselves court-marshalled after the war for indecent behaviour. Behind the lines, Alan Turing’s work on breaking the -enigma machine- and subsequent persecution contrasts with the many stories of love and courage in Blitzed-out London, with new wartime diaries and letters unearthed for the first time. Bourne tells the bitterly sad story of Ivor Novello, who wrote the WWI anthem -Keep the Home Fires Burning, – and the crucial work of Noel Coward – who was hated by Hitler for his work entertaining the troops. Fighting Proud also includes a wealth of long-suppressed wartime photography.
Moonstruck, Volume One: Magic to Brew by Grace Ellis & Shae Beagle Fantasy/Graphic Novel
Werewolf barista Julie and her new girlfriend go on a date to a close-up magic show, but all heck breaks loose when the magician casts a horrible spell on their friend Chet. Now it’s up to the team of mythical pals to stop the illicit illusionist before it’s too late.
The Flower Beneath The Foot by Ronald Firbank Fiction/Satire
At the fantastical court of King Willie and Her Dreaminess the Queen of Pisuerga, maid of honour Laura de Nazianzi and His Weariness Prince Yousef whisper promises to each other in the palace gardens. But Laura is destined for disappointment. The King and Queen have plans for a royal wedding for their Prince, and the young woman in their sights is none other than Princess Elsie of England. The court is all aflutter.
First published in 1923, Ronald Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot is a flamboyant court satire and lyrical tour de force of innuendo and eccentricity. Read by many as a subversive celebration of homosexuality, this is a classic of modernist literature from a stylist like no other.
All these books are available from Gay’s The Word. I’m starting with some novel research and reading Fighting Proud – if you’ve read any of these let me know what you thought.
I managed to write a post of what I read in July…and then forgot to make it live! So here’s a bumper issue of LGBTQ+ books you can get stuck into as we enter autumn and all stop melting into a sweaty puddle! If you want to receive these updates straight to your inbox, just subscribe here.
I finally got hold of the much anticipated THE MADONNA OF BOLTON, a crowdfunded novel from Unbound that became the fastest funded in their history. It tells the story of Charlie, whose life changes when he gets his first Madonna record on his 9th birthday. The novel follows Charlie’s life from childhood in the 1980s to the present day, with Madonna’s music the ever present back-drop guiding him through life’s difficult moments. A poignant, funny, and ultimately heart-warming of a boy growing up gay in Britain from the 1970s to now.
I also read:I Am Nobody’s N***** by Dean Atta, a collection of poems that I can’t stop thinking about weeks after reading. My Heart Goes Bang by Keris Stainton, yet another brilliant novel from the ever marvellous Keris, funny, uplifting, full of hope and sex – I adored this book a lot. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera– I don’t know why I continue ready Adam’s books when all I do is end up an emotional wreck – this book destroyed me in it’s subject matter and how brilliantly Adam dealt with memory, grief, and coming to terms with your sexuality.
So, what great reads might you have missed that weren’t released this summer? Check out these recommendations below for suggestions you can still get hold of in your book store or library.
Set in Edinburgh during the festival, OUT OF THE BLUE tells the story of Jaya, whose father has, since the death of her mother, become obsessed with angels. His obsession started when angels started falling from the sky. But when an angel falls right in front of Jaya, she must decide how she’s going to keep this secret and protect the angel from the people who would harm the being. This was a completely unexpected story that took me to places I wasn’t prepared for. It is a beautiful story that explores grief and how it’s possible to move on and still find happiness.
Everyone kept telling me to read this book, and they weren’t wrong. STARRING KITTY is the story of 14-year-old Kitty who falls in love with Dylan, a 15-year old girl who lives next door to her gran. Kitty is not coping well with her mum’s illness, and hasn’t yet told her friends that she likes girls. This absolutely adorably cute novel is just perfect, it explores first love and friendship, taking us on a journey as Kitty struggles to bring together all the parts of her life, let Dylan into her world, and open up to her friends about her relationship.
I’m looking forward to getting started on volume 2 of this adorable, funny, beautifully illustrated graphic novel.
When Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, he’s taken in by the only ones who don’t treat him like a new kid, the lowly stage crew known as the Backstagers. Not only does he gain great, lifetime friends, Jory is also introduced to an entire magical world that lives beyond the curtain. With the unpredictable twists and turns of the underground world, the Backstagers venture into the unknown, determined to put together the best play their high school has ever seen.
I’ve bought some books recently that have been added to the top of my to-read pile, and I’m really looking forward to getting around to reading them:
Recently nominated for the Polari Prize, this novel is based on the true story of the arrest and interment of gay men in Sicily 1939.
Francesco has a memory of his father from early childhood, a night when life for his family changed. From that night, he has vowed to protect his mother and to follow the words of his father: Non mollare. Never give up. As Francesco is herded into a camp on the island of San Domino, he realises that someone must have handed a list of names to the fascist police. Locked in spartan dormitories, resentment and bitterness between the men grows each day.
A story about coming of age in rural America, family, love, mystery, and magic. I can’t wait to read this very soon.
Seventeen-year-old Aidan Lockwood lives in the sleepy farming community of Temperance, Ohio?known for its cattle ranches and not much else. That is, until Jarrod, a friend he hasn’t seen in five years, moves back to town and opens Aidan’s eyes in startling ways: to Aidan’s ability to see the spirit world; to the red-bearded specter of Death; to a family curse that has claimed the lives of the Lockwood men one by one . . . and to the new feelings he has developed for Jarrod.
I’m taking a trip to Gay’s The Word next week to purchase more great LGBTQ+ books, so if you have any recommendations let me know. Below are the books I’m looking forward to getting hold of in the next month of so:
Okay, so it’s not out until next year, but get Proud added to your to-read pile (and your Goodreads, and your pre-orders) now. This illustrated anthology from Stripes will be hitting shelves in March, and I know I’m not the only one excited to read all the stories.
I’m gonna be honest with you, full disclosure, I only started to read Running With Lions because I’d been told it was super queer. I’m not a soccer fan, am dubious about most team sports in fact, and wasn’t sure it would be my kinda thing at all. But I read it because I’m always here for the LGBTQ books, and I figured if it was good I could recommend it to others who might like it.
Predictable plot twist: I think this is one of the best LGBTQ YA novels I’ve read this year.
This book is getting a lot of love online, all of it deserved. I think one reason people are so passionate about it is that it speaks to its readers on so many levels. For those who read wanting to see themselves in a book, there is an outstanding range of people represented (sexuality, gender, religion, race, ethnicity – all are dealt with sensitively and effortlessly). For those who read wanting to be taken into a world that isn’t theirs, I guarantee you’ll finish the book wanting to play Soccer (admittedly very briefly, my consideration of team sports lasted a whole hour, but for that hour I was deeply passionate about my new love).
It’s one of those brilliantly written YA novels that is so subtle at drawing you in and getting you inside the minds of characters whose voices are so strong they seem like friends you’ve always known. I did love main character Sebastian and found him rather charming, but I totally fell in love with Emir.
This fantastic novel is the summer soccer camp romance between a bisexual American goalie and his gay British Pakistani former-best-friend-now-enemy YA novel that you’ve been waiting for. This is a funny, uplifting, sexy, romantic, and bloody excellent novel! I can’t wait to read what Julian Winters writes next.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher but I’ll be buying my own copy very soon and you should too – you won’t regret it!
Last year Noah Can’t Even made us all fall in love with the chaotic and mostly hapless Noah Grimes (sorry Noah, we love you, but how do you get yourself into these situations?). This year, be prepared to launch yourself back into Noah’s whirlwind of drama and angst, with the brilliant follow-up Noah Could Never.
Now that Noah and best friend Harry are boyfriends, how is this going to change their friendship? What if Harry decides he’s actually not that interested in weedy Noah but would prefer the much sexier French exchange student Pierre? What disasters will befall Noah when his gran’s diamonds are stolen and he finds himself in the middle of an epic drag queen feud?
