Friday, 29 July 2011

Bad Guys and Gals - Savita Kalhan

Bad guys and bad gals litter fiction, all fiction, all genres, for all ages, and all time, from the Bible to Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, from Hansel and Gretel to Oliver Twist and Harry Potter, from the Devil and the Ice Queen, to all the wicked witches, Bill Sikes and Lord Voldermort. Usually the age-old theme of good versus evil forms a backdrop or background from which the rest of the story takes its inspiration.
In contemporary realism, the bad guy or gal in teen and young adult fiction takes the form of the bully, the racist, the perpetrator and the oppressor. But the basic essence of this kind of fiction is still good versus evil, right versus wrong.
In all of these kinds of stories I’ve read, the bad guys or bad gals never win at the end of the story.  Yes, there are loveable rogues, who dabble in some bad stuff, but they’re not intrinsically evil or even that nasty. But was there a truly evil character who does win at the end? I put the question to twitter, to all the book bloggers who spend endless hours reading and reviewing teen and YA fiction. Not one of them could come up with an answer for me.
It’s not that surprising though, is it?
I remember when I wrote The Long Weekend the ending was originally without the ‘Six Years Later’. I wrote that last chapter a few months later because my agent suggested a much more hopeful ending than the one I had. I pointed out that I didn’t let the bad guy win, but I understood her point. The Long Weekend is a very dark read – and it’s meant for teens. Hope cannot be ambivalent; it’s got to be a bit more in your face. Hence the ‘Six Years Later’ where, I hope, I got it right.
You can never let the bad guy win in fiction. Agents don’t want it, publishers don’t want it. The truth of it is that most kids, teens  and young adults don’t want it either. Neither do I. No one does. It’s a bad ending.
If anyone thinks of an evil character in a teen book who wins please let me know...although I’m not sure that I’d really want to read it!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

What lies beneath?

Edge author Sara Grant grapples with how to weave theme into story

I’ve had a few opportunities over the years to read slushpiles for publishers, agents and competitions. Nothing struck fear into my heart like a synopsis or a cover letter that boasted the theme of the book: teach kids the importance of recycling, stop bullying, show the power of positive thinking, save the whales, etc. My concern – before I even read the opening line –was that the theme would be delivered like a jackhammer to my frontal lobe.

When it comes to including a theme in fiction, I think Renni Browne and Dave King said it best in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: “You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”

In other words, show, don’t tell. It’s advice that writers hear over and over and over. It usually refers to summarizing the action rather than letting readers experience the drama. But I think it’s good advice when considering the theme or message of a novel. Let the theme evolve from the action in the story.

DARK PARTIES sprang from my experience immigrating to the UK from the US. I was acutely aware of  immigration debates on both side of the Atlantic. What is it to be American or British? What does it mean to have a global society? What’s lost and what’s gained? The country in DARK PARTIES closes itself off from the rest of the world under an electrified dome. When my story starts, its citizens have grown to look more and more alike and the society is slowly dying from a lack of diversity in genes and ideas. Although the power of diversity is at the heart of why I wanted to write DARK PARTIES, the word ‘diversity’ never appears in the novel.

At last year’s British SCBWI conference, Marcus Sedgwick said something along the lines of writing the whole book allows him one line someplace in the novel that illuminates his theme. This type of restraint – not preaching to your readers – keeps the theme from overshadowing the story. This economy of ‘message’ respects the reader.

I’ve written and read dialogue that sounds more like an advocacy pamphlet than a story. I try to remember to trust myself as a writer and trust my reader. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and hope they will follow.

The books that I love, books that stay with me long after I’ve finished the final page, books that linger for years in my psyche are books that not only have a compelling story but also change the way that I look at the world.

These stories open a dialogue with the reader. They show the reader the beautiful shades of grey of an issue or theme. I appreciate a story that highlights the complexity – all sides – of an issue but doesn’t give me an easy answer – because in life there so often isn’t one.

Themes aren’t essential to great novel writing. John Gardner writes in On Becoming a Novelist: “Theme is like the floors and structural supports in a fine old mansion, indispensable but not, as a general rule, what takes the reader’s breath away.”

DARK PARTIES -- a dystopian novel for young adults -- by Sara Grant will be published by Orion in October. Find out more about Sara and her book at

Saturday, 16 July 2011


Edge Author Paula Rawsthorne shares her thoughts fresh from her first ever Book Tour.

I’ve just returned from my first ever book tour and I’m completely buzzing whilst, simultaneously, being completely knackered.   All the weeks of fitful sleep, plagued by nightmares of rows of uniformed teenagers throwing missiles and heckling me as I delivered my talk (naked of course!!).  All those hours poring over what I should say, what will hold their attention, get them wondering about my book and thinking that reading, in general, might not be such a bad thing to do with their time.  All that debating over whether I should try to learn about PowerPoint and do a presentation like pupils have come to expect.  But each time I verged towards giving it a go, an image of the scene from ‘2012’ (a recent British comedy) kept popping into my head- the Olympic sports promoter for schools drying up on a hall stage, a slouching year group in front of him and his PowerPoint presentation going haywire behind him - it was excruciating comedy and I knew it could well be me with my appalling track record of using technology.
Paula at Wirral Grammar
School for Girls
So, in the end I followed some sound advice - ‘just do what you’re comfortable with.’  And thank God for those wonderful students in Nottingham, Manchester and on the Wirral who sat so attentively and participated so magnificently as I stood in front of them and just talked and read!  Their many questions were insightful, their many answers bright and thoughtful and when I asked them to share a vivid childhood memory with us all, they were inspirational, funny and plentiful.  To have conversations about stories (even novels!) that students were working on and books that they were into, just made me happy.  I met so many great kids (including a very impressive book reviewers group) and dedicated teaching and library staff and I felt rather privileged to spend time talking with the very people that I’ve written my book for.  Thanks to them all for being so kind to a Book Tour Virgin!

