A small letter to YALC…

This year I was lucky enough to be working at YALC, the Young Adult Literature Conference held as part of London Film & Comic-Con. I know, I’m showing off more than I little bit. Victoria Schwab gave me a cookie (it was delicious) and I fan-girled meeting Malorie Blackman. It’s a far cry now from the first YALC I went to – the very first one in fact, crammed somewhere in the back of Earl’s Court, besieged on either side by the usual LFCC crowd. It earned its nickname that year as the literal hell on earth, so warm and overwhelmingly stuffy, with no boundaries to help keep things in one place. I had fun, but it was still a bit of a sensory explosion that left me a little fractured. The shift to Olympia has made all the difference. Us YA lot now have our very own floor, and the atmosphere change that comes with it is so very welcome.

Oh, the atmosphere of YALC… It’s so wonderful to be in a place surrounded by other book lovers. Everyone there loves books, and so the empathy in the room is palpable – a sense of joy and understanding that you can taste on your tongue. When I was a teenager, I’d have longed for the chance to chat to other bookish teens, to sit and watch talks by my favourite authors, and to get an insight into the publishing industry, so for I felt so honoured to be a tiny part of this year. To talk to others in the book world and to engage with the passionate young readers and talk to them about their favourite books, it’s why I fell in love with this whole wonderful YA community in the UK in the first place. The open-hearted love is real, and it’s wonderful to behold.

I do hope publishers, literary agents and authors where watching and listening to those fans this weekend. I hope they saw the joy the books they make can create. I hope they saw the amount of teenagers there in head scarves who aren’t seeing themselves in the books they read – yet. I hope the UKYA community continues to strive towards full representation of our wonderful multicultural world. I’ve always believed books create empathy, and it the light of all the stuff 2016 has flung at us so far, we need all the empathy towards one another we can get.

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Simon Vs The Homo Sapien’s Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Some of my favourite people have told me great things about this book, and it’s another one I feel like I’m late to the party on – but I read it in a couple of sittings a few weeks ago, and let me tell you that it’s entirely worth the wait. A sweet, heartfelt and adorable story of love and acceptance.

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Simon Spier is sixteen years old, and lives a double life – hiding his sexuality from his friends and family and everyone at school. Simon’s only outlet is with Blue, another closeted boy at his high-school, who he emails with on a daily basis. The two of them have no idea who the other is, communicating using pseudonyms to discuss their secrets. Unfortunately for Simon, though, his emails fall into the hands of Martin, class clown with a mean streak and eyes for a girl in Simon’s friendship circle. Martin begins to blackmail Simon, threatening to out him to the world, and by doing so, ruining his growing, budding relationship with Blue. Simon’s secrets begin to create rifts within his small, close group of friends, and his feelings towards his anonymous pen-pal begin to grow, as this high school drama starts to unfold with emotion and heartfelt angst and hope.

Simon Vs is such a sweet book, filled with vibrant, wonderful characters who bounce off each other perfectly. Simon as our narrator is sweet, conflicted and always so well meaning – he spends most of the novel struggling to have what he truly wants, when he’s so busy trying to put everyone else’s feelings first, and hide his secrets from them. His secretive nature and the way it infects his friendships is subtle and lifelike, and his mistakes and darker, selfish thoughts are honest and easily relatable. The story has a brilliant set of secondary characters, all glowing with conflicting emotions and supporting Simon in beautiful, varied ways. Martin’s actions and behaviour are borne of desperation, but he’s still a terrible human being who I loved hating.

Damn Straight

Damn Straight

I love the themes tackled in Simon Vs, particularly the idea of “straight” being considered the default in our society. The idea of everyone having to come out, whether straight or gay or bisexual, is wonderful and is really a great way to hammer home the need for diversity in literature. The book also has great, witty dialogue with a voice that reflects teenagers perfectly. The way the characters interact is often hilarious, snappy and fun, but the emotions underpinning them are deep and complex. It’s a beautiful little story that I defy anyone to not smile at – and a love story with a better understanding of the spectrum of humanity than most YA out there.

