Tag Archives: James Clavell

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.

Books of influence

Think back through your life. What books have left an indelible mark, good or bad, on your soul? Was there a novel you were forced to digest at school that put you off reading forever after? Is there a non-fiction title that led to an epiphany about your true calling? Did a self-help publication rescue you from a dark place? Is there a work with an unmatched ability to transport you from from the humdrum to a place where you can shed your burdens and relax?

These books don’t have to be your favourites. They don’t need to be great literature, either. They just need to have made an impact that echoes within you today. They might be books you can’t bear to throw away, even though you haven’t picked them up for decades. And they could be the titles that stay on your bedside table so they’re always within reach.

Here are a few that helped make me who am I am, for better or worse, and the reasons why:

Tintin & The Red Sea Sharks – Herge
This was the first graphic novel I laid eyes on. The fact that I can still remember finding it in the Yarram library – a hardcover comic felt like a forbidden fruit – is proof this book spiked the Richter scale of my years. I’ll never know whether I ended up a journo because of the adventures of the unstoppable boy reporter but I have my suspicions.

Asterix the Gaul – Goscinny & Uderzo
I moved from Tintin to the Asterix series, which revel in punning and wordplay. During my early tabloid newspaper days I was a rampant punster in inappropriate places. I think the two Frenchmen and their translators are to blame.

To the Wild Sky – Ivan Southall
This novel was young adult before the genre existed. For reasons I’ve detailed elsewhere, it could have led to my becoming an author. Even if it didn’t, it was one of the first books that helped me understand the power of story. And it was Australian, unlike most of the Blyton-esque stories I grew up with.

The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
Wyndham specialised in sci-fi that could be happening in your own backyard. I devoured many of his books. This title made me think what it meant to be different, accepted and able-bodied. It raised questions I hope to explore in my next novel and it certainly led me down a path into social justice journalism.

To Kill A Mocking Bird – Harper Lee
This could be filed with the titles above and below it, under the heading ‘Injustice’. Reading novels such as this, even as compulsory school exercises, made me aware that there are times when you need to speak out, no matter how unpopular that might make you. I was reminded of this courtroom drama recently, when reading Chloe Hooper’s excellent and upsetting The Tall Man.

A Kindness Cup – Thea Astley
I did a unit on ‘justice’ in either Year 11 or 12 and this was one of the set texts. It was certainly the first I’d heard of massacres of indigenous Australians. The injustice evident in this tale has stayed with me ever since and influenced my years at university and as a newspaper journalist.

1984 – George Orwell
Also school reading. At some level I think this made me realise the people in power don’t necessarily deserve to be there and should be scrutinised and held accountable for their actions.

Shogun – James Clavell
One of the towns I lived in as a teenager had a mobile library visit fortnightly in a semi-trailer, adding to the exotic appeal of any space full of stories. Thanks to that truck I dabbled with Stephen King, James Herbert, Ian Fleming and other authors that the librarian cocked an eyebrow at. This Hollywood-esque saga was the first time I was so completely transported to another culture to experience adventure, honour and sexuality. I’ve probably read it three or four times since.

A House for Mr Biswas – VS Naipul
I tackled English literature at university and didn’t exactly love it. There weren’t many books I had to read that I enjoyed. I’m not even sure I enjoyed this one but I’ve never forgotten it. It led me to other titles such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. When I first had the chance to travel internationally it was India I ventured to.

The Art of Happiness – The Dalai Lama with Howard C. Cutler
One of my friends remarked that this book taught him to be a man and how to deal with anger. I wouldn’t go quite that far but I would say it has made me think about who and how I want to be.

Thank you to the lovely Julia Lawrinson for prompting this post in her blog.

Incidentally, last year I did a Facebook 15 Books in 15 Minutes list, with a slightly different brief … and came up with a slightly different catalogue. If I were to list authors that have influenced me, that would be a different list again. Maybe that’s a challenge for another post. In the meantime I’d love to hear about books that have left a mark on the inner you.