I adored Noah Can’t Even and had high expectations going into Book 2. I was worried it might not be as funny, I was worried that it might just be more of the same high-jinks chaos. I didn’t need to worry. Yes, it’s just as funny. Yes, it’s the same chaos you’d expect from Noah Grimes. However, there is so much heart to Noah Could Never. Noah’s life isn’t just a series of chaotic mistakes, they’re believable episodes in the life of someone unsure of themselves and trying to find their way.
I loved that characters we saw briefly in Book 1 (e.g. Bambi Sugapops) are fully realised and developed. I loved that Harry, who we know a bit from Book 1, is explored in greater depths as a person, not just in his relation to Noah. I love that there’s more Gran and I identify with her sassiness in so many ways.
Noah Could Never is the perfect follow-up to the first book. It’s full of emotion, drama, humour, and love. Plus, it made me cry lots, in a good way.
Book 3? I would very much love a book written from Harry’s perspective because I adore him so much, but anything featuring more of the adventures of Noah would be very welcome. Another Book 3 suggestion – Bambi Sugapops, the Novel – you know it makes sense Simon!
Genres: YA, LGBTQ+, Contemporary, Funny
Published:7th June 2018 Available to buy now
I’ve never cared much about getting older, and I try not to regret things from the past, but do I wish YA fiction had been available when I was a teenager, hell yeah!
There are many reasons that I read, write, and love YA: it pushes boundaries and explores topics other fiction is scared to go near, it gives a voice to teenagers who are frequently pushed to the side and their opinions dismissed. One of the things I love most about YA is the amount of LGBTQ+ that can be found among the pages, which makes it relevant to me, and speaks to me in a way that a lot of “adult” fiction never did.
I don’t think YA fiction is perfect or has it sorted in terms of representation. There is still a lot of trans characters being written by cis writers, there is a lot of gay and lesbian teenage characters being brought to life by straight writers, and there is still an under-representation of colour, bisexual, intersex, genderqueer, asexual YA characters. What YA does have is a passion for is pushing this forward and for getting better, and that seems something to be optimistic about.
Below are a few of my recommendations of YA books I think everyone should read:
Simon James Green – Noah Can’t Even
I won’t go on and on and on about how much I love this book (you can read my review here) but my first recommendation is the very British, utterly cringe-inducing, hilarious life of Noah Grimes. I’ve read reviewers describe Noah as gay, I read him as probably bisexual, when my girlfriend read the book she wondered if he was asexual. I think this book is a brilliantly written exploration of a young man who is confused about his sexuality, wondering what it says about him and obsessed with what other people think.
Meredith Russo – If I Was Your Girl
One of the few novels I’ve read with a trans character written by a trans writer, and it shows. A story of a trans girl growing up in America and trying to navigate the line between honesty, being yourself, and protecting yourself from the prejudice still so prevalent for all trans people.
David Levithan – Two Boys Kissing
This novel is about more than just two boys trying to break the world record for the longest kiss, there are four stories interwoven into the novel, all related to boys coming to terms with coming out and the reactions of the people around them. The overall narrator is the voice of an older generation of gay men who have lost their lives to AIDS. It is these narrators that really start to pull the emotional punches as they lament the glorious possibilities the lives of young men have now, possibilities that were so cruelly denied to them.
Nina LaCour & David Levithan – You Know Me Well
I couldn’t write a blog post to coincide with Pride month without including this fantastic novel. Told in alternating view points it follows the story of Kate and Mark who become best friends after one moment of bonding in a gay bar. It shows LGBTQ+ young people comfortable with their sexuality and receiving support from the people around them. We need more novels that explore LGBTQ+ friendships and that explore the importance of having friends.
What I want to read more of is books that feature more genderqueer teens, more bisexual teens, more non-white characters – and if these could be British that would be amazing. Give me your recommendations of the best YA you’ve read recently.
With his debut novel Simon James Green has written one of the funniest books I have ever read. I wouldn’t recommend reading whilst eating (I nearly choked) or whilst drinking (I nearly spat my tea all over the pages and ruined them) or whilst…sitting (I nearly fell off my chair laughing). I may be being too cautious, but the danger is real!
