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
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.
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.’
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