Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Don’t fear bleak books for teenagers (and why we do) - Nicola Morgan

(Reposting a post I wrote on my Heartsong blog a couple of weeks ago, because I still think it.)

I rarely review books but I did when Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks first came out, so I'm on record as thinking it brilliant and brave. Now it has won the prestigious Carnegie Medal, and a storm has brewed. Many adults vehemently object to the book's bleakness, darkness and violence.

I’m not addressing whether it’s the right sort of book for the Carnegie because I want to tackle the wider issue of whether it’s right to write books like this for teenagers and whether it’s OK for them to read them.

I don’t seek to change the minds of those who dislike the book – anyone is free to dislike, even detest, any book. Many of the detractors are experts in children's books; their opinions are strongly held and well-meaning.

What I want to do is shed light on the following things, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about adolescence, human nature and the psychology and science of reading:
  1. The reasons why many adults wish teenagers wouldn't read such books.
  2. The reasons why many teenagers do.
  3. Whether it matters that they do.

1. Why do many adults wish teenagers didn't read such books? Or, perhaps, that such books weren't written?

Good adults are programmed by biology and culture to protect babies and children. We protect them from actual harm and, when we can, from fears and nasty thoughts. We hope they never have to deal with nasty things themselves, though we realise many eventually will. We know, somewhere in the logical part of our brain, that they must learn to take risks, one day, but we try to control when that risk-taking happens and how. This is right and proper. We want to "protect their innocence" as long as possible. This is understandable.

When I did my first talk as a YA novelist at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I was floored by a question: "How do you feel knowing that you damage children?" It turned out that the questioner had 11 year-old grandchildren and since then I have often met this fear in parents or other relatives of that age group. Through my work, I understand how hard it is to move from being the parent of a child to the parent of a teenager. It's tough to let go. And tougher when it’s the young people themselves who insist on pulling away – as they are biologically driven to do. We don’t like the fact that some of them choose nasty books. We worry.

So, adults who protest against novels like Bunker Diary are being nurturing and protective. That's what we do with young children. At some point, however, we need to remove the cotton wool and tolerate bruises gained in the pursuit of knowledge and independence because they are not damaging. Bruises are temporary, after all.

Teenagers are not children. In the arguments about Bunker Diary, the word "children" has sometimes been used instead of "teenagers". This is not a small distinction. “Adolescent” means "becoming an adult", and that needs to be allowed to happen.

2. Why do many teenagers like bleak books?

First, let's remember that all readers, within any age range, are different; some teenagers will and some won't like reading such books. But why might some be drawn to dark stories? Because fiction is, among other things, for exploring emotions, testing them, feeling what experiences are like. Fiction is for breaking boundaries if we want to break boundaries, and for coming back safely as we wake up and realise that it was "only a story". Just as when we wake up from a nightmare we feel relief that it was only a dream. Sleep researchers tell us that a purpose of dreaming may be to process emotions, stresses and fears healthily. I argue that fiction has that role, too.

The magic of fiction is that we get carried away into the fictional world and almost forget that we aren't really there. That no one is; that it was all constructed inside a writer’s imagination. So strongly does this narrative transportation happen that we can end up having heated arguments about made up stories…

Teenagers often feel extreme emotions; their emotional and reward centres are highly active, bombarded by the changes in their lives, bodies and brains. Hardly surprising that they need extreme books, whether extremely frightening, passionate, funny, or sad.

And how do we practise empathy - that supreme effect of fiction - if we can't practise extremes of feeling? Those extremes will be different for each person. Each of us has our limits. I won’t argue with yours if you will allow me mine.

Teenagers don't always think the same things are horrible or for the same reasons as we do. Adults often require less or different stimulus to be shocked, saddened or scared. Many adolescents love watching horror films or reading misery memoirs. They sometimes feel the need to, perhaps to exorcise some of their fears, to practise the emotions, to test their limits. In safety.