Noah Grimes is painfully awkward, socially uncomfortable, and has an amazing knack for getting himself (or talking himself) into the most ridiculous situations.
Noah’s life is already difficult enough, trying to stop everyone finding out his mum does a Beyonce tribute act, and trying to get Sophie to like him, but his world is turned upside down when his best friend Harry kisses him at a party. What follows is a turbulent journey through Noah’s path of self-discovery.
Noah is an incredibly likable character and is written with a distinctive voice unlike anything I’ve read recently. Funny, charming, emotional, and an outstanding exploration of a young man trying to understand his sexuality whilst also trying to just be as normal as everyone else. I love this book so much, and I really hope we get to read more of Noah’s adventures in future.
Genres: LGBTQ+, Contemporary, Young Adult
Published: May 4th 2017 I bought my copy of Noah Can’t Even from Wordery
Before I start, a short disclaimer: Whilst I did furiously take as many extensive notes as I could nothing below is a direct quote, and I have sometimes shortened a longer point to address the overall idea of what was said for brevity. Any errors are my mistake and unintentional, please let me know if I’ve got anything incorrect.
Some highlights of the evening were Mel introducing herself with reference to her super cute brace-induced lisp; Mel expressing an interest in writing raunchy Mills & Boon Nana stories. There were things other than Mel being adorable though, of course.
I should start by saying a thank you to Blackwell’s Oxford for hosting, and Peter Meinertzhagen for hosting and asking the questions.
The panel started by bragging about all having been on panels with Alwyn Hamilton so I believe this is now the benchmark for success as an author. Have you spoken alongside Alwyn? Yes? Then you’ve made a successful career!
On a panel about YA writing you may have noticed that not everyone’s books are always categorised as YA. While Samantha’s books are published by the adult arm of Bloomsbury in the UK, in some countries they are classified as YA and often deal with YA themes (more on that in a bit). Kiran’s books are sometimes classified as Middle Grade (MG) or YA, and Mel’s books are strictly YA.
Peter started by asking all three about how they got into writing YA/Children’s, and if it was deliberate.
Kiran didn’t know she wanted to/was writing a children’s book from the start. As part of her masters in creative writing she started off writing poetry, but also had to write some prose and it was in this that she first wrote the story of a young girl. This character stuck with her and she kept on writing. It was whilst doing this that realised perhaps she was writing a children’s book (or a YA/Childrens cross-over). Her agent was the one who suggest a shift toward MG but Kiran just wrote what she wanted to, without a strict adherence to what one market wants.
Samantha isn’t technically a YA author but everyone in YA is happy to steal her and claim her as one of their own. The main character of The Bone Season books, Paige, is 19 and this is an awkward age for YA (a little too old) but also awkward for adult books (a little too young). In YA a story is oftentimes about a protagonist discovering what makes them different, finding their place in the world, and this is why The Bone Season books fit so well into YA.
Mel wrote YA on purpose and it’s her favourite kind of book to read because YA is the category that pushes forward the most. YA is the most exciting, diverse, innovative area of publishing. Adult publishing is so far behind, YA is the one pushing boundaries. YA is about the immediacy of life because that’s what being a teenager is like. I was struck by Mel’s obvious adoration of teenagers, especially teenage girls, and her respect for them.
Kiran said that the age of her protagonist in The Girl of Ink and Stars was changed by the publishers, from 12 to 13, as the publishers thought it was the most appropriate age for what the character goes through. In her new book, The Island at the End of Everything, the main character’s age was changed from 10 to 12, Kiran doesn’t have a problem with this. It is important you trust your publisher, and that you can talk to them and you know you can push against things – but they know what they’re doing so if you trust them, go with them.
Peter then asked how important the age of the protagonist is in YA.
Samantha talked about The Priory of the Orange Tree and how all the characters are different ages, the oldest being a 64 year old. She hopes it still appeals to lots of people as she’s never had problems relating to characters who were younger/older than her. When she started writing The Bone Season she made Paige the same age as her, 19, and thought it would be nice for them to grow up together. However, she’s since overtaken Paige because she underestimated how slow publishing moves.
