Tag Archives: YA fiction

Let the kids decide

Here’s a good piece from The Guardian about parents choosing books for their kids.

I’m sure most parents who chose for their children have good intentions but we have to remember that it’s much the same as choosing an ice cream flavour for them, telling them what they can watch on TV or selecting a house for them to live in when they leave home. Much as we might prefer otherwise, our kids have different tastes from us. If we try to squeeze them into our own mould, they’ll resent it.

We can tell them what we like and why. We can point them toward books that are relevant to their interests. We can lead a horse to water… but the horse has to want to drink.

I grew up well before the Young Adult category was invented. I quickly read everything of interest in the school libraries and moved on to books that captured my attention. Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming featured early and then I moved on to Stephen King, James Herbert, James Clavell and other blockbuster authors. The books weren’t ‘age appropriate’ but they kept me reading. I think that’s a win.

I was leaving the council library recently when a librarian stopped me to say some of the books the Little Dragon was carrying “were in the young adult section for a reason”. I smiled and borrowed them anyway.

As it happens, some of the allegedly dangerous books were for me and some for the Little Dragon (mainly manga). He’s nine so I do try to suss out the contents of the stories – and censor some. If the stories are too mature they don’t tend to hold his attention anyway so he self-censors too. When he chose ‘How To Get Dumped’, both his parents raised an eyebrow – and we both read it after him, partly to see what had captivated him so. I couldn’t see anything harmful in the contents. Far from it. I’m impressed that it interested him enough to seek out other titles by the same author. (Pat Flynn)

But I am conscious I need to be careful. A student asked me last week for a list of my favourite YA books and I provided it. Some of my recommendations feature drug/alcohol abuse, violence, profanity and ‘sexual references’. I can’t know how mature the student is or what her parents will think if they review what she is reading. As The Guardian piece says, the librarian has a crucial role here in knowing the students and what they can handle.

That said, I’d rather my children explore these topics and learn about the risks involved via books, than experiment in real life. If that means reading things that are deemed age-inappropriate, so be it.

Snapshots from a novel #3

Extracts from the sensory and beautiful How To Make A Bird by Martine Murray.

‘I didn’t mean to say it like that. Sometimes sentences rushed out before I checked them over for holes or hidden weapons.’ p6

‘I spent a lot of my life waiting, to tell you the truth, which was why I was getting out of town. It was a deliberate strategy, a counterattack to waiting, which wasn’t getting me anywhere. There are two types of waiting. There’s the waiting you do for something you know is coming, sooner or later – like waiting for the 6.28 train, or the school bus, or a party where a certain handsome boy might be. And then there’s the waiting for something you don’t know is coming. You don’t even know what it is exactly, but you’re hoping for it. You’re imagining it and living your life for it. That’s the kind of waiting that makes a fist in your heart.’ p16

‘It’s not surprising that someone in my circumstances would always be wanting something. Probably ever since I started out with the wrong shoes. There was the wanting and there was the waiting, too. That’s two feelings that move all out of step with each other. Waiting doesn’t really move, it doesn’t have direction, whereas wanting dashes out of you, like an arrow. So if you wait and want and wait and want, then you live in a jagged way. You go along in zig zag, not in a clear line forward, like most people do.’ pp41-42

BTW, I was reading Martine’s Henrietta Gets A Letter aloud to the Little Monkey (5) recently and was pleasantly surprised when the Little Dragon (9) joined us, then my god-daughter, aged 10. Moments later my god-son (7), added to the throng. Only a good story draws kids in like that. The Henrietta books are junior fiction in the vein of Lauren Child’s Charlie & Lola books – quirky & fun.

It ain’t all fun

If anyone ever tells you that writing a novel is easy then:

a) they have a very good ghost writer; or
b) they have a rubbish publisher and therefore poor editors; or
c) they’re a prodigy; or
d) they’re a liar.

A), B) and D) are far more likely than C). The truth is, it isn’t easy.

It is a solitary occupation, which rules many folks out. Personally, I kind of like the quiet.

It requires determination and discipline. Distractions are plentiful, as Catherine Deveny recently noted. If you work from home and tend towards a neat freak personality, you’re really going to have a battle on your hands. “Do I sweep down the cobwebs above the TV cabinet or try and write that intro I’ve been procrastinating on for a month… OK, so the cobwebs are down now but the dishwasher still needs emptying…” By the time you crank up the laptop and re-read what you last wrote, it’s time to cook dinner or collect the kids or both.

Being a novelist requires a resilient ego. You need to be bold enough to risk putting your work into the public domain, yet malleable enough to deal with rigorous editing, meagre sales figures and critical flagellation. While you’ll have times when you revel in a sentence that sings, I guarantee there’ll be periods when you despair whether you can write at all. And that’s without picking up book written by someone else and collapsing into an inferiority funk. Comparing your work/career with another author’s – and caring how you measure up – is a recipe for insanity.

You’ll need an eye for detail. If you write using the same phrases, descriptions, adjectives and verbs over and over, you’ll get panned. If you overuse adverbs, the same applies (although commercial success is still possible). There are websites that delight in dissecting books to reveal such failings. Poor research is another minefield.

A good editor will assist with these issues but you can help yourself. Read your work aloud. Listen for words that pop up too often, unrealistic dialogue and sentences that tie your tongue in knots.

Read and re-read. Write and re-write.

Chances are, you’re unlikely to ever feel your work is finished and perfect.

Indeed, you can’t be smitten with your own work. In all probability the passage you are fondest of will be first to fall under the editor’s scalpel. If you’re trying to be funny, you may be in for a shock. What’s funny to one set of eyes isn’t necessarily to another.

I’ve worked as a newspaper journalist so I’m somewhat hardened to being edited. I work as a website editor so I’m accustomed to rewriting contributors’ copy. But when it’s your own work you’re editing it’s much harder.

I’m working on what I consider the 8th version of my current novel and there will be further redrafting required. It took me four days to read it aloud and note changes required, and several more days to take in my own edits. I still managed to miss bits or mess them up and introduce new errors. Writing really can be Sisyphean in the demands it makes of you.

So why do we do it? Because it can be intoxicating and seductive. And if you get the stone to the top of the mountain, there’s a chance that someone will read it and like what you do.

Here’s YA phenomenon Maureen Johnson, courtesy of the vlogbrothers, sharing some other home truths on writing as a profession:

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?