In safety. Freely chosen. And you can stop the moment you want to. (In books, if not so easily in films.)

I remember the first time I cried in a film: Ring of Bright Water. You know the bit. The ditch. The spade. I was nearly twelve. I was shocked - and embarrassed because I didn't know films or books were things you cried in. (I was born and had lived all my life in a boys' school. Does that explain it? It did then. We didn't have YA fiction, either.) When my mother said of course it was OK to cry in a film, I wanted to watch it again, just to cry again. And, remember, RoBW is not fiction. (Actually, at the time I thought it was, which was probably a relief.)

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The bleakest fictional ending ever. The moment when Winston gives in to his torturers and betrays his girlfriend with the searing words, "Do it to Julia" and, later, betrays himself and the rest of humanity. I know, it's not a teenage book. But we make teenagers read it. We don’t tell them it’s too bleak for them.

3. So, does it matter that they often choose to read bleak books?

Hell, yes, it matters. It matters that they read, that they engage passionately and willingly with stories and reading. And it matters that if that is what they want to read, it's there for them. Whether it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Bunker Diary or whatever. It matters, too, in my opinion, that their choice is not disparaged. It matters that adults don’t imply that they are sick for enjoying it. (And adults are now using a vile term for books in which young people die. I'm not using it here as I think it's also demeaning to the readers of those books.) We don’t have to enjoy the books they choose but we should be very cautious before undermining their enjoyment and choices. (Not all the adults have - I'm just saying we should make sure we don't.)

On the other hand, carry on - teenagers like to read what adults don't like...

But doesn't it damage them? I think it might, conceivably, if you forced a young person to read a book that they didn’t want to read because it was making them feel things they didn’t want to feel or making their low mood worse. Or if the young person had to face ideas or scenarios they weren’t ready to think about. And if they had no way to process those ideas and fears healthily, by talking them through with others, for example.

I admit, too, that reading bleak books when you are already sad is not likely to be therapy. And that reading a book about suicide when you have suicidal thoughts yourself is a very bad idea. In The Teenage Guide to Stress, I recommend fiction as relaxation strategy, but I caution against reading books that make you feel sad if you are already sad.

But those are specific circumstances and Bunker Diary is not a book about suicide. Bunker Diary is a book in which the characters find themselves in a horrifying situation and try to work together to get out of it. (Regarding the Carnegie, I agree there's a possible issue because it's for a wide range of ages and there are shadowing groups, in which a younger than 12yo might be in a position of reading before he or she is ready. But the responsible adults will handle that situation with care, I'm sure. We can't exclude an eligible and highly recommended book because it only suits parts of the valid age range. Very few books suit a 9yo and a 14yo. Anyway, as I say, this isn't about the Carnegie argument.)

Books don’t damage – they do change and transform us. Everything we read and hear and see and think changes us. We are never the same at the end of an engaging book as we were when we started. And that's somewhat scary if you're a caring adult nurturing an adolescent. But we have to be brave and trust teenage (as opposed to younger) readers to make their own choices and feed their thirst for knowledge and ideas, so that they can decide for themselves.

A friend of mine told me how her then nearly-twelve-year-old daughter started reading The Lovely Bones. After a chapter or so, the daughter had to stop, too scared to read on. So scared that she buried the book under a pile of clothes in a cupboard. Next day she took the book out and read the whole thing. Her choice. She was ready. Changed but not damaged. At any time she could have stopped again - and she would have if it was making her feel awful. But she knew it was a story. She knew how to read it. She took control as she explored her emotions.

So, for those teenage readers who want to push the boundaries of their emotions, we need brave and risky books like Bunker Diary, even if it's too bleak for adults. If you can't block them from hearing or reading about the dark side of the real world in the news, don't try to stop them reading about such things in the safety of fiction, where they can explore and experiment on their own, without fear of actual harm.

