Turning Point

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In the delegates' pack, David Belbin, the conference's organiser, wrote:
YAF is at a turning point. There is a new generation of powerful writers coming through and much discussion of 'crossover' success, where adults read novels they would have never considered reading when younger. But it's not clear whether YAF is part of this. YAF is the least economically significant sector of children's books, one where it is hard for writers to earn a living because the audience predominantly borrows rather than buys its books. Many authors feel they are working in the dark, doing important work with little recognition..
Later in the day, Julia Eccleshare was to take issue with the notion that YA literature is a disregarded adjunct of the trade, but the members of the first panel sought to define exactly what Young Adult Fiction is.

Nicola Morgan spoke (with an almost fearsome intelligence and air of certainty) about the teenage brain (she has a book on the subject coming out next year). Because the teenage brain functions differently from the adult brain, the teenage novel has to relate to the reader in a different way compared with the adult novel. Good books should be like strawberries, she said. We eat spinach because it's good for us. We eat strawberries because they taste good.

Kevin Brooks observed that a major difference between adults and teenagers was that all adults have been teenagers but no teenager has been an adult. He added that he wasn't sure what this signified.

Alison Waller, who has recently completed her PhD in children's literature at Nottingham, and is now teaching a screenwriting module at Bath, explained that academics consider YAF to be a distinct branch of literature, comprising many genres, such as the 'novel of ideas', a literature aimed at young adults and designed to 'grow the mind a size larger'.
Graham Marks, in the chair, asked 'Why are you writing these books?' - having been asked the same question recently by his own son, and discovering himself struggling for a response.
Questions from the floor tended to focus on how best to get YA books to their audience, rather than on what YAF actually is. The librarians' voice in the audience was loud and clear throughout the day. "Please can we have more money for fresh stock!"
There were nods of approval when one of the novelist delegates, Alison Prince, pointed out that there was a danger in identifying 'the teenager' as one specific animal.

The next panel (Keith Gray, Beverley Naidoo, Bali Rai - with David Belbin in the chair) wondered whether the 'issue' novel was dead, but none of the panellists seemed comfortable with the term. Keith Gray thought it interesting that when people discuss his books they will talk about the 'theme' of friendship but the 'issue' of bullying. Linda Newbery, from the auditorium, said that she dislikes the phrase 'tackles issues'.

The panellists gave a brief individual talk. Each was good. Keith Gray's was by far the most entertaining. And, picking up on remarks made by Nicola Morgan, he pointed out that writers are good at hiding a bit of spinach inside the strawberry.

After lunch, Anne Cassidy - given a cheer on her introduction for her recent and overdue award successes - said that she felt there was still a large untapped audience. She envisaged a ravine between two clifftops. Young Adult books on one side; swathes of unaware teenagers on the other. "We are the bridge," a school librarian screamed. (I know. School librarians don't scream. But you get the message.) I felt a little sorry for Anne. She came on so positively, so full of ideas for getting the message out. What about text messaging she asked, with reference to her husband's penchant for text messages about his favourite football team. Good point, I thought. Exactly the way YAF publicictiy and marketing people should be thinking.

Unfortunately, Justin Somper, publicist supremo, was unable to attend the conference. Had he been there, I'm sure Anne Cassidy's viewpoint would have received more robust backing. As it was, Julia Eccleshare, seeing things from the perspective of the review pages in The Guardian, wondered what all the whingeing was about. YAF has never had it so good, all our lead reviews feature YA rather children's titles. David Fickling, harking back twenty years to a similar event in the 1980s, felt that not much had changed, and that, anyway, it wasn't a publisher's job to market a book. If a book is worth reading, it'll find its audience. By word of mouth. By recommendation.

Additional promotion is down to others. Libraries. Bookshops. Anne Cassidy was impressively unphased. She still felt more could be done. So do I. So, I would surmise, does Justin Somper.

The notion that all books find their true audience, by word-of-mouth etc. is crazy, especially in respect of YAF. Although Julia Eccleshare was correct in arguing that it is older fiction that is currently getting all the attention, she was arguing against the grain of the event.

Yes, books like Wolf Brother and Children Of The Lamp are getting big advances and plenty of review space. But no one can seriously argue that these are Young Adult novels in the context of what was being discussed at this conference. I wished that the likes of Alan Gibbons, Robert Swindells, Tim Bowler had been in the audience to augment the panellists' views. I was itching to join the debate, but having been invited as 'press' I felt my place was as an observer rather than participant.

YAF has always been my special interest. I began reviewing teenage fiction for The Scotsman in 1995. ACHUKA was born two years later, in reponse to the media frenzy over Junk's winning of the Carnegie Medal. Robert Cormier is the standard by which I judge all YA fiction. I wished the opening panel discussion had managed to tease out a distinction between teen fiction and true YAF, but it is in the nature of conferences such as this that important 'issues' remain unresolved. Melvin Burgess comes close to Robert Cormier in two of his books, Lady and Bloodtide.

His closing talk was great. A showman justifably ridiculiing the perverse objections to his work.

This is Bali Rai signing books between the panels. A feature of the day that delegates especially valued was the fact that authors stayed for the whole event.
Soundclips will be added to this report in due course.

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This page contains a single entry by achuka published on December 1, 2004 7:28 AM.

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