On Tuesday 18th April Blackwells bookshop hosted the Oxford Writers’ Circle’s event on Young Adult fiction. The panel consisted of three prominent YA authors; Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of The Girl of Ink & Stars and The Island at the End of Everything; Melinda Salisbury, author of The Sin Eater's Daughter series; and Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season series.
The audience was treated to an insight into the origins and inspirations of each writer’s work. Kiran spoke about a particular assignment during her MA course in Creative Writing which had begun with a young girl running away from something; the idea stayed with Kiran and in time developed into something bigger, ultimately forming the basis for The Girl of Ink & Stars. Although she didn’t initially plan to write something for a YA audience, Kiran said she went on to base the main character of her book on her 12-year old cousin.
Melinda, however, said she always planned on her writing fitting within the YA category. As her favourite category of books to read, she felt it was the only possibility, having seen young adult as the primary area of fiction which explores new avenues and pushes boundaries. She went on to say that her ideal readership to write for would be 10-12 year olds and those aged 75+, jokingly calling for a new category of ‘super-senior fiction’ to be launched!
A discussion of age in YA novels was then explored, especially after Samantha Shannon spoke about her protagonist, at the age of 19, who does not really fit the rules and age limits of YA fiction. Instead, Samantha said, the Bone Season teeters on the edge between YA and adult fiction, perhaps best-placed in a recently-formed category known as ‘new-adult’. However, it was mentioned during the event that the biggest readership of YA fiction tends to be in the over 25s – a number which suggests that it is not necessary for the protagonist to be of a similar age to the reader. Melinda made an interesting point that YA fiction as a category was not necessarily available when over 25s were teenagers, and sees this as the reason those readers are such big fans of the category today. This prompted discussion of the belief that the first book written by a young adult author is the book that they needed in their life as a teenager, an interesting point for us to ponder!
When discussing readership, each author agreed that teenagers, as the intended audience of their books, do not get much of a voice in the debate about YA content. According to Melinda, teenage girls are one of the biggest devourers of fiction, but as a group they are often undervalued as readers. Additionally, Kiran shared that as a teenager, one of her favourite books was One Hundred Years of Solitude because she was craving a lushness in writing that wasn’t available to her age group. But with the growth of the YA fiction category, writing styles and topics are becoming more varied and diverse now, yet as Samantha stated, teens need to be heard in the debate about what makes good YA fiction in order to appeal to the current trends and needs. With most marketing nowadays taking place on social media, many young readers are not yet participating on these platforms and so their views are not being vocalized as strongly as adult opinions. All three writers seemed to share the view that it is difficult to get immediate, honest feedback from their intended readership and the people whose views matter most to them.
When speaking of major themes running through the YA category, Samantha said she felt teenage readers were probably attracted to the dystopian feel of her writing because it offered tangible threats that they could relate to, especially in light of the somewhat bleak outlook we face today in political and societal aspects.
Kiran commented on the theme of hope and how publishers would ask for an optimistic ending and request the toning down of anything overly dark or nasty, or even sexually-charged. However, today some YA writers are pushing these types of boundaries, and Samantha cites Sarah J. Maas as one such author.
Melinda went on to point out that fan fiction is changing the rules in YA fiction, allowing authors to find out what teenagers want to read and realizing that they in fact want the boundaries to be crossed. It’s becoming more apparent that teens want to see the harsh realities they can relate to reflected back at them in the books they read, and Melinda believes that is something that needs to be honoured. As Samantha pointed out, darker themes are much more popular in all types of fiction at the moment, as an echoing of the times we live in, and she believes implementing these themes into YA writing can be cathartic. As Neil Gaiman wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” In this way, the darker themes of YA fiction can provide hope in demonstrating the overcoming of barriers and threats experienced during the transition from childhood to adulthood. As Kiran stated, being a teenager has always been difficult, and it is important that the books teenagers are reading at this age are true to life. As Melinda argued, it can be treacherous to imply everything has a happy ending, and while YA fiction moves away from this, hope can be shared in ‘moments and snatches’ rather than a happily ever after.
When asked about the difference between YA and adult fiction, all three authors agreed it is much more plot-driven, which is necessary as teenagers lead rather plot-driven, action-packed lives, punctuated by the significant physical, emotional and academic milestones they experience. As Melinda states, teens live life at a faster pace, while adults can afford to lead more meandering lifestyles; the stakes are higher and more immediate for teens as there are so many big impactful decisions to be made in a very short space of time, so reflecting this in the pace and content of the fiction they read is vital. Interestingly, Kiran reflects on the moment her readership was determined and the ‘brutal’ editing that had to take place in order to make the novel much more concise.
Discussion moved on to the question of whether it is damaging for a book to be labelled ‘Young Adult’. The authors argued that, while it can lead the book to be treated less seriously, it is in fact a category which is bringing in a lot of revenue. Kiran suggested that YA as a category could actually be propping up the rest of the industry without reaping the merits. Ultimately, while publishers remain passionate about the YA category and marketing does endeavor to get authors the publicity they deserve, it is perhaps the market itself which enables the category to be treated in a dismissive manner. How YA fiction is discussed can be an enabler of treating it frivolously; while authors of adult literary fiction might be interviewed about their characters’ motivations and developments throughout the story, Samantha mentions a question she repeatedly gets asked is why she chose to write a strong female character. Similarly, Melinda quotes the irritating adage of “when are you going to write a real book”, something she claims to have heard many times and a statement that obviously diminishes the worth of young adult fiction.
The three authors had three pieces of advice for aspiring YA authors; Write the book you need to write and don’t worry about whether it is going to fit neatly into a genre or category; Experiment and don’t be afraid to break boundaries; Finish your first draft, and don’t compare it to someone’s published book; the final product is a result of the author and publisher collaborating in order to make it work. Your first draft will not be perfect, so just get it written!
*All three authors have new books recently published last month: The Scarecrow Queen, the final installment of Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater trilogy, was published by Scholastic Press. Samantha Shannon’s third book in the Bone Season series, A Song Rising, was published by Bloomsbury. The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and published by Chicken House was released early on account of her winning the 2017 Waterstones Children's Book Prize.
Michelle Fisher @miche1988