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Against Those Against YA

Earlier today a retweet popped up in my timeline pointing me to an “interesting and provocative” case (though the retweeter also said he disagreed with it) for why adults should be embarrassed to read YA. Here’s the article in case you’re interested.

I can see why the retweeter thought, on first glance, that the article is well-argued. Actually, it’s just (fairly) well-written and so it simulates a good, reasoned argument – without actually offering one.

One small thing punctures the writer’s whole case: she assumes that adults who read YA *only* read YA.

Or (shock, horror!) YA and detective fiction.

<pause for collective shudder>

Ultimately, her argument is based on the premise that adults who read YA miss out on literary fiction. Instead, most of the YA-lovers I know – adult or young adult – read widely and voraciously across many, many genres. (And, yes, I think YA is primarily a genre rather than age category – but that’s an argument for another time.)

Reading YA doesn’t mean you *only* read YA. Yesterday I finished Apple Tree Yard: today I am reading We Were Liars. I don’t think I’m especially atypical. Different genres collectively deliver different things: that’s why we group books into genres. But most people also recognise the huge variation in books within genres. That’s why Crime has diversified into categories as wide-ranging as ‘hard boiled’ and ‘cosy’ – not to mention the huge number of extraordinary literary crime novels as exquisitely written and constructed as anything in the plain ‘literary’ category.

Ruth Graham unintentionally makes a good, if blinkered and somewhat “smug” (to quote an incensed friend), case for YA… if read alongside books from other genres. Which is the case for most readers. Where does that leave her article?

I suppose she could, instead, have argued that adults should be embarrassed to read YA if that’s all they read, but let’s face it: she wouldn’t have received nearly as much air-time for that article. Not least because lots of people would agree with the gist of the argument. Not the bit about  being embarrassed by your reading choices (better to read something than to read nothing, surely). But I think most readers would agree that reading YA – or any other genre to the exclusion of all others means you miss out on the wonderful diversity of literature.

I’d counter-argue that YA is incredibly diverse – arguably the most diverse genre/category out there – but I still wouldn’t want to be restricted to just that section in a bookstore.

But leaving aside the gaping flaws in her premise, Graham goes on to say some downright silly – and ignorant – things, notably this:

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.

I don’t disagree that a lot of YA is slightly neater than a lot of literary fiction in terms of endings: literary fiction is famous for messy (and often irritating) endings. In point of fact, quite a few literary books would be better for a neat ending rather than one that’s only messy to make a pretentious point: if the story hasn’t lead to messiness, then tacking it on at the end is worse than starting and following a path to something relatively neat and satisfying.

But as for the claim that YA endings are “uniformly” “simple” and “satisfying”… Well, Graham has obviously not read much YA, recent or classic. On this point she is patently and unarguably wrong. And it’s not too often you can say that about anything to do with literature.

Take the first example to pop into my head… double Carnegie winner Patrick Ness. Ness’ writing is extraordinary. He’s up there for me with writers that would presumably meet Ruth Graham’s approval, like Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver. This is a person who has a unique, fascinating voice. Who does creative things with language without doing them as a statement of how creative and unique he is: this is how his mind works, the words it conjures – just as it is for the best literary fiction writers. And his endings are anything but neat, simple, tidy. Sometimes they’re not at all ‘satisfying’ – at least in the simplistic ways Graham is criticising. Some are as complex and difficult as anything in literary fiction.

How about the lovely Tim Bowler or the challenging Siobhan Dowd, just to look at other Carnegie winners who come quickly to mind? There are so many other writers I could mention in this regard. Take Ruta Sepytys’s wonderful Out of the Easy, recently shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. This is fully equal to Sarah Waters’ historical fiction for literary value in my opinion: I’d argue that it is often even more nuanced and difficult and “unsatisfying” (in Graham’s terms). How about YA fantasy, which Graham rubbishes at the start of her article? Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater’s Daughter delivers a messy, difficult ending that doesn’t satisfy in simple terms at all… but does satisfy on all the more complex levels Graham is talking about; it’s what probably would happen; it’s realistic and interesting and difficult. I’m still chewing away at my feelings about it.

Last (and not to blow my own trumpet but because it’s the book I know the most about) there’s my own debut novel, The Bone Dragon. I defy Ruth Graham to say that the ending is simple, neat or simplistically satisfying. One of my favourite reviews, by Isabel Popple at The Stardust Reader and on the Waterstone’s site, says this of the ending:

Other reviews I’ve read for The Bone Dragon are all massively praiseworthy, calling it wonderful, captivating, magical, hypnotic. And it is certainly all of these things, but it’s also extremely unsettling – and this is the predominant feeling I’ve been left with. Darkness overlays everything else within, no matter how beautifully constructed it might be. Tread lightly, readers.

She concludes that the book “left me feeling itchy inside my skin”. That’s exactly what I hoped readers would feel. For me, while I’m inside the book the ending is satisfying and empowering and tied up in a neat little bow. When I step outside the book, the ending becomes anything but. It becomes frightening and sad, tugging me in at least two directions. It’s a book that can’t end happily for everyone – not just inside the book but once the cover closes – and that is the whole point. It’s a book with no answers, just a lot of difficult questions.

So I challenge Graham to read this or any of the other books people must be pouring in to offer as examples of the fact that she has managed to be outright wrong in a field where that’s actually pretty hard.

Or we could just go back to the beginning of the article and the fact that the whole piece is built on a silly, badly thought out premise.

So here are my thoughts…

Read. Read widely. Be proud of reading. Be proud of reading widely.

Just don’t be snotty about it.

There’s room for all sorts of books and the world is better for that fact.