Let go. Don’t stop caring, but worry less. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

Me-Cramp by Ruth Symes

 My husband's been doing a lot of website and photography work recently and watching a lot of You Tube videos - especially about different photographic techniques. But one of the videos I walked in on and caught part of really surprised me:
'That sounds exactly like writer's block!' l said.

The speaker was talking about problems that photographers face and questions they’re burdened by.

Will it be good enough?
Am I good enough?
Am I secretly kidding myself that I’m good enough?
Is everyone else’s work better than mine?
Are they more talented than me?
Will my photos (writing) be original/creative/stylish/professional enough?
Will other people (Mum, Dad, teachers friends someone who was a bit critical once and I’ve never forgotten about it - ad infinitum) like my work? And really I suppose – will they like me?
Have I got it right, not just right, exactly exactly...perfectly completely utterly right.

They called it Me-Cramp but I think of it as the Photographer's Writer's Block. And I expect there’s the same thing for every creative job – Artist’s Anxiety, Dancer’s Dilema, Actor’s stage fright…(Although I like the Me-Cramp term best as it says exactly what it is and is so spot on.)

As well as the Me-Cramp talk there were lots of discussions about the importance of putting heart and passion in your work. Being true to yourself  owning it.

But the Me-Cramp question asked loudly and boldly or in a tiny weeny voice always seemed to be the same:

'Am I good enough?'

And the answer is: 'Of course you are.' J

Ruth Symes also writes as Megan Rix winner of Stockton-on-Tees children's book of the year 2014 and Shrewsbury Bookfest 2014.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

No Frigate like a Book - Joan Lennon

October 8, 1940, after an air raid on London 
(AP photo)

There is no Frigate like a Book

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

(This version of the poem is found on the Poetry Foundation website.)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

YALC and the Beauty of Bloggers - Lucy Coats

Last Saturday I found myself in the company of Wookies, Jedi, sundry Game of Thrones characters, Spidermen, ogres (male and female) and a raft of other bedecked and be-axed cosplayers. I also had the pleasure of meeting some of the many wonderful YA bloggers I chat to and follow online. Yes, this was the mad and crazy glory that was the UK's first ever Young Adult Literature Convention (mixed with lashings of ComicCon). The Daily Telegraph deemed it a hit - and barring a few gripes about the nightmare queues, the heat, the lack of seating, the audio-fails and the heaving walls of bodies blocking the way to the book lecture stage (all dying to have their photo taken with Marvelmeister Stan Lee), I loved every minute. The whole thing was dreamed up by Booktrust and our very own Children's Laureate, Malorie Blackman, and I think we should all stand up and cheer her to the steel rafters that only just kept the roof on Earls Court (the noise was ear-tingling). Much has been written about the brilliant panels and workshops elsewhere, but I want to focus on something else. Yes, those book bloggers.

With much of the newspaper industry (the Guardian being an honourable exception) giving less and less review coverage to children's and YA books, the book bloggers are our enthusiastic champions, and we need to recognise the HUGE amounts of unpaid time and energy they put into reading and then writing about our neck of the literary woods. They tweet, they discuss, they get the word out there, and I think we owe them all a great debt of gratitude - including our very own Awfully Big Review team, of course!

The post-conference 'For the Fringe' party (organised by the indomitable Sophia Bennett) was a marvellous mix of authors and bloggers - @YaYeahYeah, @Serendipity_Viv, @JessHeartsBooks, @Splendibird, @RachReviewsAll, @carlybennett, @lynseynewton...er, in fact far too many to name-check them all here  - and the level of knowledgeable bookish chat was off the scale. To meet so many enthusiastic readers was a shot in the arm for all the authors who were there, I think - and I was kept busy scribbling down new blogsites and book recommendations as well as chatting till I thought my tongue would drop off.