Thanks for Reading, as always,

D

All of The Above by Juno Dawson

Juno is probably one of the most criminally underrated authors in the country. Despite her brilliant, often tongue in cheek, and often downright terrifying horror novels (Say Her Name, Under My Skin), not to mention her brilliantly important non-fiction work of gender and sexuality (How To Be a Boy, This Book Is Gay), I never quite feel she gets the praise she deserves for the huge amount of work she does. Well, I’m going to try! All Of The Above is her latest YA novel, and unlike her previous offerings, this one is strictly contemporary – no witches, no spirits and no murderous tattoos. It’s also probably her best novel to date. Here’s why…

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Toria is the new girl in the sleepy, dilapidated seaside town of Brompton-on-Sea, and being the new girl in a small town is a big deal. She’s concerned by all the same things that bother most new teenagers at a new school – making friends, passing A-Levels and getting to finally leave home. When she meets the bright, pixie-ish Daisy, the outspoken and chaotic Polly and their gang of misfits and freaks, she finds a group of fun, vibrant friends that make her online contacts overseas drop straight off her agenda. Toria is fascinated by the explosively chaotic Polly, and the two girls soon become best friends. Toria even meets a boy at one of the gang’s late night meetings at the seafront’s Crazy Golf Course – Nico is the most beautiful boy she’s ever seen, and there’s some serious biology at work driving the two of them together. It might not be love, but it’s inescapable and it’s the most grown up Toria’s ever felt in a relationship. Everything seems perfect, the Summer days stretching out forever, laughing on the beach with cheap wine fuelling them – this is everything TV has told Toria that teenage life with best friends should be like! But she’d be naïve to think that this is all there is to life, and slotting into a complex friendship group is never straightforward… Especially one as complicated as this one.

The full cover creates the tone of the book PERFECTLY.

The full cover creates the tone of the book PERFECTLY.

Why is All Of The Above Juno’s best novel to date? Because of all the reasons – that’s why. These are her most wonderfully messy and complex characters yet, and I love each one in very different ways, which I’m going to attempt to sum up in words now. Toria, our narrator, is a confused but determined main character, filled with a brilliant mix of bubbling emotions are feelings, and her worldview is forever shifting as she grows throughout the story. I love her fierce loyalty to her friends, as well as her vulnerability when it comes to being desperate for Polly to like her – friend crushes are a real thing and desperately wanting someone to be your friend is awful. Polly is something else entirely, a pure force of nature that often contradicts herself, but who never stops or looks back. She stands larger than life in Toria’s eyes, but gradually her layers are unraveled to reveal a diverse, eclectic and above all scared young woman. Her protectiveness over her friends is absolutely beautiful, and her gut instinct way of life balances Toria’s anxious overthinking superbly. But that’s not the end of it! ALL of this book’s characters are brilliant, and Daisy and Beasley are both wonderful – I love Daisy with all my heart, her gentle, peaceful and bright outlook fill the story with light and a gentle Summerness that helps tone down Polly’s whirlwind personality. Beasley is effortlessly sweet and flawed, but full of passion and love, and I found myself connecting with his desperate need for attention really well. Everyone is so distinctive and well written that they play across the page together so vividly that it’s impossible to not want to be part of their group.

I asked James to sign a special page in the book instead of the title page. Heartbroken.

I asked Juno to sign a special page in the book instead of the title page. Heartbroken.

As with Dawson’s previous books, her work as a teacher clearly shines through in her dialogue, which is downright hilarious, and effortlessly realistic and on point – she writes in the throwaway, snappy style that teenagers talk, complete with excessive swearing and pop-culture references. What makes All Of The Above stand so triumphantly above the crowd though is Juno’s dedication to diversity. She’s always been a champion of representation, but this new book really effortlessly pulls in some of the aspects of everyday human beings that are still so worryingly lacking in everyday fiction. It examines sexuality in an honest and open way, shunning simplistic stereotypes and instead looking at real, genuine people and their complex (and often messy) emotions and feelings, and it touches upon mental health in a subtle, heartbreaking way. Self-harm and eating disorders are touched upon throughout the story, and are thankfully un-romanticised and quite painfully honest and blunt.

