Why YA? With Malorie Blackman @ London Book Fair 2014

Photo via @BookTrust

Photo via @Booktrust

I attended the London Book Fair again this year – my fourth time! I attended first back in 2011 as a publishing intern and did not make the most of it, but since then, I’ve made sure to attend all the wonderful seminars they have on offer. I blogged about New Adult last year and Growing Up Too Soon the year before that. This year, one of my favourite seminars was Why YA?, in which Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2013-2015 Malorie Blackman talked about why she will be focusing on promoting reading to teens and young adults during her laureateship. Also on the panel was Melissa Cox, children’s buyer for Waterstones and one of my favourite people in the book industry, and Jonathan Douglas, Director for National Literacy Trust, who did a brilliant job as chairperson.

I had never heard Malorie Blackman speak before, despite having read her books and as an actual teenager, so I was really looking forward to it and it ended up being a highlight of the fair – I can see why so many people were excited about her being appointed as Children’s Laureate last year. But on with the seminar!

I have no idea how this blogpost is going to work as I’m just typing up the notes I was furiously scribbling down (I wanted to make a note of everything as it was all so wonderful, passionate and genuine – by everyone on the panel), so here we go… I haven’t always specified who said what, so I’m sorry about that!

Why YA?

  • UK film industry is less likely to look at YA books to adapt into films compared to the US (especially those that feature ethnic minorities), so this is one of the reasons Malorie Blackman wanted Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) to take place alongside London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) – young adult fiction, comics and films are all fun, so it’s a perfect fit.
  • Malorie Blackman loves comics, films and games, and they all influence her writing in some way, such as the tendency to leave emotional or actual cliffhangers, like comics used to, although her writing has changed over the past 20 years.Why YA? With Malorie Blackman @ London Book Fair 2014
  • Children and teenagers are honest readers who will put books down if they’re not enjoying them, so stories have to be more ‘immediate’, as in films, games and comics.
  • It’s not just the ‘digital’ people in publishing who are competing for attention – everyone is and there’s certain kinds of people who go into Waterstones whereas teenagers embrace everything, from games to YouTube videos – and they are reading books, but different kinds of books.
  • Young Adult is susceptible to trends and it can be difficult to find longevity, although Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses is an excellent example of a series that has continued to sustain popularity.
  • Melissa Cox confirmed that it’s not just children who are buying YA, 50% of YA buyers are aged 18-24 for Waterstones. In Waterstones, 12+ and 16+ can be found in the same section. Is this to do with society’s obsession with staying young and having an idealised childhood, particularly influenced by US e.g. obsessed with firsts, owning your own car, and freedom?
  • Melissa Cox told us a great story of two 11-year-old boys who were in the cinema watching Catching Fire and at the end said ‘Katniss is just the boss!’, to illustrate that boys will engage with young adult, even books with female protagonists (which, although not connected, is appropriate to counter yesterday’s story in the press…).
  • YA often has better plots and is well-written, plus it tells a unique psychological experience.

YA: Uncomfortable Issues and Censorship

  • Malorie Blackman loves YA’s ‘subversive’ nature and the way it questions everything, which had a lot to do with why she started to write it. One of the first YA novels she read was Melvin Burgess’ Junk (also known as Smack in the US), because there never used to be teenage fiction, just children’s and adult. She especially loves to write subject matters that make adults uncomfortable!
  • Malorie Blackman hears a lot of adults say that her books are ‘not suitable for children’, but she never hears children say this! She would rather have a debate/discussion about important, difficult issues than have her children be misinformed. People need to trust that their kids can handle it, and if not, discuss it, although she understands that parents want to protect their children.
  • There isn’t anything that Malorie Blackman wouldn’t write about, although she wouldn’t be gratuitous – the important thing is how it is done.Why YA? With Malorie Blackman @ London Book Fair 2014
  • It’s all about having a balanced reading experience! You can read both Geek Girl and Junk. She encourages people to read as many books and as many authors as possible.
  • Malorie Blackman finds that censorship is less ‘honest’ in the UK compared to the US, as in we often don’t outright say we’re ‘banning’ a book, but some librarians have told her that they steer children away from some kinds of books.
  • Malorie Blackman visited Great Ormond Street hospital and she was surprised to find a group of 6 and 7-year-olds had written stories where all but one were violent! She thinks it is important to make sure that children know what is going on in the real world, although she’ll never write a book that doesn’t have a hopeful (although this doesn’t mean happy) ending, as it’s important for children to know that they can emerge from whatever situation they are in.
  • We should try to ensure that teenagers get a well-rounded view because they will get their information from somewhere.
  • Does she worry that other writers won’t handle issues responsibly? Malorie Blackman can only be responsible for what she writes, but argued that very few writers tackle issues gratuitously. She can only hope that teenagers will read around the topic, and receive a balanced view, if they do come across these kinds of books.
  • Melissa Cox was asked whether, as a bookseller, censorship was a concern. She said that she has a responsibility to parents, but that if it is a real experience that would happen to a teenager, then it counts as teenage fiction/YA and so will be shelved there, although older paranormal romance, which is what teenagers have also been enjoying, is shelved in a different, genre-specific, section. Melissa has found that in general, publishers take responsibly for this themselves and know what is and isn’t suitable.

