Friday, 30 November 2012

How Far Can You Go in Young Adult Fiction? by guest author Anne Cassidy

Another treat for you this week, as we welcome award-winning author, Anne Cassidy, as our guest at The Edge.

I’ve been writing young adult fiction for over twenty years. My first book was about a violent murder and it involved teen pregnancy/sex/pornography/love. It was called Big Girls’ Shoes (a line that was triggered by an Elvis Costello song, Big Sister’s Clothes). It didn’t sell many copies but it did lay down a kind of template for the books I was going to write.

Since then I’ve written about thirty young adult fiction novels. I’m best known for Looking For JJ, a story about a ten year old girl who killed her friend and was sent to a secure unit. She is released when she is seventeen and the story is about how her life is shaped by what she did when she was ten. This book has violence/pornography/love and lots of other things.

The question of how far you can go is, for me, a matter of taste rather than censorship. My books deal with dark things, adult things and I make no apology for writing them for a teenage audience. When I was a teenager I was desperate to get my hands on adult novels (the more risqué the better) to find out what was really going on in the adult world. I hated the way I was excluded from things in that world. I was expected to be grown up and sensible at school but when it came to knowing what was going on, about life as it was lived, then I was kept in the dark because of my age.

So I would cover just about any dark subject for a young adult audience. The way in which I would cover it would reflect the kind of books I like to read. For example I’ve read a range of serial killer/torture chamber/gore books and frankly I find them laughable. So if I’m writing about a murderer who kills young girls I will have a lot of the violence off camera so to speak. Not because I’m worried that librarians won’t buy my books but because I think it’s better to leave some stuff to the imagination. How scary the film Alien was for NOT seeing the creature. Also The Blair Witch Project. It’s the old saying LESS IS MORE and this works so perfectly for young adult fiction.

The same goes for sex. I like to have sex in my books. My memories of being a teen involved thinking about sex an awful lot (although not doing very much). So any account of teenage life has to have sex in it. However I don’t want readers cringing at sex scenes so I leave a lot of it unstated. I hint, I imply. The unclasping of a belt or the unbuttoning of a shirt might be enough. I think we all know what will happen next.

The main reason that I try to be honest in my storytelling is because I thinks young adults demand it in a way that no other group do. If you try to peddle some made up version of what teen life is like (or what some people wish it was like) you’ll get found out by your readers. They’re a sharp lot. It takes them a long time to pick up a book to read but only a second to put it down again.

Anne Cassidy’s new series THE MURDER NOTEBOOKS begins with Dead Time, which has been nominated for the 2013 Carnegie Medal
The second of the series Killing Rachel will be out in March 2013.

To find out more about Anne and her books visit

Finally, thanks to Anne for being this week's guest author at The Edge.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Edge, an uncomfortable place to be … by guest author, Celia Rees

This week we are delighted to welcome award-winning author, Celia Rees as our guest at the Edge.

I have to thank Miriam Halahmy for introducing me to The Edge and asking me if I’d like to contribute to a site devoted to ‘Sharp fiction for young adults and teens’. I have always believed that there is a place for just this kind of fiction, positioned between children’s books and fully adult writing, offering a staging post, a stepping stone between the two. It is a vitally important, necessary fiction, but a tricky area. The Edge can be an uncomfortable place. Get it WRONG and you will be accused of preaching, patronizing, being out of touch in an embarrassing ‘Dad Dancing’ way. Get it RIGHT and you might delight the readers but dismay the gatekeepers and risk not being published at all.

Tricky lot, older teens.

I began writing as a response to just this difficult group. I was an English teacher and my 14 – 16 year old students seemed to have turned themselves off reading because, they said, there was nothing for them, nothing that reflected life as they experienced it. They were almost adults, but the fiction on offer did not treat them that way. There wasn’t much to intrigue, engage, engross them on a grown up level. This didn’t mean that they read nothing. 
There were authors they consumed with great appetite. American authors like Robert Cormier, Lois Duncan, Patricia Windsor and Ursula Le Guin but their output was relatively small and when these readers wanted to, they could read fast. It seemed to me that what these writers had in common was an ability to write exciting, genre fiction with teenage characters at the centre of the action but with added value. These books were uncompromising, not just in subject matter but also in the complexity of the story telling, the way they were written. I liked that. I enjoyed reading these books myself and that is still my test. If I enjoy the book as an adult reader, it is YA. If I don’t. it’s not. A rough rule of thumb, biased I know, but there it is.

