WHAT AN INTERESTING CONVERSATION …

What an exciting week in the world of commentary about literature for young readers.  First an article in TES  (attached below for anyone who hasn’t read it) and then The Today Programme on Radio 4 follows it up with the author of the TES article having another opportunity to express his thoughts on the world of writing for Young Adults.  (Again link below )

What can I say!  It amazes me constantly that ‘other people’ are sitting around deciding in their great and elevated wisdom and critical ability what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ for Young Adults to read.  That these wise, educated and cultured people have a notion of what is good means that they also have very clear ideas of what is ‘bad’ and bad seems to be anything that the young person might choose for themselves.  Something that engages with the world on issues and concerns that they hold dear and want to address not only in the books that they read but in their lives both personal and political (or is there a difference!)  So much about reading is about entering another world, the world of another person or political situation which allows you to polish and refine your ideas and opinions.  For all of us (young or old) reading is also a way to vicariously experience, an opportunity to polish our opinions through the action of the protagonists without actually having to engage in the acts of rebellion, heroism, self-sacrifice and more.  Through the vicarious sharing in the dramatic actions of Standish Treadwell I might just make a better and more noble choice when facing smaller but no less significant acts of repression in my own life.

So, when someone writes a long article about the risible standard of literature for young adults and seems to have very limited knowledge of what is being read by young adults today I am very keen to know what they think is good. Like the best wish fulfillment fiction my dream comes true the next day when the same commentator suggests that a good book for Young Adults to read at the moment is ‘The Domestic Manners of the Americans’  by Fanny Trollope.  I have never heard of this book but a quick bit of research tells me that it created a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic when it was published in 1832 as the author had ‘caustic views of the Americans’ , and that she found ‘America strongly lacking in manners and learning. ‘  Sounds like just the enlightened, sensible, generous and empathetic literature we need these days to make sense of our fractured world in such troubled times.  Thanks for the tip?  No.  Not really.  But thankfully young adults continue to vote with their feet.  To buy books by wonderful writers like Lisa Williamson, Louise O’Neill, Malorie Blackman, Brian Conaghan, Juno Dawson, Benjamin Zephanian, Alex Wheatle, William Sutcliffe, Laure Halse Anderson, Non Pratt, E Lockhart … someone please stop me

TES Article  

Radio 4 23.08.16 Today Programme the clip with the commentary about YA fiction is at 8:20 am  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07r1qh0

OPEN SUBMISSIONS AND AMAZING WORLDS

It has taken two months of intense and thoughtful reading to read and carefully consider the well over 500 submissions we received to our call out for manuscripts.  And it has been a really fascinating experience for so many reasons.

Firstly, to see themes and ideas that appear through so many books from authors in hugely different and separate parts of the world.  I wonder why this is?  Is it that people are trying to write things similar to books that they have read and love, or similar to books that are selling well.  I have read advice to aspirant writers that you should see what is working in the market place and try to write alongside that.  Based on my past two months I now know that that is very very bad advice.

Secondly, writers all over the world are looking at ways to create engaging, interesting, original and compelling stories for young readers.  Sometimes those stories are so universal in their handling of their story that I feel concerned that something is being missed and the missing thing is taste and flavour.  I do believe as human beings we are all very similar.  We care about fundamentally the same things – love, friendship, family, independence … the list could go on and on BUT (and this is a big but) we come at all these things with such distinct cultural knowledge and that should neither be ignored or made to be an excuse for certain types of behaviour and attitude that may be challenging.   How do we navigate that literary tight rope …  its tough but we have to as writers, publishers and readers.  We want to see ourselves in books, we don’t want to see a neutered version of people but we also don’t want to feel that we are being pigeon-holed.

Thirdly, magic.  The world is full of magic.  Books are full of magic.  Life is full of magic.  The act of writing a book is pure magic and the act of reading one and having life transformed by that book is also magic.  But magic isn’t a get out of jail free card.  Things should not just happen purely because magic exists.  Even magic is logical and has to make sense.  One action has to lead logically on to another.  A crazy mayhem packed plot may not be magic it may just be confusing.