Another thing I discovered at YALC was The Siobhan Dowd Trust in action. Actually, I discovered it before I even got there, while I was still on the tube. Overhearing a group of teenagers enthusing excitedly about their favourite authors (quite a lot of screaming) was another shot in the arm - and I later discovered from their librarian that they were from a Manchester school, and that their trip had been funded by the SDT. They weren't the only ones either. I found more while listening to one of the panels. They were the ones at the front, grabbing the microphone to ask intelligent and insightful questions of the panel members. This is the wonderful thing about the SDT - they give bookish kids opportunities they might not otherwise have had.

Altogether, YALC was a real eye-opener. The power of books and reading to inspire was demonstrated on a grand scale there - and while some may have felt that ComicCon was not quite the right place to have it, personally, I thought it gave the whole thing added 'buzz'. I really do hope it happens again in 2015 - I'm already planning an Egyptian costume. Be very afraid!

Friday, 18 July 2014


Last week, I ran away, down south to Oxfordshire and a wonderful old Quaker house and garden called Charney Manor. I was going to the Scattered Authors Society annual July retreat. 
If that word makes you think about the sounds of silence, the scratching of pens and gloomy sighs over quietly tortured drafts, you’d be mistaken. 

“Charney”, as it is known, is definitely not silent. Charney is four often-noisy days, full of shared knowledge, skills and experiences, plus one or two grumbles and many reminders of the good things about being children’s and/or young people’s authors. 

The retreat is all about self-help, the essence behind the Scattered Authors Society network.

So what did we talk about, you might wonder, and what did we do?

We introduced our other lives and our interests, as well as our books. We indulged in “Library 101”, a mock panel-game, airing those aspects of the writing life people wished could be sent to that place of no return, and those that make us happy.

There were periods of being informed: one very interesting double session started with two editors talking about their own role within publishing houses, and concluded with two very well-established authors suggesting ways in which a writer can be their own best editor too.

Another double value session was on the process and reasons for self-publishing. This remarkable discussion moved from the importance of using self-publishing for established niche and/or “book-of-my-heart” material but it also developed into a view of self-publication being used not as “replacement”, but as a way of maintaining and managing a broad and fluid author platform in the modern market-place.

One morning offered some refreshing glimpses of school visit styles followed by other suggestions and much discussion. It was a welcome chance for the “lone” school visitors to see or hear about other approaches but everyone came away with the mantra: “And don’t forget to read from your book as well!”

Two afternoons were given over to workshops: a calming “torn collage” technique that helped people reflect on their own work or similar issues – a workshop that is an established Charney favourite - and then a new “seven word sentence “exercise, still based on picture images, designed to help authors focus on the quality of their writing, rather than quantity.

There was some worry over what seemed to be a dud session: Work-In-Progress. 

At first, when we met, nobody admitted wanting to come to what sounded like a down-beat session. However, when the moment came, several people arrived, with questions and/or readings, and the WIP session was so enthusiastically valued and lively that a second took place the next day! And in between a keen and generous photographer took author portraits during her free time, and another kindly made sure that all sessions started with five-minute readings.

Of course, some of the time was specifically social. Each evening, around six, everyone gathered on the lawn, sharing drinks, while swifts soared overhead through the summer air. One evening of lively comedy games grew into an informal song & music session, while the last evening brought the famous Charney Quiz, cunningly created so the most learned do not necessarily the most points.

The final day is always a little sad so as well as the start of plans for next year, two writers talked about their own use of writing retreats as a way of balancing the need to be in the world of story and the need for family and people. One chose solitary spaces, while the other preferred writing alongside other writers, and there was much wishful thinking and planning going on.

Charney was all of this, together with lots of time for questions, solitude for thinking and/or writing time for those who wanted to get work done, and the blessing of being easy “among our tribe”. Finally, after the last lunch, a small group remained, sitting in the sunshine and chatted about books they’d enjoyed. Others, like the swifts, were already off and away, travelling back to their homes and to real life, the pleasant days so soon over. Sigh!

I haven’t named anyone in this blogpost but you all know who you are, and thank you for making this year’s Charney such a very special time. 

One last thing. It is a mistake to call the week at Charney Manor a retreat. Mostly, it is just a truly and lovely TREAT.

