Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Some thoughts on YA...

An article was recently published in The Guardian written by a young reader, Hawwa, titled Falling Out of Love with YA, in which Hawwa talks about how she feels that new YA being published is failing where it should excel: in challenging its readers. Is this true? Here are some of my thoughts…

It is terrible that Hawwa is feeling disappointed in YA fiction today, that she is being let down. As a children’s and YA bookseller, reading her article really made me sit up and think – and, mostly, disagree. She raises a number of relevant points about the hype surrounding some YA novels, and the fact that there are a good number of fantasy/dystopian books being written and published that jump off the back of this hype. BUT. But, but, but: if this is all that teenage readers can see on the YA shelves then I honestly believe they are only skimming the surface of a hugely rich and varied selection of books that are available and just begging to be read. Perhaps the question is: why and how are these books being missed?

It’s true that there are YA books that are driven purely by a romance plot. It’s true that there are dystopian genres conforming to popular film ideals (though many of these ideals, I think, have themselves been driven by the books that the first films of this genre were inspired by). It’s true that there are books that skimp on their language. And it’s true that there are books being driven by hype.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a book that is just pure romance – fortunately, there are plenty that aren’t just this, for those times when that’s not what you want. Sometimes it’s nice to have a book that emulates a bestselling novel you’ve enjoyed – fortunately, again, there are plenty that aren’t just this, especially as they’re not always as good as the original. And some of the books that skimp on their language tend to be written for younger teens or ‘tweens’, those eleven and twelve year olds who want to upgrade to the YA section – the teen section, after all, by definition should cater for those aged 13 to 19, and all the different levels of interest and capabilities that a gap this large entails.

As for the books whose sales are driven by hype: in my ten years’ experience as a bookseller, where YA is concerned, this hype is generated by the readers themselves, and by the movies that the popularity of the book subsequently generates – it’s a word of mouth thing, not a publisher pushing the book thing. The flip side of this is, of course, that not everyone likes the same things (thank goodness – wouldn’t it be boring if we did?), so on occasion, just because five million other people have loved the book isn’t a guarantee that you or I will do too – I really didn’t get on with Michael Grant’s Gone series, for instance, but most readers absolutely rave about it.

Perhaps Hawwa’s argument is that those books that are just jumping on the bandwagon shouldn’t be getting published. And in many ways I’d be inclined to agree with her: books should push boundaries, especially those that are specifically aimed at the new and upcoming generation. They should push all sorts of boundaries: language, plotting, content, characters, diversity, style, approach, the whole shebang. Fortunately, there are plenty of authors writing YA that do just this – and there are plenty of YA books that have been around for a few years that are still doing this. The other side of the coin, though, is that there are readers who want nice, safe, and secure books where they know what to expect – i.e. the bandwagon books. The key to getting it right in any bookshop or library is to have a healthy balance of the two options.

Perhaps where the real problem lies is that some bookshops and/or libraries aren’t making it easy for readers to find those interesting, boundary-pushing books. Perhaps the bookshop where Hawwa likes to browse has only the latest Hunger Games derivative stacked up on their tables. This is where booksellers and librarians need to step in, where they need to create interesting and varied displays, be open and approachable to the teens (and adults) who are visiting their house of words, and recommend, recommend, recommend.

Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk, Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me, anything by David Levithan, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, Ryan Graudin’s The Walled City, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, anything by Patrick Ness, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Alice Oseman’s Solitaire, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus Sedgewick’s She Is Not Invisible, Ruta Sepetys’s Out of the Easy, Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone, Louis Sachar’s Holes, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, Garth Nix’s SabrielLaura Dockrill's Lorali. Look at any Carnegie Medal shortlist and you will find something that challenges and surprises you.

And one final thought: teens absolutely should peruse the adult section. ‘YA’ is simply a label, a categorisation. What goes in it and what doesn’t is largely determined by publishers – talk to any ‘YA’ author and eighty per cent of them will tell you they write the book they want to write, the story they want to tell; that they don’t set out to write YA or adult, sci-fi or romance, that those categorisations are applied afterwards – the publisher reads the book and says, yes, I reckon I can best sell this to such-and-such a group of people.

If The Catcher in the Rye was published for the first time today it would probably be called YA, and there are plenty of books in the adult sections that could easily be displayed in YA and not feel out of place: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps this comes back to booksellers and librarians: that is up to them to make sure these books also make it into YA sections. Or perhaps I am making your point for you: that publishers chose to call books with more sophisticated language adult and less sophisticated ones YA – but while that might be true in some cases, I really don’t believe it is a hard and fast rule and it certainly isn’t true in the majority of cases – there is more to determining what is and isn’t YA than just the language, after all. Otherwise how would a book like I’ll Give You the Sun have made it into the YA section?

To any reader who feels they’re not being represented in the books they’re reading, speak up, like Hawwa has done. Only this way will we – authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians – know what is missing, what you want and what you need. But don’t forget to look a little deeper on the shelves as well, to ask the bookseller, to ask family and friends – or even the internet – because there are all sorts of gems hiding behind the hype.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea has one of the best subtitles I think I’ve ever come across: ‘A novel without letters’. It’s ironic, clever, amusing, the truth and a lie all in one go. This is a book in which certain letters from the alphabet gradually become outlawed – ultimately leaving just five (four consonants and a single vowel) for the author and characters to work with – yet is a story told purely though the medium of letters and notes, making it simultaneously a novel without letters and a novel full of them!