 

William Sutcliffe and writing with a purpose in mind

William Sutcliffe is the author of several books for adults with his last two books published by Bloomsbury aimed at young adults. A distinction he, and no doubt many of readers of YA literature, feels is rather an arbitrary line. Certainly the complexity of ideas, the sophistication of writing and the dilemmas that his characters and therefore his readers have to face is no less challenging in one set of books than the other.   However he does focus in both The Wall and Concentr8 on a cast of characters whose age puts them at that point in life between dependence and independence, powerlessness and empowerment and in both books it is this pivotal moment that forms that moral framework of the narratives.

Concentr8 published by Bloomsbury
Concentr8 published by Bloomsbury

In The Wall Joshua is a young man growing up in a town, in the never explicitly named, Israeli settlements who finds a tunnel to ‘the otherside’ where he is confronted with the reality of the impact of the settlements on the lives of the dispossessed. The wall is a physical presence in the book dividing the two communities but it is also a metaphorical wall between childhood and adulthood, between a boy’s morality and that of his parents. The book is about choices, about Joshua learning the meaning of his parents choices and about starting to make choices of his own. Two words that appear in the book with some frequency are ‘debt’ and ‘atonement’ and when we speak Will points out that there are many biblical references in the book with it in some ways being a contemporary and politicized retelling of the biblical story The Good Samaritan. The dilemma’s and actions of the hero of the novel focus on the way in which Joshua repays a kindness and recognizes his part in the greater actions of society which is not one that he feels sympathy for or a part of.

Concentr8 also focuses on choices and actions and their outcomes and this time with a very different group of young people. Set in the expanse of London’s housing estates these young people are victims of a society that is casting them to the margins by failing them in schools, by drugging them with Ritalin and by giving them no hope of any future. The book begins with echoes of dystopian literature, as William Sutcliffe says ‘feeling quite far-fetched like wild sci-fi’ but quickly uses its tense story telling, excerpts from medical and scientific research and very real portrayal of an ambitious London Mayor to feel incredibly real.

The characters portrayed too are viscerally real from the way that they speak to the camaraderie and bonds that exist between them. William Sutcliffe tells me that he worked for a while in a ‘rough South London school’ that was ‘not really a school, more a holding pen’ and that he feels that the failure to educate means that our society is creating ‘twentieth century canon fodder, a class of people who don’t really get an education, who leave school without any hope of a job and they are just in despair from quite a young age. And under current austerity measures the little hope they have gets worse and worse. These are the characters I wanted to put in to this book. I don’t think that they have much of a voice in our society.’

The Wall published by Bloomsbury
The Wall published by Bloomsbury

While The Wall is told in the first person, Concentr8 is told from multiple viewpoints each chapter clearly labeled by the character whose point of view we are sharing. If The Wall is about making the bigger political story personal Concentr8 is about making the personal story political. Will’s writing is clearly focused on trying to ensure a voice for people. His concerns are that in society we find it easy to marginalize and push out of sight people that fall outside our own set of prejudices about normal. The young men in Concentr8 are the urban marginalized: the people that the media pillories, that are considered difficult in school, who are not invested in the system because they can not see where they fit or what the system does to support them. Using satire to expose the self-interest of politicians in London in the days after a period of rioting the book is also deadly serious as a group of young people kidnap and hold hostage a man who works for the London Mayor.   We know it can’t end well and while reading about the hold-up in a deserted warehouse in Hackney our sympathy for the hostage takers tends to move back and forth understanding their plight but also afraid of them and their audacious actions.

The novels both have a strong and impassioned authorial point of view. William says ‘you have to take a moral stand’ and while I questioned that his characters moral stand in Concentr8 is worryingly ambivalent he says that ‘one of the things I worked at in this book and which I think is very important and sometimes missing in YA fiction is a sense of ambivalence. Some YA fiction makes it very clear who the good guys and who the bad guys are. Ambivalence was very important to me with these characters. What they do is clearly bad and unpleasant. They are not nice. But I wanted readers to feel some sort of identification towards them, and sympathy for who they are, which puts you in an interestingly complex position about what they do. What they do is pretty appalling. There is nothing good about what they do but I hope that what the book does is give you some feeling that if you are in a condition of total despair and you have no hope for the future, then just standing up and being counted and being noticed feels like something.’