My first novel, Every Step You Take, was based on a true story about a group of students from another comprehensive school in the city who got mixed up in a murder hunt. I wrote it like a thriller because I knew that was a popular genre (and I like thrillers) but it had ‘added value’: strong themes - a continuum of male violence from date abuse and rape to murder and powerful female characters (these were the days of early Val McDermid and V.I. Warshawski).

My latest novel, This Is Not Forgiveness, is also a contemporary thriller, taking in events happening now, soldiers returning from Afghanistan, post traumatic stress disorder, other kinds of social disorder, all mixed into the complexities and stresses of 21st Century teenage life. I’ve written in a lot of other genre, notably historical fiction and horror, but I’ve always kept those first principles in mind: strong stories, added extras, keep it real, be honest, don’t patronize. Even with all that, you still might not get it right…

The Edge can be a difficult place and uncomfortable, but then how comfortable should it be?

For more information please visit Celia's website, her official Facebook Fan Page, or follow her on Twitter @CeliaRees

Huge thanks to Celia for being this week's guest author at The Edge.

Friday, 16 November 2012


Paula Rawsthorne asks, 'Do teenagers self-censor their reading?'
Recently I heard something from a group of librarians that got me thinking.  There was a discussion about boundaries in YA fiction and a librarian said that, in her experience, teenage readers tend to self-censor.  So, for instance, if they started reading a story and found the content too violent, too scary, too sexually explicit, they will put it down and move on to something else.
I was heartened and rather surprised to hear this but wondered how widespread this could be.   I presume (maybe incorrectly) that younger children routinely self-censor.   I imagine they stop reading a book if it upsets them, maybe because of a storyline that disturbs them (years ago one of my kids was particularly upset by a book about a rather menacing bear that hid in a cupboard under the stairs in the family’s house – no wonder he was upset!)  However, do teenagers generally behave in the same way?
I started to think back to my own reading habits as a teenager.   I read many entertaining, popular books as well as works of great literary merit, but, if I managed to get my hands on a wholly inappropriate book I, just like all my peers, was delighted.   Of course, we knew that we shouldn’t be reading these novels, they were invariably books marketed for adults (we didn’t have a separate YA category and it was the era of Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper) and we knew that our parents certainly wouldn’t approve but, of course, this made these trashy books, even more alluring.   Although, in retrospect, I must have had some censorship skills as, even as a teenage reader, if I came across a load of nasty violence in a story I just skipped the offending pages. Also, the innate teenage feminist in me didn’t approve of simpering female characters dominated by beefy men and that would be a good enough reason to give up on a book, no matter how racy.   However, there was only one sure thing that would make me stop reading and that was if the story was boring and, according to my quick research, that reason is still No.1. 

You see, intrigued by this notion of teenagers self- censoring their reading, I decided to undertake a straw poll of, mostly, older teens.  I asked them (via their mums) had they ever stopped reading a book because the content was too much for them.  Now immediately you may feel that my poll is fatefully flawed as no teenager will give an honest answer to this question to their mum!  However, the answer in my poll was resoundingly, no.  Both the boys and girls questioned said that the only reason that they had ever stopped reading a book was if they found it boring.  They certainly weren’t put off by content that their parents might deem unsuitable.

Of course, all teenagers are different so I can’t generalise about self-censorship habits.  It would be wonderful if teenagers were self-aware enough to stop reading a book if they find the content upsetting or disturbing.  But teenage years are often spent pushing against boundaries, asserting independence (as long as you don’t have to cook or clean for yourself) and breaking a few rules.  Sometimes we only find out what our individual boundaries are by breaking them.  Maybe that’s why so many teenagers end up with their heads down the toilets at parties because they just don’t know when to stop drinking.  They may have to repeat this experience several times until they fully understood their boundaries (or was that just me) but it probably makes more of a lasting impression because they worked it out the painful way. 

So, can this theory be applied to choice of books?  Parents, teachers and carers set boundaries for teenagers because they care about them, not because they are a bunch of fascists.  That’s why they may not want them to have access to certain books.  They may take the time to explain why they feel a book is inappropriate, they may even confiscate books (I’ve done this before) but inevitably there will always be teenagers whose curiosity and resolve is only increased by talk of ‘inappropriate books’.  However, even if they end up reading the ‘unsuitable’ book cover-to-cover, some teenagers might discover that their parents were right (although they’ll never admit it) because the book has left them feeling queasy or sullied.  Or maybe they won't be able to make out what all the fuss was about and found the content all very tame (in which case, be worried!)