Ultimately, what I think Juno has achieved with All Of The Above is a rare accurate glimpse into the painful, beautiful and messily confusing experience of growing up and finding out who you are. And by that I mean that the characters have about as much idea at the end as they did to start with – it understands that there is no universal teenage experience, and it isn’t afraid to look at the darkness that comes in adolescence (one that most grownups would like to pass off as “a phase”). But it also isn’t afraid to look at vibrant joy and love and friendship that comes with the intensity of being a teenager. The whole book filled me with hope and melancholy, and it’s one of the most powerful and adorable books to come out of the UKYA scene.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. – You can buy All of The Above HERE

P.P.S. – You can follow Juno Dawson on Twitter HERE

P.P.P.S – Obviously, the book does cover some darker themes, and as such contains triggers for self harm and eating disorders.

Happy UKYA Day!

What is UKYA? I mean, what does that even mean – UKYA? Okay, I admit, the answer is kinda self evident. It’s Young Adult Books written by UK based authors. The end. BLOG OVER.

Well, I suppose the really important question is – why do I choose to read so much UKYA? I’m a 27 year old “man” who did a Crime Scene Sciences degree, and my other hobbies include video games and abrasive, angry and deliberately esoteric music.

With a stupid face.

With a stupid face.

There’s a few different answers to that question – a few different threads of happenstance that lead to the person I am today (not a great person, but I suppose I’m okay – if a bit wordy). I took on a Christmas Job as a bookseller for Waterstones, rediscovered my love of Children’s Fiction from my own childhood, & hit upon one of the only things I’ve ever felt like I’ve been good at – sharing a love of stories. It was from this little platform that I discovered Twitter, and fell headfirst into the UKYA community that was so brilliantly welcoming. But we’ll talk more about that in a moment. The real reason I grew such a infectious passion for UKYA novels comes down to a simple, straightforward & obvious answer – The books. Duh.

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I guess I couldn’t tell you what the very first UKYA novel was I read… I mean, technically it was probably something like Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, but when I finally started picking up the current wave of authors writing, I couldn’t help but devour as many books as my staff discount card could take. The first proof I requested was Will Hill‘s Department 19, and I think that’s a great example of where UKYA triumphs over the American equivalents. It was just after the real peak of Twilight fever, where vampire fiction was all Anne Rice love and soft, gentle sighs of longing into the lonely night, and here was a story of action, despair and teen angst, driven by a mix of high-octane, high-violence and classical horror overtones (it weaves the works of Stoker & Shelly into the narratives perfectly). It took the try-hard nature of the whole vampire phenomenon and went “Nah, vampires kill people. Let’s take this back to its horror roots.” and I loved it for that. After that, I tried anything I could get my hands on, contemporary, science fiction, horror, I’ll give anything a try. Still, though, the home-grown authors really stood head and shoulders above the rest. Is it because I find the settings, the characters and the voices much more familiar than their overseas counterparts? I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a great start when it comes to engaging with a story, but I think it comes down to more than that.

Such a GREAT series!

Such a GREAT series!

In the UK, we have a great sense of self-deprication. Something about the eternal, overcast, rainsoaked environment creates a sense of hopeful, but pessimistic reality. We knows things can get better, but they’ll get a lot worse and they’ll require a lot of work, pain and rain to make it happen. This is brilliantly reflected in the dark, gritty, but oddly wry and quirky stories by authors like Tanya Byrne (Follow Me Down is a superb crime-noir with twists of humour throughout) and Alice Oseman (her debut Solitaire is brilliantly despondent and hilarious all in the same page). UKYA can get seriously dark though, and I feel like it pulls less punches when it decides to get bleak and challenging than other YA out there – Carnegie Medal winning The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks is a stellar example of an unrelentingly bleak and powerful novel that never romanticises the horrific predicament of its characters.

One of the nest debuts of the last year.

One of the nest debuts of the last year.