The end result is certainly that William has written a book that many young people will see in it something of their lives represented. Something of the people around them and the feeling of hopelessness that sadly is the daily life of many young urban people. He says that ‘I hope that a 15 year old kid reading this book might feel a bit understood. Its not just about you understanding the book. It’s the feeling that the book understands you.’

What next for William Sutcliffe? I don’t doubt that whatever it is that the portrayal of people in complex and difficult situations will be interestingly and skillfully traversed.

 

 

Both The Wall and Concentr8  are available now in paperback published by Bloomsbury.  William Sutcliffe’s books have been shortlisted and won an impressive range of prizes as follows:

The Wall  Grampian Children’s Book Award 2014, Shortlisted.Calderdale Children’s Book of the Year Award, Winner. Guardian Children’s Book Prize, 2013, Longlisted. CILIP Carnegie Medal 2014, Shortlisted.  Hampshire Independent Schools Book Award, Shortlisted. UKLA Book Award 2014 (12-16 Category), Shortlisted.  Scottish Children’s Book Award (older readers), Shortlisted.  Cheshire School Book Award 2015, Shortlisted.   Amazing Book Award 2015, Longlisted

Concentr8  Peters Book of the Year Award 2016, Shortlisted.   YA Book Prize 2016, Shortlisted.  CILIP Carnegie Medal, Nominated

OPEN SUBMISSION UPDATES

The reading has begun and I am overwhelmed by the quality, range and diversity of the submissions we have been sent.  There are a few things already to read again and consider for the next round but with well over 400 submissions left to read I am going to be realistic about time frames.

By the end of August I will have read and considered all the submissions and had a chance to re-read too.  Early in September I shall write to any authors whose work has sung out to me and shall ask to see the entire novel.

I realise that it is disappointing not to hear if your work is NOT selected but with 525 submissions to read we cant get back to everyone.  So I am going to say here that it is absolutely amazing to realise just how many people are writing great books and have sent their work for us to consider for publication on the Pushkin Press list.  In the days before the open submission date I would wonder how many submissions we would receive.  I hoped for 200, I would have been thrilled with 100.  525 is mind-boggling.

More soon …

Writing tip #5

Making your dialogue sound natural is always a problem.  Read it aloud to yourself, or even better get someone to read it aloud to you.  You soon hear what works and what doesn’t.

It is also important to avoid having your characters talk about things that have happened in the book.  Dialogue should drive the plot forward not rehash what we have already read.   Remember that all dialogue has to work in helping keep the pace, explore character and reveal important information.

 

 

Writing tip #4

When writing historical fiction carry your research lightly.  We the reader do not need to know every tiny detail of making a dress in 1840 when your character is a dressmaker, or skinning a rabbit when your character is a poacher.  It is great that you have researched and know exactly how these things are done but for us it may be a bit boring to have too much detail.

Get the voice right and consistent.  Ye Olde English can be pretty trying to read but the odd word used here and there can place a character very firmly in a time and place which is not here and now.  Read books written at the time your novel is set in to get a sense of language.

Look at old photos, paintings and other source material for details that can help your book feel time specific.  How did a hospital look in 1917? There are pictures to help.  What was London like in 1925? There are pictures there to help.  Best not to guess or think it was like today but with horses.

Writing tip #3

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops”  Stephen King

Be careful of adverbs.  Running quickly, smiling happily, whispering quietly … Its easy to do and completely unnecessary if we are seeing the characters doing those things in context.

Thank you Stephen King for all your insight in On Writing and it is on adverbs that I quote the master story teller here:

“Adverbs you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify adjectives, or other verbs.  They’re the ones the usually end in -ly.  Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.  With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously: it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girl’s clumping around in Mommy’s high heels.”

Have courage in your voice.  Keep it simple.  Show it through characters action and look at this great example of good and bad.

“put it down!” She shouted.

“Give it back” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

… Now look at these dubious revisions:

“Put it down! she shouted menacingly.

“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, ‘It’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll.”  Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.

Stephen King ON WRITING published by New English Library

 

Writing tip #2

Know your characters.  Not just what they look like and where they live but what they would vote in the EU referendum and which of their neighbour’s houses do they covet, or pity.