Penny Dolan

Thursday, 17 July 2014

In Defense of “Real” Realism in Children’s Books (With Special Mention of Ramona Quimby) by Emma Barnes

There was one of those flurries in the Children’s Book world recently – this time, over the award of the Carnegie, the UK’s most prestigious children’s book award, to the hard-hitting The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. I’m not planning to write much about the controversy (I’ve included some links below) which I’d sum up by saying that some people feel that the Carnegie is forgetting its roots as a children’s book prize by so frequently rewarding the bleaker, and older, end of Young Adult fiction. But the debates that followed did make me think about what exactly we mean when we talk about realism in children’s books.

Because the number one point made by Brooks’ supporters, as it usually is when people complain about bleak children’s books, was the “real life is tough” argument.

“[Children] want to be immersed in all aspects of life, not just the easy stuff. They’re not babies, they don’t need to be told not to worry, that everything will be all right in the end, because they’re perfectly aware that in real life things aren’t always all right in the end.” Kevin Brooks

“the real world is so complex that unambiguously happy endings hardly exist”author Robert Muchamore

Children and teenagers live in the real world; a world where militia can kidnap an entire school full of girls, and where bullying has reached endemic proportions on social mediaCarnegie Chair of Judges, Helen Thompson

We certainly do live in a grim world. Reading the newspaper can be more heart-breaking than any children’s book. But I’d question whether this explains the preponderance of bleak fiction (and am I being cynical to feel, that if teenagers were truly deeply interested in the worlds’ troubles, there might be more translated foreign fiction available for UK children, instead of, as is actually the case, virtually none?)

For most British children, for all the challenges they face, being imprisoned by a psychopath probably isn’t one of them. (Amazingly the 2014 short list featured two books on the “imprisoned by psychopath” theme – the other by Anne Fine.) Terrorist attack, extreme violence, heroin addiction...these are also very small (though terrifying) risks to most under eighteens, living in a Western world where (though it’s sometimes hard to remember) violence is actually in long-term decline.

Or take childhood cancer. John Green’s The Fault In My Stars is just one the latest of many books where children or teenagers die of terminal cancer. By contrast, I CAN’T THINK OF A SINGLE BOOK WHERE THE CHILD HAS CANCER AND GETS BETTER. And yet, the reality is that about 75% of children do get better. Wouldn't it be great – not least for those children with the disease – if some of the award-winning fiction out there also reflected that reality?

In short, you don’t need to think that children’s books should be all fluffy bunny rabbits and happy ever after to wonder if some so-called “realistic” children’s fiction is...well, actually not that realistic.

Myself, I’ve always thought of “realism” not in association with YA grit but with certain twentieth century American authors: from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, through Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, to Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or Katherine Patterson’s Gilly Hopkins the Great.

Perhaps the supreme example would be Beverley Cleary’s Ramona books. Following the adventures of Ramona Quimby and her family and friends over a number of years, and set in Portland Oregon, these books are breathtaking in their ability to distil the ordinary and humdrum into entertaining fiction.
Beverley Cleary never relies on dramatic events. (She even avoids dramatic titles, with such understated gems as “Ramona and her Mother” and “Ramona Quimby , age 8”.) There are problems for sure – Ramona’s dad loses his job, for example – but as we see things always through Ramona’s eyes, this is on a par with such problems as her class teacher not liking her very much. There is humour (the teacher told me to sit there “for the present” – but I didn’t get any present, Ramona complains). But it’s a gentle, observational humour. There is death (Picky Picky the cat) but no truck with sentimentality (Ramona and Beezus set to work to bury Picky Picky before their parents find out). There are fears to be overcome – confronting a mean dog – and temptations – how can Ramona resist pulling the blonde curls of Susan who sits in front of her in class, however many times she is told off by her teacher? But it is all grounded in a child’s everyday experience.