Ella Minnow Pea is a teenaged girl who lives with her parents on a small, independently governed island just off the coast of the United States. The island – Nollop – takes it’s name from a now deceased citizen of its nation, Nevin Nollop, who famously (or perhaps not so famously) created the sentence, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This pangram, a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet, is held by the islanders in highest elevation, representative, they believe, of a greatness of language to which all of its citizens should aspire.

Eschewing modern technology as far as possible, letter writing appears to be the dominant form of communication on Nollop, and so the story begins with Ella writing to her cousin Tassie, who lives in a village in a far corner of the island. There is a great deal of hubbub in the capital of Nollopton, we learn, where an alphabetical tile has fallen from the classic sentence that adorns Nevin Nollop’s statue in the town centre: the letter Z, to be exact. While most people begin by assuming it is simply an act of nature precipitated by weakened glue on said tile, the High Council soon pronounces that there is a much higher purpose to be gleaned from the event: namely, that the tumbling of the letter Z is “a terrestrial manifestation of Mr. Nollop’s wishes.” And Mr. Nollop’s wishes are? That ‘Z’ be expunged from the alphabet forever more.

As of midnight on August 7th, no citizen is allowed to speak, write, or be in possession of the letter Z. At the outset, Ella isn’t terribly concerned by the pronouncement: Z, after all, is a fairly little-used letter. The outlaw of its use shouldn’t provide too great a challenge, and the challenge that it does represent is one that she is happy and eager to embrace. But Tassie sees things differently… And when August 8th comes around and Z is no more, it becomes startlingly clear how widespread an effect the removal of even this small alphabetical letter can have.

Mark Dunn is a supreme master of the English language, and as Ella Minnow Pea (or L-M-N-O-P) unfolds it soon becomes clear what a fascinating construct it is. As missives go back and forth, between Ella and Tassie initially, and then between other characters as they are gradually brought in to the story, adding new shades of light and dark, we are quietly led to realize that, despite it’s hearty subtitle, there is much more to this tale that just letters. First, a rather strict series of punishments is put into place by the High Council for any alphabetical transgressors and then, as more letters begin to fall, utopia rapidly descends into classic dystopian territory, all notion of human rights and morality deserting the island leaders as their obsession with Nollop takes over.

Can Ella and her fellows find a way to stop the madness before it is too late?

The characters, the politics and their relationships are all wonderfully and intriguingly developed, but it is the structure of this novel that’s left the greatest mark on my thoughts. What result does losing just one or two letters have? Books, names, and foods are all lost, while neighbor turns upon neighbor, the close-knit community quickly imploding. The Nollopian desire to elevate language is met, though, in a sense, as the characters strive to talk around the words they would otherwise say or bring into employ less common usage words for the same meaning.

As letters fall in ever greater numbers, though, language starts to falter. First things are renamed (with the loss of D, for instance, days of the week become Sunshine, Monty, Toes, Wetty, Thurby, Fribs, and Satto-gatto). Then, instead of the flowery and well-considered manner of speaking and writing from before, sentences become stark and grammarless. Spellings are changed to make words that sound the same but which avoid the illegal lettering and ultimately, language loses all essential meaning, becoming a base form, impossible to write or speak, while most of the community is torn asunder and spread to the four winds.

The only way out is if they can find a new sentence that supersedes Nollop’s 35 piece sentence: a pangram of 32 letters or less. Then, the Council, promises, they will accept that Nollop is not, perhaps, the be-all and end-all of language that they currently believe. But is it possible? Can Ella find the magic sentence before the deadline the Council has set? Is there even a sentence to find?

By turns funny and disturbing, tender and thought-provoking, Ella Minnow Pea is wonderful and brilliant, letter-less and letter-full and which takes language to a whole new level.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, by Catherine Storr

Book Recipe:
Take one wolf, determined but dim,
And one girl, clever and brave.
Add a sprinkling of fairytales and mix well,
Then bake as needed each evening at bedtime for a week.

Result: a deliciously funny collection of stories
That will leave young readers begging more…

Need to know more? Well, the title of the book - Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf - sums it up fairly well, actually: this is a highly edible collection of bite-size stories about young Polly (who is clever) and the Wolf (who is quite stupid).

Wolf really, really wants to eat Polly. He has a plan. Well, thirteen plans to be accurate, one for each chapter. Some of them seem like they might even work, though perhaps not the one where he thinks he’s turned himself invisible (during which he takes a break from Polly-hunting to play, of all things, at being a train). From trying to copy some classic fairytales (and not just the obvious ones either) to disguising himself as the postman, I couldn’t help but be endeared to this quirky, funny Wolf despite his dark intentions. And of course Polly outwits him at every turn in various different ways. Respect.

Even though this a book clearly aimed at much younger readers than myself, I really enjoyed it! It was witty and funny and lovely. I can picture my friend’s five-year-old soaking it up as a bedtime story just as much as I can picture a seven or eight-year-old reading it to themselves. The stories don’t always go the way you might expect them to, but rest assured that Wolf doesn’t ever get his way (much to his great disappointment), while the conversations between the two characters are absolutely classic. I would totally read the follow-on book, Polly and the Wolf Again, just for my own amusement.

It’s delectable!