Tag Archives: horror

YA fiction: The dark side

It’s a perennial yarn. Someone easily shocked or offended picks up a work of Young Adult fiction and reels at the contents. Horrified that their innocent young darling could be corrupted by such truth-telling, they quickly fire off a complaint to the library/school council/education department/all of the above. A cranky letter to a local newspaper follows and before you know it there’s a story cobbled together asking whether YA fiction is too dark and dangerous for young people to read.

As a journo and YA author I follow these stories with particular interest. These days I’m more author than journalist so I was amused/bemused by a recent media request to discuss this exact topic. The piece was due to run in a Fairfax weekend mag but I’m yet to spot it. (Please shoot me a link if you’ve seen it.)

One of the points I failed to make during the interview is that I grew up in an era where there was no YA section in bookstores or libraries. In the school libraries I frequented, once you were beyond Enid Blyton and had scaled the heights of Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele, you were fast running out of options. In town, the library bus visited fortnightly. While my younger siblings pillaged the limited children’s selection I was free to range the semi-trailer and make my own choices. Invariably I returned home accompanied by Stephen King, James Clavell or James Herbert – guys who didn’t exactly bubble wrap the darkness and violence in their stories. I don’t believe I’m any the worse for reading their work before I turned 18 or 21 or whatever age you’re allowed to know the world isn’t entirely Blyton-esque.

My own YA novels draw heavily on my experiences as a journalist and subsequently contain dark matter. I make careful choices about what I include and how explicit I should be. I also borrow from history as true stories often can’t be topped. It’s rare that I get a complaint. (For the record, I did get one a few weeks back from a reader disturbed by one of the historic elements I used in Five Parts Dead. I’d forewarned him the books were intended for older children and told his parents to read ahead of him… Interestingly, he preferred Game as Ned, which I feel is even more confronting. We clearly have different sensitivities.)

One of the things I did refer to when interviewed was the short story competition I judge annually. The entrants are 12 to 18 years of age and heavily skewed towards the 13-14 year old bracket. The topics are of their own choice – serving as a free window into teen thinking. Having just finished the judging, here are the topics covered this year and the number of young people who tackled them:

A favourite from my adolescent years. I've read this many times.
A favourite from my adolescent years. I’ve read this many times.

  • Bullying (4)
  • Cancer/disease/mental illness (5)
  • Divorce/family breakdown (6)
  • Family/travel/good times (7)
  • Heartbreak/love (8)
  • Horror (8)
  • Murder/kidnapping/crime (4)
  • Natural disaster (1)
  • Road fatalities (5)
  • Sci-fi (5)
  • Suicide (3)
  • War (6)

I could rail on about fiction being a safe space to explore and gain insight into the dark side of life but I think that list renders my comments redundant. Many young people portray a world that is considerably crueler than I could dream up.

So I’ll keep on writing the stories that feel right to me. Hopefully, to quote one of my former editors, my stories will show that even in dark places the light can shine through.

Best in show

I’ve been judging the secondary schools short story competition for the Whittlesea Show for half a decade (or longer). There have been some brilliant stories over the years and it was fantastic to hear that the student I awarded Best in Show to in 2009 went on to win more prestigious competitions.

Some of the students write on topics set by their teachers and this year “outside the square” seemed to have been prescribed by at least two schools. Thankfully, it was a starting point that allowed plenty of latitude and generated fun stories.

The range of topics covered is always a taste of teen zeitgeist. As I blogged in 2008, the subjects can be very dark. This year was no different.

Horror x 11*
Dystopia x 7
Travel/adventure x 7
Dreams/fantasy x 6
Love/friendship x 5
Military x 4
Murder/death/kill x 4 (*The death toll in horror is high, but the setting and characters are different.)
Refugees x 3
Environment x 3
Sport x 3
Stalkers x 3
Tragedy/medical x 3

Other topics included music/talent quests, agriculture, humour, philosophy and child abuse.

I’m thinking the Twilight phenomenon might have been an influence this year, along with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series.

Other observations:
– At least two entries this year were plagiarised. Unless teachers have asked you to do so (and there’s no way I can know this), rewriting other people’s stories doesn’t count as your own work.
– Homophones cause a lot of kids trouble. Maybe this reflects poor use of software spell-checks – students often use words that sound correct but have the wrong meaning, with unintentionally comic results. I’m tempted to cite some appalling examples this year but will stick with one from years past, where a student used ‘delicates’ instead of ‘delegates’. Ouch.
– Using a big word backfires if you don’t know what it means. An example this year was “incendiary” which is a great word but was so, so wrong in the context it was employed.
– Fancy fonts are a bad idea.
– Proof read your work. Read it aloud and see if it makes sense to you. If you get tongue-tied or confused, you can guarantee the judge will, too.
– Younger writers seem to embrace story-telling risks more than senior students. I wonder if this is because the older students are being funnelled into the VCE machine where results might count more than imagination. I hope not.

Congratulations to the 2010 entrants. I was impressed by the quality, particular in the Yr 7 to 10 age-groups. To sign off, here’s a clip that’s nothing to do with short stories and everything to do with good writing. It’s from the dog fanciers flick, Best in Show.

Bring on the scare

Earlier this week I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with an article in the Sydney Morning Herald with the engaging headline Why it’s good to horrify children.

The thrust of the article by Irish author John Connolly, linked above for your viewing pleasure, is that scary books are good for kids. That young adults might actually take some useful life lessons from these tales. That stories where characters conquer the darkest of situations might just show kids that they can overcome tough times too.

Mr Connolly and I are of a very similar vintage and grew up in the era before bookstores developed YA sections. Judging from his article, we worked our way through the same canon of adult authors: Wyndham, MacLean, Fleming, King, Stoker, Mary Shelley and more. (The Shining scared me silly and it took me until this year to summon the courage to watch the movie (alone) – only to be scared all over again.)

Prior to tackling these adult authors I had early exposure to horror through the Grimm brothers’ collections of ‘fairy tales’. Anyone considered the subject material of Rumplestiltskin lately? Deceit, death penalties, abduction, pledging your first born child…

Anyway, I endorse Mr Connolly’s words for a few reasons:

1. I reckon young readers need to explore the dark side from a safe place. Where better than in books?

2. Whenever I visit schools or conduct writing workshops I can guarantee that the students, no matter how lively, will shut up and listen if I discuss things I’ve seen from my crime reporting days. The darker and gorier the better.

3. Storytellers have been using scary tales since the beginning of time to teach lessons to children. I’m familiar with the story of the Nargun from the indigenous Gunai Kurnai clans of south eastern Victoria. The Nargun lived in a cave or “den” under a waterfall, pictured here, and would come out after dark to snare children who had wandered too far from their family campfires. At its simplest, it was a horror story of children being eaten by a monster. At a functional level, it assisted with birth control by deterring teens from sneaking off and getting frisky – and kept them away from a particularly sacred site.

Hmmm, wonder if I can conjure up a Nargun before my kids hit adolescence?

An appeal for better boys’ books

Further to my musings on books for boys, here’s a 13-year-old sharing some home truths with the publishing industry. Much as I applaud his incitement and agree with most of his thoughts, I can’t help but wonder how representative he is. (Sorry Max.)

At some of the schools I visit I have teaching staff tell me “these (14 yo) boys are reading reading at 8- to 10-year-old levels”. Ask the boys what age-level computer games they’re playing and that’s another story.

Anyway, Max’s wisdom is well worth considering. As an author, it’s invaluable information.