YA and Diversity

  • We need more culturally diverse books, but it’s almost gone backwards in the UK, as there are so few books available. It used to be that children’s literature was progressive, but now it seems like adult books are more diverse.
  • It’s why she goes into schools – to encourage others to write and make it know that it’s a career path, but it’s not just about ethnicity, also class, etc., so she encourages children to do what they whatever it is that they want to do in life.
  • There is often a failure to market to a new audience, so it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – poorer people buy half as a many books.
  • Melissa Cox spoke about how one of the most popular categories on the WattPad was Muslim Romance, so there’s obviously a market for it!
  • Young people are genuinely passionate about social justice and care about this issue.

Malorie Blackman on Writing

  • Malorie Blackman cannot write in short bursts like some authors, she needs to submerge herself in the writing process, so at the moment writing is on hold because she wants to make the most of her two years as laureate.
  • Malorie tries to do all sorts of creative things for inspiration and for coming up with ideas – learning Chinese, playing the piano, watching films, visiting galleries and the theatre, and she even took a course on forensic science. If you’re a writer who is stuck for ideas, get out there and do something!
  • Would Malorie ever write historical fiction? She wrote a story for Tony Bradman’s anthology, Stories of WWI, so she might come back to more war stories, but she prefers fiction set in the future because there’s less research to do! But she may turn to a story set ‘before slavery’.Why YA? With Malorie Blackman @ London Book Fair 2014
  • Malorie does not feel pressure to keep language too simplistic and there’s plenty of young adult literature with complex world-building, such as Northern Lights. If the world is convincing, complex language can be a part of that.
  • There is a mix of both commercial and literary young adult fiction out there, although you often need to search to find the literary.

So, that was it! I had such an enjoyable time and it was a joy to listen to three people who are so immensely passionate about children’s and young adult literature and who all want teenagers – and adults! – to experience this wonderful area of publishing. Booktrust filmed the panel, so I’ll include the video here once it’s up. Did you attend this seminar? Do let me know if I’ve missed anything out in the comments!

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20 thoughts on “Why YA? With Malorie Blackman @ London Book Fair 2014

  1. Amazing writeup! I find it particularly interesting that 50% of YA buyers in Waterstones are aged 18-24. So thats basically students and young professionals. Malorie is such a great speaker, so Im glad you got to hear her at last!

  2. This all sounds so fascinating! I would have loved to be there. Thanks for taking all of those notes down and I’ll look forward to the video!

    I too enjoyed Malorie Blackman when I was a teenager (although actually I only read Noughts and Crosses, but that did have a big impression on me!) and I’m so pleased that she is now the children’s laureate.

  3. How exciting! I read Noughts and Crosses awhile back and really enjoyed it. Lucky for you being there and experiencing this:)

  4. I have a bookseller friend who went through the whole debacle of Fifty Shade of Grey. When that really hit the shops and was having it’s big boom, she got a lot of teen and pre-teens coming up who’d heard about the book and wanted to read it. Of course there’s no law saying she can’t sell these books to them (such as with films and games which sometimes require ID), but morally when she’s had a 13 year old in front of her, what should she have done? In the end she ended up explaining a little to the preteens what was in them and why it was adult before selling it to them or, if a parent was with them, just making them aware of the content as well as the teen (with a little aside to the teen saying ‘no offence intended, but I HAVE to least mention this to your parent or they could well yell at me later!’). Morally she didn’t want to stop them from reading an adult book but equally she didn’t want to allow a child access to something they weren’t mature enough yet for or to get yelled at by parents for allowing their children to buy it!

    The bit about a chunk of YA readers being adults just reminded me of that is all – YA and teenage reading and even pre-teen reading is nowhere near as clear cut as an age range! Boys I’ve noticed tend to head straight for adult, scifi, manga/graphic novel or sport sections once they hit mid-teen whereas girls tend to explore teen sections for longer. When I figure out the mysteries of teenage reading I fully expect to be able to fly into work on a pig :)

  5. Really fascinating to read! Though, actually quite depressing reading about the lack of diversity and the fewer chances of film rights when a book contains characters from different ethnicities :(

  6. I love Malorie Blackman, I didn’t like her Knots and Crosses series but I love her work and everything she stands for. This is a brilliant post, thanks!

  7. Great write up Stacey!

    She’s a great speaker isn’t she? Her enthusiasm for YA is so infectious, and is gathering incredible momentum this year …. completely justified considering the awesome novelists ‘appearing’ at the moment!

  8. What a great article ! Thank you !

    I have a question : why is there a “s” at the end of “trend” in this sentence ? : •”Young Adult is susceptible to trends” ?

    • Thanks Melaine! I’m not wonderful at explaining English grammar, but I think it’s because ‘trends’ is plural. It wouldn’t be susceptible to ‘trend’, but publishing could be said to have followed the ‘dystopian trend’ or ‘it’s a trend to publish dystopian literature’.

  9. Oops, I thought I’d commented on this ages ago! Fab write-up of a wonderful event. (I wish my note-taking skills had been good enough to let me do one!)

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