When we think of censorship, it’s usually because of depictions of sex, drug taking and violence but what about the question of whether teenagers ever self-censor purely because of the subject matter of the story, even when it doesn’t involve graphic sex and/or violence.  This is a whole different area (and needs a separate blog post) and also involves the issue of adults censoring  books for them because of controversial subject matters.  This area, for me, is far more complex and riddled with ethical questions than the thankless task of trying to keep ‘smutty’/violent books out of teenage hands.
If you’re a teenager I’d love to hear whether you’ve ever self- censored a book and why?  If you’re a parent or someone who works with young adults, what’s been your experience in this area?

Paula Rawsthorne is the author of the award winning novel The Truth About Celia Frost


Friday, 9 November 2012

What would you NEVER do .... Miriam Halahmy

I run regular weekly workshops in one of the last surviving Independent libraries in the country, The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, founded in 1839. The building contains over 25, 000 books and many original documents and paintings, often consulted by researchers. The library itself is one of those lovely places with high wood shelving and a clock that ticks steadily and melodically. It’s an inspiring place to sit and read.

Students in my workshops come from all over London but many of them live locally in Highgate village and walk to the class. They come from many walks of life, some of them are already well known journalists and poets, others are just beginning to publish and some just enjoy the camaraderie of the class and the weekly writing exercises. Several people have completed novels and memoirs, some of which are published.

. Each year we collect together an anthology of the students work, someone volunteers to design a cover and we collate the work together into binders at the end of the term. A copy of each anthology is kept in the library. One of our best covers was our chewing gum painting by artist Ben Wilson, created on a piece of gum outside on the pavement, depicting the fact that Coleridge once shook hands with Keats in Highgate.

This term we have worked on creating characters and I thought it would be interesting to ask students to share what they would NEVER do and then write a character who would do one or two things from the list. In other words, I was challenging the students to step right outside their comfort zone and dig deep for an original slant to their characters.

So here is the list. Why not try it out and see if it gives you a fresh eye on those edgy characters you are developing! Good luck!

Things that students in my classes would NEVER do :-
Ride on a roller coaster
Have a tattoo
Be a window cleaner on the Gherkin
Insult my wife’s cooking
Swim the Channel
Take a Nordic cruise to a freezing cold zone
Go pot-holing
Be anywhere confined
Say never – except in certain circumstances
Go speed-dating
Visit a nudist beach
Attend a cookery class
Eat snake
Watch Coronation Street
Drink my own urine
Perform a dance in public
Enter a hard-boiled egg-eating competition
Can’t think of anything which shows what I am prepared to do

Things that writers on Facebook told me they would NEVER do :

Cheat on my husband
Go on a reality TV show
Vote Tory
Watch Top Gear
Murder someone
Eat jellied eels
Let a tarantula crawl on me
Eat a banana ( the last two are connected – spiders, banana boats??)
Lick a razor blade

Friday, 2 November 2012

A London Mugging by Keren David

Apologies for posting a little late. It's been an unexpectedly busy day.
My son and his friend  -  two twelve-year-old boys -  got mugged on their way home from school. They weren't hurt, just shaken, they handled it well, the muggers (three of them, older) got away with one broken Blackberry.
The police were great, they arrived within ten minutes of my call, took my son's friend up the road to see if he could spot them, took descriptions from both of them, took them seriously, praised their actions.
As a mother it was painful to imagine how easily things could have been worse, how easily an knife could have come out of a back pocket, how they might have been punched or kicked or hurt in other ways. We will have to reconsider the safety of the streets near our local railway station, think about whether it's still OK for my son and his sister to walk home alone.
As a writer though it was interesting to hear how the muggers spoke (they used exactly the same words that the muggers use in my books When I Was Joe and Almost True) the way the police looked (rough) and spoke ('We work the peak burglary hours -  2 till 2')
Sometimes being a writer insulates you from everyday traumas. That part of you which observes and take notes actually springs into action when life becomes dramatic -  even when the drama is painful and difficult.
I have once been a victim of burglary, once witnessed a mugging, three times been in close proximity to shootings (Halloween last week reminded me, as it always does, of the year when a man was killed by profession assassins right in the middle of the Amsterdam expat children's Halloween route -  we were on the same street at the time and it was right outside our old house.) I was once chased in my car, once approached by a strange man in the woods saying 'Give us a kiss', I was groped by a pervert in the crowd at the end of the London Marathon. These were all frightening things but nothing too traumatic. Nothing that changed my life.
The police told my son that his friend (owner of the Blackberry) was the victim of the crime and he was a witness.  Afterwards he said to me 'I'm like the boy in your book. I'm like Joe.'
Well, no, I said, Joe witnesses a murder, he has to go into witness protection. None of that has happened to you. None of that is ever going to happen to you. And silently I pray that I've told the truth.