Tag Archives: reading

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.

And my heart breaks again

Being a parent seems to be a lifelong lesson from your children about the best and worst of yourself. Being a teacher, as best as I can tell, seems to guarantee an education from your students.

You also get an awareness of their stories, their truths and their unique world views. I recently posted about a gentle boy I know who has already seen way too much hurt. Last time I saw him he was worried that I’d be angry with him because he hadn’t done something I asked. I’d been trying to motivate him and ended up making him apprehensive. It wasn’t what I intended and so a new strategy is needed.

Now, after another week working with various students at a couple of venues, another story pulses like a siren in my mind. Another boy, of similar age but a radically different background. Literacy lessons. When you try to help kids learn to read, you tend to notice patterns. Mispronunciations. Reversal of particular consonants. Sounds that don’t seem to be heard the way that we need if we’re to decode words efficiently.

This particular pattern took me a while to decipher. There were two words he couldn’t seem to read. Then I understood. It wasn’t couldn’t. It was wouldn’t. They were words he doesn’t intend to say out loud. Ever.

‘Dad’ and ‘father’.


Best book apps: Part 1

Maybe all the Ian Fleming books I read as a kid are to blame – I’ve always been a sucker for a gadget.

While my eyes are still drawn to GPS watches, light sabres and night vision goggles, the tech entering our household now tends to be packaged in a tidy white box with a fruity logo. Yes, I was an early adopter of the iPad.

My initial interest in the iPad was as a substitute laptop with better battery life. There are some great writing apps (topic for a future post, maybe) and all sorts of productivity prompts and gizmos with various pros and cons. An ugly encounter with the dark side of the Cloud has left me less evangelical on the laptop front but I remain a devotee on the possibilities of the iPad when it comes to reading, e-books and book apps.

My iPad is chockers with reading opportunities. It has its own comic store (ka-ching!) and various bookshops. In this post I’m focussing on interactive book apps because:
a) I regularly get requests for recommendations;
b) I’ve downloaded oodles of book apps and watched how children interact with them; and
c) I believe this is where the iPad really shines.

For the record, I have also run the odd professional development session for librarians on new storytelling technology.

Rather than listing ALL the book apps I have purchased, I’ll start with my favourites, divided into rough categories by reader age group. It’s worth noting that older kids still enjoy interacting with books for their younger siblings. Future posts will cover apps for more advanced readers.

Apps for young/beginner readers

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive This App – Mo Willems
If you’re familiar with Mo Willems’ pigeon picture books you will know that kids love the cheeky bird that wants to have its cake and consume it, big time. This theme is mirrored in the app. Children are urged to record soundbites that are then inserted into the story, often with hilarious results. The app also shows children how to draw the pigeon. Usability throughout is simple but, for my mind, the highlights come whenever the pigeon chucks a wobbly. Tantrums are funny if you’re not the cause of them.

The Very Cranky Bear – Nick Bland
This app lets children record themselves reading the book and play back their narration whenever they like. It actively encourages re-reading by hiding rewards in the illustrations; collect them all and you get the chance to make a picture at the end of the book and save it to your photo gallery. Recorded with Australian actor Angus Sampson, this is a winner.

Red Hat, Green Hat – Sandra Boynton
I read Boynton board books to my children until I was counting pigs in my sleep. This title was a favourite and the app maintains the magic. As evidence, Your Honour, I give you three-year-old twins going berserk on a flight from Darwin to Melbourne. I handed over my iPad and my daughter as driver and this app reduced turbulence all the way home. And who doesn’t love flooding an iPad screen with socks and undies?

There’s a Monster At The End of This Book – Jon Stone (Sesame Street)
Hey kids, I owned this app when it was a tree-book, not an e-book. I still have the original Golden Book. It was a great yarn back in the (cough) seventies and is still going strong. Watch Grover do his utmost to prevent an imminent and scary monster encounter! Luckily, things aren’t always as scary as they seem. Usability isn’t always intuitive but kids will persist and find their way through.

Harold & The Purple Crayon – Crockett Johnson
Another blast from the past! As a kid I liked knowing that Harold could draw himself into and out of any situation, limited only by his imagination. This app is not as game-ish as some – the obvious extension would have been letting kids do their own purple drawing and save it. Nonetheless, the story is still a quiet achiever and worth a look.

The Wrong Book – Nick Bland
My daughter has loved this book ever since it turned up in the school library. The app takes the winning elements of the book – a child frustrated that his story isn’t going to plan – and throws in interactive anarchy via pirates, farty monsters and much more. Narration is by Frank Woodley and there are sound effects and hidden elements everywhere.

That should be enough to keep your little people busy. The funny thing is, download these and you may soon find yourself in a real bookstore buying actual interactive, printed paper books to match. That’s how we roll at my place.

Stay tuned for interactive book apps for middle and YA readers. Maybe even grown-ups.

The future of the book

I’ve visited a lot of libraries in the past month. In almost all of them we have strayed onto the topic of e-books, specifically those available as interactive reading experiences for the iPad.

I’m finding myself an e-vangelist for the iPad reading experience (maybe I should become a consultant) not just with the dedicated folk who staff libraries and inspire young readers, but with fellow authors. Why? Because I’m genuinely excited by the possibilities of these new storytelling technologies. We are at the frontier, folk. Lines are blurring between novel, picture book, animation, graphic novel, game, musical instrument and short film.

It won’t be the death of books. It won’t be the end of reading or storytelling. Humans have an insatiable appetite for stories. It will mean more ways to get people interested in reading – kids in particular.

If you’re in any doubt, check out The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore – at the princely sum of $5.49 for iPad via iTunes. ‘Morris’ is an award-winning short film turned into an interactive picture book, most suitable for children 10 and up. It’s also a story about the power of books. And it’s a smash with everyone I’ve shown it to.

Here’s a screengrab from the story that, on the iPad, you can make flutter in the wind:

In a future post I’ll list other interactive iPad books and graphic novels I tested on a range of readers on a recent flight back from Darwin. I’d also be remiss not to mention that Five Parts Dead is available for a variety of e-readers, including the iPad and Kindle.