Tag Archives: Stephen King

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.

Treasure trove of tips on writing

Buried within all the trash-squawking and self-promotion on Twitter are some absolute gems. One of the best Twitter feeds I’ve found if you have a creative bent, write or simply enjoy the beautiful and unusual, comes from @brainpicker.

Tweets from @brainpicker point to the Brain Pickings website edited/curated by Maria Popova, an “interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large”. What a brilliant job description. Every creative writer should aspire to something similar. If you’re not curious and actively seeking the interesting, you’re unlikely to be finding tales that people will want to read.

I’m late to the Brain Pickings party so you may have read their treasure trove of tips on writing already. Even if this is the case, they’re worth revisiting.

You can find 8 great tips from Kurt Vonnegut here. I particularly liked #5.

Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing can be found here. I have #1 covered but need to work on the rest.

Neil Gaiman’s 8 simple (but not easy) tips are here.

Incidentally, while I’m on writing tips, several wordly friends have referred me to Stephen King’s On Writing. I’d already downloaded the sample chapters but must get to the rest.

And if you’re cool with writing tips being as blunt and brutal as a Deadwood script (but funnier), check out Chuck Wendig’s 250 Things You Should Know About Writing.

After a prolonged word drought, I’m back to yarn spinning and telling tall tales. I’m at Neil Gaiman’s rule #2: “Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.”

That feels like progress.

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?

Books for boys

An invitation to speak at a book-flavoured breakfast for fathers and sons this week saw me cover a couple of topics – a brief version of my Melbourne Writers’ Festival chat on Ned Kelly and a rundown of the books that I enjoyed reading as a lad. For good measure, I threw in those that I’ve read recently and would recommend to male readers.

Some of the fathers have since requested the list and it goes as follows:

John Wyndham cover
John Wyndham cover

Childhood favourites
To the Wild Sky – Ivan Southall
Biggles books generally – Capt W.E. Johns (mainly because my Dad had oodles of these.)
A Pictorial History of Bushrangers – Tom Prior et. al
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series – C.S. Lewis
Asterix books – Goscinny & Uderzo (a great way to learn wordplay and puns)
Tintin books – Herge (Is this why I became a reporter?)
The Chrysalids / The Trouble with Lichen / The Midwich Cuckoos … anything by John Wyndham
The Stand – Stephen King
Blade Runner – Philip K Dick (actual book title Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
1984 – George Orwell
A Kindness Cup – Thea Astley (a book that I believe still influences my life)
The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R Tolkien

And while I forgot to mention them on Thursday, I’d also include just about all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books.

Current recommendations for YA readers
The Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling (more fun to read to my son than solo)
Tomorrow When the War Began series – John Marsden (favourite book Burning for Revenge)
Boys of Blood & Bone – David Metzenthen
Across the Nightingale Floor (Tales of the Otori series) – Lian Hearn
Samurai Kids series (White Crane, Owl Ninja, others to follow) – Sandy Fussell (My son and I got a lot of laughs out of these books.)
Gravity – Scot Gardner (also One Dead Seagull and White Ute Dreaming)
Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist – Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
Fighting Ruben Wolfe – Markus Zusak
The Messenger – Markus Zusak

Of course, there are plenty more titles that have inspired and informed me. When I work out the technology, I hope to post a library shelf to show you what’s currently on my bedside table.

Happy reading.

NB: This post has attracted a LOT of eyeballs. For those who are interested, here’s a follow up post where I expand on my ideas about boys and reading.

To check out my personal library, click here. I have added a Books for Boys tag to anything I think cuts the mustard.