I just feel like UKYA novels get realism and the down-to-Earth nature of teenagers down on paper much better than any other books. The honest, ugly and often uncomfortable When Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan, or the heartfelt and emotionally articulate Being Billy by Phil Earle (an absolute shining star of the community, by the way) are testaments to how authors in the UK are willing to look at complex issues without a rose-tinted lens, and they’re so much more valuable for it. And it isn’t just mental health, either – with the global rise of the We Need Diverse Books mission, UKYA authors are moving forward leaps and bounds when it comes to minority representation in their novels. Malorie Blackman‘s Noughts & Crosses series was just the beginning (using Dystopia to examine racial segregation); Louise O’Neill‘s Only Ever Yours, winner of the UK’s first ever YA Book Award, examines the importance of gender equality by using a twisted dystopian universe, and the stunningly beautiful The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson makes the bold but vital move of tackling the difficult and underrepresented topic of Transgender in Teenagers. Even wonderful works by Patrick Ness drop gay characters into stories where their sexuality is simply a part of their character as opposed to the point of the story (More Than This), and Non Pratt who’s upcoming novel Remix has two racially diverse main characters without it being a big deal in the slightest. James Dawson‘s subtle use of characters, as well as his outspoken support of diversity in fiction is just one of the hundreds of UK based writers who are working hard to include minorities in their work. I don’t for a second think that there isn’t still work to do, but I feel a great sense of pride that our shores are producing such fantastic stories with such a concentrated effort towards letting all young people see characters like them int he books they’re reafing.

Such an IMPORTANT BOOK.

Such an IMPORTANT BOOK.

The final thing I want to talk about when it comes to UKYA books though, is their dialogue, their narrative voice and the way their characters interact. One of the biggest reasons I’ve struggled with falling totally in love with John Green novels is because to me, lines like – “My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations…” – sounds nothing at all like me and my friends did as teenagers. That smooth, poetic writing works in points, but I think it alienates me from the characters in a story. I’m pretty much an idiot, and I prefer the characters I read about to stumble over their words and say the wrong things. Non Pratt‘s debut novel, Trouble, uses such realistic, honest back and forth between characters that I laughed and cried constantly, and connected with the main characters on a very fundamental level. Matthew Crow‘s In Bloom managed to be full of sudden bursts of humour and stupidity whilst also containing one of the most powerfully moving sentences I’ve ever read in a book. Dawn O’Porter with Paper Aeroplanes (and its sequel Goose), James Dawson‘s Under My Skin, Tape by Steve Camden, Geekhood by Andy Robb and Geek Girl by Holly Smale – all these books have characters who willfully make bad choices, or make stupid decisions. They make mistakes and they say the wrong things. Unlike any other country, I feel like the UK’s YA is full of less than perfect characters, and for teenagers growing up and discovering their own faults, flaws and quirks, making their own mistakes and becoming their own diverse people, that’s such an important thing to see. UKYA lets its readers know that it’s okay to be less than perfect. It’s okay to try something stupid. It’s okay to mess it up.

Hilarious & Heartbreaking.

Hilarious & Heartbreaking.

The UKYA online community (search #UKYA, #ukyachat and @ProjectUKYA on Twitter) is the passion and the brainchild of the hugely talented and driven Lucy Powrie, herself a teenage blogger, and she’s managed to create a fun, inviting atmosphere through which I’ve met some wonderful people and made some amazing friends with whom I can share my excitement and joy about these wonderfully accessible books. The wonder of social media also means that I can have conversations with the authors I’m enjoying right now – If 14 year old Darran could’ve chatted with Philip Pullman about His Dark Materials, I’d’ve exploded with excitement, and yet now I often chat back and forth with people I have huge amounts of awe and respect for. For someone so far in the North of the country, away from the world of publishing (which is all frustratingly London based), the UKYA community has become a way for me to be involved in the spreading the love of great books and keeping up to date with new authors and debuts that I might otherwise have missed, and the sense of welcome belonging is really important to me.

With initiatives like YALC returning for a second year at London Film & Comic-con, The YA Book Prize and so much more, I honestly feel like we’re just stepping into a golden age for UKYA literature, and I’m glad to be able to say I’ve been involved in a little way.

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God, sorry for rambling on for so so long. I did say I was wordy though, up there at the beginning. If you bothered reading all of this… Then erm… THANK YOU AND I AM SORRY.