For an author to create characters that readers care about they have to be absolutely perfectly imagined.  We readers don’t want to know all that stuff but we feel it when it is there and when it is not.

Write a list of 10 things you know about your character (scared of cats, loves gnocchi etc) 10 things that they would tell their friends about themselves, and 10 ways that their siblings would describe them.  Get in to the habit of really knowing your characters, warts and all.  Even ‘heros’ have their bad points and ‘baddies’ their good.

 

 

Calling all authors … open submission details

In my new role as Editor-at-Large at Pushkin Press I am delighted to be working on an initiative to encourage authors to send me their unpublished works of fiction.  I will consider the first 20 pages and a synopsis and there is a twenty four hour period from 00.01am  in the early hours to 23.59pm on the 20th June 2016.   I am looking for originality, strong characters, emotional impact and compellingly readable books for young readers 8+.  Please see the Press Release that went out this week.  If you are looking for tips on how to write a great synopsis this is a good place to start https://janefriedman.com/novel-synopsis/

Pushkin Press Announces Open Submission Initiative

Following the appointment of Sarah Odedina as Editor-at-Large for their children’s imprint, Pushkin Press is thrilled to announce the Pushkin Press Open Submission Initiative. Both Pushkin and Odedina believe whole-heartedly in encouraging new talent and this initiative will provide unpublished writers with a golden opportunity to have their work seen by a leading figure in the literary world.

Authors are invited to submit the first 20 pages and a synopsis of their novel, which will then be read by Odedina. Submissions will be open for full length novels for readers 8+.

Odedina previously launched and ran Bonnier imprint Hot Key Books, and before that she was Editor-in-Chief for children’s books at Bloomsbury, where she oversaw publication of the Harry Potter series as well as publishing Neil Gaiman, Louis Sachar, Celia Rees and Chris Priestley.

She said: ‘It takes a lot of energy and courage to finish a book and authors must find the process of getting published daunting. Pushkin Press are very positive about talking directly with authors and we hope that our Open Submissions Initiative will help us build bridges with the writing community and lead to some exciting books being published.’

Adam Freudenheim, Publisher at Pushkin Press, said: ‘Until now, Pushkin Children’s has focussed on previously published books, contemporary and classic, from all over the world. Sarah’s appointment is part of building and extending the Children’s list, and this open submissions initiative is one innovative way we hope to reach out to and discover up-and-coming writers.’

The 24 hour submission period will take place on the 20th June from 00.00 to 23.59, to coincide with the announcement of the 2016 Carnegie Medal, the UK’s most prestigious book prize for fiction for young readers.

Submissions should be sent to books@pushkinpress.com with the subject line ‘SARAH ODEDINA OPEN SUBMISSION MATERIAL’.

So why don’t children read the classics anymore?

I am delighted to introduce you to Anna, a 14 year old reader with some strong views on why children don’t read the classics anymore.  Her opinions are music to the ears of writers and publishers who are trying to create a more varied and interesting diet for young readers.  ENJOY!
“I’ve read countless rants from old people on facebook to old people in the guardian who oddly take some sort of pleasure out of voicing how this degenerate generation doesn’t take pleasure in reading from paper any more.  Not bored of saying kids don’t read enough, it appears that they also read the wrong books. I read recently in the guardian that the number of kids reading classics like The Secret Garden and The Chronicles of Narnia have decreased as readers move over to David Walliams and the Hunger Games.
But why is this? Why have children lost interest in the classics, and what makes modern YA so popular?  Here are some of my thoughts and to explain some of my points, I’m going to choose five classic books: The Secret Garden,The Chronicles of Narnia, Five Children and It, The Wind In The Willows and The Railway Children.
These are some of the most loved books by ‘older generations’ and now overlooked by kids. No doubt they deserve their status as classics as they are all fantastic in their own way.  And in contrast five modern books that are popular books, The Hunger Games, Refugee boy, The Boy in the Dress, The Fault in our Stars and The Percy Jackson series. These books have overtaken as the favourites on modern day book shelves.