Beverley Cleary recalled in her memoir,“I longed for funny stories about the sort of children who lived in my neighbourhood.” And she could see that the children she met while working as a librarian felt the same.

Then, as now, this kind of “realism” was often ignored by critics and award-givers. Cleary has been showered with honours and prizes – but that was after her books had proved themselves enduringly popular with young readers. And they still are. I know British children today who ADORE them – because that small town, domestic American life, however distant it is in time and place, still feels absolutely real.

It’s easy to overlook the skill and imagination involved in creating something small scale. As the great mistress of domestic realism, Jane Austen, long ago said of her work, it is “ the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour". It look easy – but
it isn’t.

Take out the big emotional tear-jerking scenes, the drama of life and death, good vs evil, and what do you have left? The common-place. The everyday. The mundane. And creating something entertaining and captivating out of the mundane is challenging – maybe more challenging than “the big stuff”.

Yet it’s always been an important aim of fiction. Cleary said that she always remembered her college lecturer's advice that a novel should seek to explore universal themes through the minutiae of everyday life. I also like this quote from another writer, Susan Patron, about Cleary. “She showed me that the inner life of any child, the dynamics of family and pets, can be captured as rich, comic, fascinating, poignant, and meaningful."

I’m not sure this type of “realism” has ever been as celebrated in British children’s books, although it is an important part of the appeal of writers such as Jacqueline Wilson and Anne Fine (although their prize-winning books are more “issues” led) or Hilary McKay. With the humour ratcheted up, it’s also the bedrock of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole or Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson (I confess the near-death of Georgia’s cat Angus moved me more than any gritty YA novel) and much other comic fiction. It’s even been recognised by the Carnegie in the past, in such books as the groundbreaking The Family From One End Street (one of the first children’s books to feature the everyday life of a working-class family) and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler.

There are lots of joys to be had from fiction, and realism is only one of them. I love fantasy and adventure as much as I love the fiction of the everyday.  But I’ve also found that it is often the  grounded, “real life” books that are the ones that, as child and adult, I have returned to again and again. There is a particular and lasting joy in reading something “real” and recognising the settings and characters.

Let's celebrate it!

CJ Busby's ABBA post on Carnegie criteria
Bunker Diaries storm in Guardian
Bunker Diaries storm in Telegraph
Bunker Diaries storm: Amanda Craig vs Robert Muchamore


Emma's new series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is out now from Scholastic. 
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Pockets of hope - John Dougherty

I was at the ALCS panel discussion at the House of Commons about which Anne Rooney blogged last week, and it was pretty sobering. The figures as revealed by the ALCS survey are grim: since 2005 authors' median income has dropped by 29% and the percentage of authors making a living solely from writing has declined from 40% to 11.5%.

Yet ALCS also finds that "the wealth generated by the UK creative industries is on the increase... the creative industries are now worth £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy". In fact, it would appear that while authors are being paid less, publishers are doing quite nicely - a situation that the General Secretary of the Society of Authors describes as both unfair and unsustainable.

Meanwhile, dark mutterings and rumblings grow about literary festivals charging ticket prices and paying organisers, booksellers, musicians and entertainers - but not the authors. There's something quite absurd about all of this - the very people who create the product's value not being themselves valued.

Chipping Norton Literary FestivalThere are, however, pockets of hope. The evening before the ALCS discussion I was at another event, at The Ivy in London. This one was organised by the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, of which I am proud to be a patron, and they'd organised it in order to make a very special announcement:

From now on, any profits made from the festival "will be split equally between all authors involved."

I should say that ChipLitFest, as we like to call it, already has a reputation for looking after authors properly - great accommodation, a fabulous green room, lovely meals, and so on - and many other festivals would have rested on their laurels. But from its inception only three years ago, the organisers have been aware that without authors there is no festival; and if anyone should be rewarded for the festival's success, it's the people who create the content.

 Any chance of publishers following suit?


 John's latest book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, is illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP.

 Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Quest for the Magic Porcupine will be published in August.