I attended the London Book Fair again this year – my fourth time! I attended first back in 2011 as a publishing intern and did not make the most of it, but since then, I’ve made sure to attend all the wonderful seminars they have on offer. I blogged about New Adult last year and Growing Up Too Soon the year before that. This year, one of my favourite seminars was Why YA?, in which Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2013-2015 Malorie Blackman talked about why she will be focusing on promoting reading to teens and young adults during her laureateship. Also on the panel was Melissa Cox, children’s buyer for Waterstones and one of my favourite people in the book industry, and Jonathan Douglas, Director for National Literacy Trust, who did a brilliant job as chairperson.
I had never heard Malorie Blackman speak before, despite having read her books and as an actual teenager, so I was really looking forward to it and it ended up being a highlight of the fair – I can see why so many people were excited about her being appointed as Children’s Laureate last year. But on with the seminar!
I have no idea how this blogpost is going to work as I’m just typing up the notes I was furiously scribbling down (I wanted to make a note of everything as it was all so wonderful, passionate and genuine – by everyone on the panel), so here we go… I haven’t always specified who said what, so I’m sorry about that!
- UK film industry is less likely to look at YA books to adapt into films compared to the US (especially those that feature ethnic minorities), so this is one of the reasons Malorie Blackman wanted Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) to take place alongside London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) – young adult fiction, comics and films are all fun, so it’s a perfect fit.
- Malorie Blackman loves comics, films and games, and they all influence her writing in some way, such as the tendency to leave emotional or actual cliffhangers, like comics used to, although her writing has changed over the past 20 years.
- Children and teenagers are honest readers who will put books down if they’re not enjoying them, so stories have to be more ‘immediate’, as in films, games and comics.
- It’s not just the ‘digital’ people in publishing who are competing for attention – everyone is and there’s certain kinds of people who go into Waterstones whereas teenagers embrace everything, from games to YouTube videos – and they are reading books, but different kinds of books.
- Young Adult is susceptible to trends and it can be difficult to find longevity, although Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses is an excellent example of a series that has continued to sustain popularity.
- Melissa Cox confirmed that it’s not just children who are buying YA, 50% of YA buyers are aged 18-24 for Waterstones. In Waterstones, 12+ and 16+ can be found in the same section. Is this to do with society’s obsession with staying young and having an idealised childhood, particularly influenced by US e.g. obsessed with firsts, owning your own car, and freedom?
- Melissa Cox told us a great story of two 11-year-old boys who were in the cinema watching Catching Fire and at the end said ‘Katniss is just the boss!’, to illustrate that boys will engage with young adult, even books with female protagonists (which, although not connected, is appropriate to counter yesterday’s story in the press…).
- YA often has better plots and is well-written, plus it tells a unique psychological experience.
YA: Uncomfortable Issues and Censorship
- Malorie Blackman loves YA’s ‘subversive’ nature and the way it questions everything, which had a lot to do with why she started to write it. One of the first YA novels she read was Melvin Burgess’ Junk (also known as Smack in the US), because there never used to be teenage fiction, just children’s and adult. She especially loves to write subject matters that make adults uncomfortable!
- Malorie Blackman hears a lot of adults say that her books are ‘not suitable for children’, but she never hears children say this! She would rather have a debate/discussion about important, difficult issues than have her children be misinformed. People need to trust that their kids can handle it, and if not, discuss it, although she understands that parents want to protect their children.
- There isn’t anything that Malorie Blackman wouldn’t write about, although she wouldn’t be gratuitous – the important thing is how it is done.
- It’s all about having a balanced reading experience! You can read both Geek Girl and Junk. She encourages people to read as many books and as many authors as possible.
- Malorie Blackman finds that censorship is less ‘honest’ in the UK compared to the US, as in we often don’t outright say we’re ‘banning’ a book, but some librarians have told her that they steer children away from some kinds of books.
- Malorie Blackman visited Great Ormond Street hospital and she was surprised to find a group of 6 and 7-year-olds had written stories where all but one were violent! She thinks it is important to make sure that children know what is going on in the real world, although she’ll never write a book that doesn’t have a hopeful (although this doesn’t mean happy) ending, as it’s important for children to know that they can emerge from whatever situation they are in.
- We should try to ensure that teenagers get a well-rounded view because they will get their information from somewhere.
- Does she worry that other writers won’t handle issues responsibly? Malorie Blackman can only be responsible for what she writes, but argued that very few writers tackle issues gratuitously. She can only hope that teenagers will read around the topic, and receive a balanced view, if they do come across these kinds of books.
- Melissa Cox was asked whether, as a bookseller, censorship was a concern. She said that she has a responsibility to parents, but that if it is a real experience that would happen to a teenager, then it counts as teenage fiction/YA and so will be shelved there, although older paranormal romance, which is what teenagers have also been enjoying, is shelved in a different, genre-specific, section. Melissa has found that in general, publishers take responsibly for this themselves and know what is and isn’t suitable.
YA and Diversity
- We need more culturally diverse books, but it’s almost gone backwards in the UK, as there are so few books available. It used to be that children’s literature was progressive, but now it seems like adult books are more diverse.
- It’s why she goes into schools – to encourage others to write and make it know that it’s a career path, but it’s not just about ethnicity, also class, etc., so she encourages children to do what they whatever it is that they want to do in life.
- There is often a failure to market to a new audience, so it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – poorer people buy half as a many books.
- Melissa Cox spoke about how one of the most popular categories on the WattPad was Muslim Romance, so there’s obviously a market for it!
- Young people are genuinely passionate about social justice and care about this issue.
Malorie Blackman on Writing
- Malorie Blackman cannot write in short bursts like some authors, she needs to submerge herself in the writing process, so at the moment writing is on hold because she wants to make the most of her two years as laureate.
- Malorie tries to do all sorts of creative things for inspiration and for coming up with ideas – learning Chinese, playing the piano, watching films, visiting galleries and the theatre, and she even took a course on forensic science. If you’re a writer who is stuck for ideas, get out there and do something!
- Would Malorie ever write historical fiction? She wrote a story for Tony Bradman’s anthology, Stories of WWI, so she might come back to more war stories, but she prefers fiction set in the future because there’s less research to do! But she may turn to a story set ‘before slavery’.
- Malorie does not feel pressure to keep language too simplistic and there’s plenty of young adult literature with complex world-building, such as Northern Lights. If the world is convincing, complex language can be a part of that.
- There is a mix of both commercial and literary young adult fiction out there, although you often need to search to find the literary.
So, that was it! I had such an enjoyable time and it was a joy to listen to three people who are so immensely passionate about children’s and young adult literature and who all want teenagers – and adults! – to experience this wonderful area of publishing. Booktrust filmed the panel, so I’ll include the video here once it’s up. Did you attend this seminar? Do let me know if I’ve missed anything out in the comments!