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
Brian Conaghan is relatively new to the world of children’s books but not to the world of young people. He was a teacher for 17 years before giving it up to become a full-time writer when he secured a publishing contract with Bloomsbury for his first book with them, When Mr Dog Bites. He explained that as a child he didn’t read until he was about 17 and he considers himself to have been what is now termed a ‘reluctant reader’ He said “I hated the idea of people telling me what to do” and he feels that readers have to learn to enjoy reading rather than be forced to read. With this in mind he says that he read all sort of books with his pupils and felt that his motivation was to ‘grab’ readers with books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Refugee Boy, and early Roddy Doyle novels. Books, he tells me proudly “with swearing in them and about people like them” It is a literary canon that his own powerful novels very happily sits amongst. “Swearing doesn’t have a profound effect on kids but what does have a profound effect is when characters open up their emotions and express love through the pages to these kids” he asserts. When Mr Dog Bites garnered much praise for its original and brave story telling and also suffered some criticism for the amount of swearing in the book. But it isn’t possible to imagine an honest portrayal of such a complex character without the swearing. As a writer Brian aims to represent real life in his books and in the case of the books hero, Dylan Mint, real life includes having Tourettes Syndrome and an incredible ability to swear. Like all writers Brian makes a choice about who is going to represent and it is the good fortune of many many readers that he is choosing to go to the less frequently fictionalized characters for his heroes.
Brian goes on to explain that he is “interested in the individual who is lost and not heard and oppressed within the school environment and the social environment. Who isn’t valued by their society and their community. You see them constantly as a teacher. Kids at the back of the classroom, do the work, don’t give you any bother or hassle and it just seems that no one has asked them their opinion or their thoughts or feelings. These are the voices and kids I am interested in. The disenfranchised.” And to create these characters Brian has an incredibly original and unique voice himself. Amongst the very crowded shelves of teen and YA fiction there are few authors prepared to go so out on a limb and Brian comments that “ignorance is bliss. I can’t say I’ve read all these other books. I think we live in a derivative world. It is very difficult to be unique but what I do think you can be is honest, and I think you can be true, and I think you can represent people accurately.”
“The reason I like writing about teenagers is that I feel sometimes that irrespective of where you live in the world, which direction your life is taking and the social and economic political situation I think sometimes that what unifies teenagers is that we have all got the same fears about ourselves, about our bodies and about how other people see us and about how we see ourselves.” And it is this understanding about the universality and shared emotional world that we inhabit that gives Brian’s characters such universal appeal – regardless of the particular circumstances of their stories. He tells me “I just feel we are not that different. Other than the aesthetics and the language of it all we are not that different. I feel it is what’s in your head and in your heart that counts.” And in that Brian reveals the profoundly humanitarian and kind pulse of his books. Brian’s second book with Bloomsbury has just published and I am delighted to review The Bombs That Brought Us Together which has the hallmarks of the unique Conaghan voice, the unlikely hero, and a brave approach to telling the truth for his readers, but this time he sets his characters in a much bigger political arena.
After the huge critical success and a Carnegie Medal shortlisting for When Mr Dog Bites, Brian Conaghan’s second book with Bloomsbury, The Bombs That Brought Us Together, has just published. How do you follow a debut that caused such a sensational amount of interest? By writing something else brave, original and complex it seems.
In this moving novel Brian takes us on a more overtly political journey than its predecessor, yet at its core remains a touching portrayal of boys and their friendships. Brian explained: “I try to write tenderly about boys and I look at my own friendships as a kid and while we were into football and underage drinking we loved each other intensely and were always very open and honest with each other.”
When Charlie Law meets Pavel Duda it is at a time of great social unrest in Little Town. A suffocating regime is firmly in place with the laws laid out for all to obey and the enemy, in the form of Old Country, lurking menacingly across the border. Pavel’s story of migration from Old Country to Little Town, arriving with nothing but a flimsy understanding of the native language, is particularly resonant today. Brian started writing the book in 2014 as wars were being fought at the edges of Europe and the humanitarian crisis in Syria was sending shock-waves across the world. Struck by the nightly news pictures of families walking out of war zones, often with their entire lives packed in a small rucksack, he felt moved to write on their plight. . The people in the news stories, Brian understood, are just like the rest of us; not in any way less human or empathetic because of the cards that life dealt them. He was also aware of the Scottish Referendum and considered the imbalance of power between Scotland and England and he says “it got me thinking, what if this big place, a mighty powerful neighbour, would become a bully.”
The Bombs That Brought Us Together is inspired by and reflects real life events. The book creates a relatable story that humanises and personalises those events for the reader. At the core of Brian’s writing is the desire to understand his characters and their motivation. He wants to paint portraits that are honest and through the portrayal of those lives allow the reader to get closer to understanding a bigger political context.
Brian believes that today we “live in a culture of fear. We have to look for answers as a country and as a community and look at why we are demonising young people”. He argues that this demonisation comes from a wider attack on working class values and working class communities being vilified by the media and politicians. Brian wants to show his readers that people are fundamentally not that different and when any differences are emphasised it is done in the name of greater political ambitions. In Little Town these differences are amplified to create a culture of fear in order to help the regime maintain the skewed power balance. Pavel’s arrival shows Charlie that he has been taken in by the propaganda, blindly accepting its sweeping generalisations, and the friendship that Pavel and Charlie go on to form is a safety net for both of them. While on the surface it might appear to the reader that it is Pavel who has most to gain from the friendship, we soon see that both boys benefit from the relationship in a profoundly important way. When Old Country invades Little Town and Charlie and Pavel find themselves on the wrong side of the regime, it is the courage and confidence that their friendship has given them that gives Charlie the strength to resist and take a course of action that will change their lives.
Dealing with big political issues in The Bombs That Brought Us Together is something that Brian feels is very important. He was brought up to be politically motivated and he is concerned that the disenchantment felt today about the democratic process is down to a failure of the system. He feels that books like his, that directly address political themes, are empowering young people and offer the opportunity for readers to realise that they have a part to play in the narrative and that they can question the disparity of power. He writes to give voice to the silent, both in the personal and domestic arenas and the larger political arena.
In the end The Bombs That Brought Us Together is full of optimism and hope for the future as, at its core, is the belief that people can overcome their hardships; that they can change; that they can find strength and security through friendship and love, and that caring for their friends and families has its own reward
The Bombs That Brought Us Together is a powerful book about important issues. It is a book with a strong voice and a book that doesn’t shy away from looking directly at a problem,. Like the best YA writing, its power is in its characters and their interplay as they contend with moral and social dilemmas that the reader can empathise with. Brain Conaghan’s book joins others such as Maggot Moon, in giving the world a different view of boys, their friendships and their hopes and dreams. Brian is a thrilling writer whose respect for his audience is such that he doesn’t shy away from the truth. Happily for us, he tells me that he is a fast writer and that there are other books in the pipeline, which I for one am very much looking forward to.