Mel talked about how marginalised teens are and how important it is for them to see themselves reflected in YA. Mel hates it when adults who review YA books say the teen characters are making bad choices. YA needs to reflect teens and there is so little space for teens (especially girls). So often the things they’re interested in get devalued, it’s important for YA to validate them.
Peter noted that some claim YA is read mostly by the over 25’s, do YA authors have a responsibility to write what teens want to read, rather than adults?
Mel said that people over 25 didn’t have YA which is why they read it now. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is the book she wanted to read as a teen. Mel’s theory is that the first book you write is the book you needed as a teen.
Kiran‘s favourite book when she was 13 was I One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and this style and use of language informs the way she writes now.
Samantha said that adults connect with YA because at any age the issues are relevant. There are always debates on twitter about YA but it’s important not to forget the teen readers in all that.
Peter then asked the panel if they find it easy to get feedback from teens.
Mel said that Twitter is for old people, but she gets a lot of interaction from teens by using Instagram and Snapchat (but not Facebook).
Kiran does a lot of school visits which is great for immediate feedback. It’s hard to know how successful you are with children because they’re not on social media. So much marketing is the author self-promoting and social media is a big part of this.
Samantha gets a lot of feedback from reviews, although these are mostly done by adults. It’s a shame the Guardian books website shut down, because that often had content written by teens. Her books are in the limbo between YA and adult but she feels that she has more freedom with what she can write in an adult book. While some of the more adult content makes it better as a adult book, a lot of the themes are very YA.
Everyone then went on to discuss what the themes of YA are.
Kiran said that for The Island at the End of Everything she was asked to tone down certain aspects (of a sexual nature) which she is happy to do as long as it doesn’t change the heart of the book.
Mel and Samantha talked about how YA and Children’s books are often categorised together which is why sometimes it can be difficult to know what’s appropriate. Sex in YA is fine.
Kiran identified hope as a theme in children’s books, a book must have hope at the end. In YA this isn’t as necessary, hope can be turned down a notch.
Mel spoke passionately about fan fiction – it’s changed the rules. Teens seek out what they want to read – they want sex scenes. Mel is glad that the era of preachy YA books that are toned down has gone – it’s not what teens want. We owe teens some damn good fiction after this week!
Peter talked about a recent Daily Mail article (to sighs from the room) which said that YA books are too gloomy, and asked what the panel’s thoughts were on that.
After Kiran pointed out how dark Watership Down is, Samantha talked about how much light there is in YA, as well as the dark, but YA writers are pushing boundaries. Books are dark because they reflect the world, and the outlook for many is bleak at the moment. Sam quoted Neil Gaiman when he said that fantasy exists to show us that dragons exist and that they can be defeated.
Kiran said that being a teen has always been hard but YA is writing a way out of the darkness. There is kindness in YA, good doesn’t always prevail but it teaches teens to stay true to yourself and find your people in the darkness.
Mel said that hope is continuous, YA is full of it, just not packed in a friendly way that lies, it gives bites of hope instead.
Peter then started a discussion of the craft of writing and what makes YA different to adult fiction.
Samantha said that YA is slightly more plot driven than some literary fiction. When she was editing The Song Rising her usual editor was on maternity leave so she worked with a someone different who was a YA editor. It was a very different experience, with more cutting, the book was slimmed down so that it was more focused. She found it an exhausting process to write a fast-paced book and would be happy not to do it again.
Mel noted that life as a teen is more plot driven, adult life is more meandering, and that this is reflected in the differences between the types of books. Things happen quickly to teens, they live life at a faster pace, they’re asked to be adults so quickly. As an adult you get more room but teens are asked to make decisions quickly. There is an immediacy to being a teen that seeps into writing. There are more emotional milestones to tick off, as well as life milestones (exams, school, etc). Teens are asked to define themselves quickly.