Between the classic and modern titles, there is far more diversity in the modern books. Yes, there were books like Amazing Grace, but without the help of google, I couldn’t think of any books containing ethnic minorities, disabilities or LGBT that fits in to the classic bracket. Yes, that is because of my limited knowledge of classic kids literature. But at the end of the day, a modern younger kid would not have any more knowledge of classics than I would, unless of course they actively searched. But when you have modern diverse books in your school library, a kid wouldn’t look any further than them (of course this is a sweeping statement, but bare with me.)
Going back to the classics I chose lets look at them a little more closely.  There is The Secret Garden – we have an orphan (white) moves into a rich family’s house (white) and befriends a boy who lives on the grounds (white.) Granted, Colin is disabled and the mother is dead. But I’ll get on to that later.  Next there is Five (white) children and it, a wartime story, The wind in the willows, (animals) The chronicles of rich white children in Narnia, a wartime story and lastly The (white) Railway Children another war time story.
The modern books I chose are different. You have The Hunger Games (okay they are mostly white) but we have single parents, secondary characters who are more diverse, and at the centre, a definite lack of rich family with the token tragedy trope.
Then we have Refugee Boy, a mature kids book about an Eritrean/Somalian refugee in Britain. There is The Boy in the Dress, with a poor single fathered family and a cross dressing eleven year old.  The Fault in our Stars, which has two cancer patients, and lastly Percy Jackson, with a single mother, a black protagonist and a dyslexic main character just in the first book.

The raw truth is the classic books are full of either very rich/very poor, very white and very healthy characters. While in contemporary books, all the kids who aren’t white and 100% able bodied and Neurotypical have representation and heroes.
I have to admit that for bereaved children and poor children, classic books do deliver. But now we are finally breaking into an age where ethnic minorities, refugees, cross dressing, gay, bullied, and outcasts but most notably the kids with learning difficulties have heroes. I haven’t even mentioned the steep rise in heroic female characters. In the past all the girls seemed to watch from the sidelines and cry occasionally, then need a rescue from time to time, and if we are lucky they would scream. That was about as good as our female heroes got. Now a new age of Katnisses are here and ready to be a role model for all the little girls a bit left behind on the hero scene. But we definitely shouldn’t stop here, there is still a really tragic lack of diversity in contemporary teen and YA literature.

On the whole the situations in modern books are a lot more realistic than in the classics. Real people, real conditions, real issues. Readers can directly relate to more of the presented issues in modern novels such as using phones and social media, and the wider scientific knowledge we have today means characters with illnesses have their conditions named and explained. Take Colin’s miraculously cured and completely ambiguous illness in The Secret Garden and compare it to The Fault in our Stars, where the two kids have a definitely incurable and terminal cancer. It’s quite hard to empathise with Colin if you’re in a wheelchair. But on the whole he wouldn’t be a bad role model right up until he gets up and goes for a little stroll. It must have been a bit annoying for all the kids reading The Secret Garden.

Dystopia and war is a noticeable pattern in popular modern novels. But why do kids love things like Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner? These are the big daddies, the most popular. I believe that these books tick every box for today’s readers:  diversity, tragedy, and a really messed up future.  A theory I found on google is that ‘It represents how teenagers feel oppressed by old people and want to stop them ruining everything’ which I think makes sense. In the stories it always seems to be teenagers who seemingly can’t tie their shoelaces that manage to take down the unbreakable and corrupt governments. So does it ignite and exercise that inner thought everyone has what it takes to take down the government? These YA books contain ‘politics with stabilisers’.  Very black and white and unrealistic dictatorships, a government where you have to blow it up and start again to change anything. I think kids read political YA to feel grown up, and feel like they have a good understanding of the real world after reading it.”

‘My name is Anna.  I’m fourteen. I don’t read that much because I prefer movies, but when I do read, my favourite genre is horror and sci fi. My favourite books are: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I don’t have a favourite author so far. I like to read to pass time, because it is like a movie that you can direct and make in your head, and there is more explanation than a movie. Book covers and titles are always the reason I get attracted to books. My pet peeves: forced romance, adventure, boring heroes and books that are the same but slightly altered variables. I buy books mainly because they are nicer when new and it is something to call your own. I look for a good motive, good characters, an interesting story and scary/ strange themes.’