To my fellow writers out there - how do you approach your book events?

To the readers who come along to author events- what do you like to get out of it?

 The Truth about Celia Frost is published by Usborne on 1st August.
“A gripping psychological thriller, mixing issues of ethics with poignant coming-of- age story.” The Bookseller.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Reading is Safe ...... by Miriam Halahmy

Boundaries : How far is too far in Teen fiction? This was the title of a panel hosted by the Children's Book Circle at the Puffin Offices in the Strand this week. The theme was a response to the controversy caused by Wall Street Journalist, Meghan Cox Gurdon who wrote, 'Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity.' Hmm, so what should we write?

On the panel (from left to right) were Joy Court who runs the schools library service in Coventry, Bali Rai, author, Julie Randles from Scholastic Book Clubs and Fairs and Shannon Park, Executive Editor, Puffin.  So here are the author and the gatekeepers, what did they think about the content of contemporary edgy, gritty, realistic, teenage fiction? How far is too far? What is not acceptable?

As far as Bali Rai is concerned, there are no limits over the age of 14 and there did seem to be a consensus that 14 marked a watershed beyond which anything goes. Teens know their own limits and will stop reading if they are not comfortable or curious about the content. But under 14 the gatekeepers certainly felt that language and sexual content needed to be controlled.
And what about the parents? Be careful about making assumptions here. Joy Court quoted a young Muslim girl from a strict background who insisted on the shortlisting of a very controversial book for the Coventry Inspiration Book Awards. Her mum apparently lets her read whatever she chooses because, "reading is safe."

Discussion focused on how unsafe/violent many computer games are, let alone TV content ( yes - before the watershed). In the pub afterwards the discussion focused on a Radio 4 programme about the rape of children, broadcast at 3.00pm - during the school run home! Reading is a million times safer, isn't it?

Quoting Gemma Malley, Joy Court pointed out, "Teenagers are not afraid." This is the time in their lives when they are prepared to engage with really big issues. We should treat our audience with honesty - that is what teenagers want. And I would certainly endorse this after 30 years teaching teenagers in London schools. Joy stated that we read to inhabit other lives and learn valuable lessons about life. Reading is in fact a much more positive experience that watching films on TV.

Bali Rai asked, "Are we creating a fear of YA fiction in parents and schools?" His new book Honour Killing is making a huge impact in the British Asian community and opening doors for discussion about this difficult issue amongst teenagers all over the country. This is a very controversial area that was little known about until only a few years ago. Books can open the door for teenagers to engage in such issues. Shannon Park backed this up by saying, "There has never been a time when YA books have been more relevant." In relation to the book, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, dealing with teenage suicide, Shannon quoted a teenager who told Asher, "I may not have been here if I had not read your book." What a powerful endorsement of reading!


Kids love to read books that make them cry.
Teenagers are not one entity.
We need to show equal respect to all young adults.
It doesn't matter what they are reading as long as they read.
I am overwhelmed by the richness of the diet we offer young people here in the UK.
Reading is private so if you stop reading a book, no-one knows. You won't be teased in the playground.
For teens the most important thing is being able to choose what they want to read.

Where would you set the boundaries for teen fiction?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Another Sort of Keren David

When does a book tip over from a young adult book to an adult book?

Is it the content?  In which case, where does the boundary lie?

Is it the viewpoint? Should a  YA book be told from the point of view of a teenager looking forward, while a book from an adult viewpoint looking back is definitely adult?

Is it the narrator's age? Should there be a cut-off point...19 for example?

Or perhaps it's the language - with too much explicit swearing heading for those adult shelves.

Now, some books make it to crossover status -  Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now for example, which I first heard about as an adult book, recommended by another adult.

This was all discussed brilliantly on Nicole Burstein's blog here   . Nicole's view  -  she's a bookseller at Waterstone's Piccadilly and she really knows what she's talking about  is that '...what signifies a book as being YA is that instant feeling of knowing exactly what it is like to be a teenager...Adult readers of YA do so with a yearning to return to that point in their lives where everything was new, exciting and dangerous.'

But Meg Rosoff herself in the comments takes a different view: 'A book about being young that's highly intelligent, beautifully written (as you said) and evokes what it feels like to be 16 with joyous versimilitude can be whatever it wants to be. Teens will love it. So will adults.'

The book they're discussing is Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram, and if it's as good as they both say (and I'm sure it is) then I tend to agree with Meg -  except that I've never really understood why Mal Peet isn't a crossover writer. His books are about adults, they are far, far better than most of the books written for adults. They'd go down a storm as adult thrillers. So why are they shelved as teenage books?

Some books are hard to categorise, and get shown to adult and YA editors. It's a toss up which publisher will take them, which shelves they end up on, which competitions they are entered for. Someone who's written something aimed only at teens might feel disgruntled when a book with a wider range takes the Carnegie Medal. Others may feel frustrated that their book doesn't get the wide audience it deserves, because it's being marketed to the wrong people.

My feeling is that teen books are nearer to adult books than children's books. They need to be shelved near adult books, and many could do well if a canny bookseller put them -  gasp - in BOTH sections.

Which YA books do you think should have been adult books? Are there adult books which would sit better in YA? And how do you know the difference?