Kiran pointed out how the first draft of The Girl of Ink and Stars was over 100,000 words long, but the final published version around 50k. There was lots of landscape description which was the first thing to go, it was originally in the third person now in first person. Kiran said it’s important not to get too hung up on differences between YA and adult or on writing to type, just write what you want to.
Peter then asked what could adult fiction writers learn from YA to which Mel immediately responded with “humility”. She went on to say that some adult fiction talks down to you and there is a lot of peer pressure to be living a certain life that is presented in adult fiction (general and literary – not in genre). Kiran agreed and noted that in adult literary fiction there can be a tendency to lie to yourself about what you enjoy so that it says something about you. Some literary authors aren’t earning the attention they get, adult authors are sometimes told they’re great and we’re supposed to believe that without them having to work for it.
Mel then talked about how YA books are rarely seen as “important” or game-changing, but recent exceptions to this are The Hate U Give and Asking For It. Despite the great attention and praise these books have received, they would probably be getting a lot more attention if they weren’t YA. There was a general agreement from the whole panel with Samantha when she said that YA fantasy is doing so many important things that are being ignored, even within YA. The contemporary issue books are the ones given the most attention and praise.
Peter asked if it can sometimes be damaging for a book to be labelled YA? Does it change who reads it and how seriously it’s taken?
The whole panel agreed that YA is taken less seriously. Mel said it becomes seen as frivolous precisely because teen girls like it. But is there a better way of marketing it? Mel doesn’t think so. She said that publishers are passionate about YA and getting it out there, they think it matters.
Kiran agreed, YA is not institutionally supported, children’s authors are not taken seriously, “commercial” is a dirty word. YA and Children’s books are the ones that are making the money but they are not getting the credit they deserve.
Samantha said that how we talk about YA needs to change. In interviews or at events she is never asked questions that adult/literary authors get asked such as “tell us about your character, what are their motivations”. Instead, YA is talked about in simplistic ways – if YA was talked about and reviewed as adult then things would change.
The event finished with Peter asking everyone on the panel what one piece of advice they would give about writing.
Kiran: Write the book you need to write, leave the marketing to someone else. Don’t worry, good writing will out. Focus on the writing and leave everything else to someone else.
Samantha: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Marketing of books is category driven but leave that for someone else to worry about. Keep breaking boundaries. If what you’re writing is a mix of genres that’s fine – it’s okay to write weird!
Mel: Finish your book! You can’t be a writer if you don’t finish. Don’t start planning your career without a finished draft. First drafts are shit, they’re rubbish, they make no sense. Once your first draft is finished you can work on it. Don’t compare your first draft to a published work, there is no comparison. Publishing is what happens when a bunch of experts come in and tell you how to make it possible, they make it good.
Thanks for reading this excessively long post. I know many people were unable to make it so I wanted to cover as much as possible of what was said without interjecting my own thoughts.
This was a fantastic event and it was inspiring to hear three authors I admire so much talking so passionately about the respect we owe to teenagers. Thanks to Oxford Writing Circle for organising and to Kiran, Melinda, and Samantha for such a great evening.
History Is All You Left me is a story that talks about first love, grief, and mental health, in a story so beautifully written it had me crying from the first page until the last.
Written in chapters that alternate between the past and the present, the reader can fall in love with the relationship between Griffin and Theo as they themselves fall into each other, while in the very next chapter we’re brought crashing back down to earth with the devastating grief of the present day.
The portrayal of the grieving process and the different ways in which people deal with death was the most moving part of the story for me. I could identify with Griffin every step of his journey, and felt his devastation, anger, confusion, and hope that love was still alive in some way.
One of the first things that stood out for me was the realistic portrayal of OCD and how it affects every part of someone’s life. It is rare to read about OCD in fiction, nevermind in such a carefully and sensitively handled way.
Another thing I loved was the realistic presentation of sex. To not present it as an unusual thing that two young boys would want to have sex (not only with each other, but with other partners as well) was fantastic to read. The relationships and sex lives of the characters were so well crafted that the characters jumped off the page and became very real and very complicated people as a result.