 

The Bone Dragon book cover

Win a copy of The Bone Dragon

… Just retweet any Faber Children’s (@faberchildrens) message on Twitter about The Bone Dragon competition by 4.30pm today and you’ll be entered to win a copy!

The Bone Dragon draft cover number 2

Cover design process

Although it’ll be another few weeks before the official cover reveal for The Bone Dragon, I am now allowed to talk about our interim cover draft and the design process in more depth.

You may (or may not) remember that the first draft cover looked like this:

TBD draft cover

The book starts with a human rib-bone in a pot. It seemed a good place to start with the cover too. This initial cover draft released in August 2012.

What I love: I love the bottle – much more striking than what I saw in my head: the little plastic pot my very own rib sits in (among my socks in the drawer under my bed). I also love that the design isn’t genre or age-group specific: it doesn’t scream YA READERS ONLY! Also, it points to the fact that the book is a psychological thriller as opposed to fantasy. Not that I have any problem with fantasy (I may well end up writing some later on in my career) but it would be misleading to class The Bone Dragon that way.

Cons: I’m not terribly keen on was having the carved rib shown on the cover. I’d prefer for readers to be free to imagine this for themselves, with no visual prompting. Plus you could never carve a human rib like this. For one, they’re too narrow and for another they’re hollowish so it wouldn’t work, no matter how tiny the overall dragon. 

My feedback to the designers: If the cover is to show the rib-in-a-pot that sets the whole story in motion, it needs to look more like a human rib, rather than an ox thigh-bone.

Then, in October, I received the new cover, which was supposed to be the final cover. Only it wasn’t. I can only share part of it (and I can’t explain what I mean by this being only ‘part’ because that’s a secret too). Anyway, here it is:

The Bone Dragon draft cover number 2

What I love: I love the hazy, impressionistic feel: I really like that the image isn’t too clear and that you can’t tell what Evie looks like. The feel is right for the book too: the slightly out-of-proportion arms and the way she’s holding them out, almost like wings. And the colours are fantastic. Even as a little thumbnail, the title stands out and the colours are eerie, though there’s slightly too much yellow and red for me: in my mind, the book is black and blue and purple. But I think the image is striking both in thumbnail size and in larger scale. Again, I love that it’s not YA specific and doesn’t speak strongly to any particular genre, though it hints more at literary fiction than the previous cover, which is fine. The book sits astride a whole bunch of genre boundaries without being one thing or another, though literary fiction and/or psychological thriller are the best fit with the book. What I love most is how this image combines with the second part of the design – the secret bit I still can’t show you. It’s the two together that make this magical.

Cons: Only tiny quibblettes. Not that it really matters what I see in my head, but the nightdress (?) isn’t something Evie would wear and her hair is longer than this. Also, I like the idea of readers being able to picture Evie for themselves without too many visual clues. Plus, while I really like the typeface, perhaps the crayon effect is too young, not just for Evie but for the intended readership (16+).

My feedback to the designers: Basically, what I said on Twitter.

what I said on Twitter

As for the official cover…

questionmark

The new design is perfect: absolutely gorgeous, sumptuous, stunning. I can’t wait to share it with you all… and to explain more about the missing part of cover #2 that explains why I adored that design, even though it’s not a patch on the official cover. I’m not positive that the ‘secret part of cover #2’ will turn up as part of the final cover (I still haven’t seen the finished version of that aspect of the design yet), but I’m hoping so.

So, what do you think  of our interim cover?

On to the proofs

Just for the record, you might like to know it’s now late August.

By now, there have actually been two ultra-fast stages of copy-editing (see Everyone should have a project editor). The first set of copy-edits came in on August 9th. I returned my comments in batches August 15th-17th. Further comments arrived from Eleanor on the 20th, returned same day.

At this stage, it works for me to have (self-set) tight deadlines. For me, there’s a real danger of agonising over tiny things to the point where I just can’t see the pros and cons effectively. Which is not to say that I don’t take a lot of care over the tiniest of tiny details… but there’s a point at which I’ve taken care through 10 drafts and now am sailing into obsession territory. And a tight deadline means there’s a point at which I’ve got to just make a decision. And that can be a Very Good Thing.

So, August 21st off the manuscript goes to be page-set and turned into a manuscript that actually looks like a book (why do I keep typing ‘good’ for ‘book’?).

… 13th of August the electronic copy of the proofs comes into my in-box. Hardcopy picked up on the Monday when I go into Faber to have a strategy session on how to promote the book.

As always, I am fed chocolate and everyone is lovely to me. If you’re looking for a publisher, I can gush over Faber for you. 🙂

This time we’re in a lovely airy room at the top of Bloomsbury House and there are glass cases with different editions of TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I still call my cat a possum, though I’m not entirely sure that this was what Eliot intended with the title.

Anyway, the meeting is also a chance to meet Leah, the new Children’s Publisher at Faber, who is lovely (a running theme at Faber)… and also very kind about the fact that I’m in a frenzy of excitement. I suppose it’s good not to be getting in the least bit complacent, but it would be nice if some of the nervous energy of I’M GETTING PUBLISHED! would wear off soon.

It’s a productive meeting, with Rebecca, Leah and Laura, Faber’s publicity wiz, who organised my first ever book-related press clipping, all helping me to get my head around the next stages which will include…

(1) proofing the proofs

(2) printing a proof version to go out for early reviews (terror alert!)

(3) publicity things…

We also talk about the back cover blurb, online branding… and Twitter. We talk a lot about Twitter.

Twitter is a problem for me. First, because I’m a novelist I think in 300 pages about most things. Second, while I hope I’m not boring, I find it hard to believe that anyone but me cares whether I’m having tea. I don’t think my closest friends care… Well, unless they’re actually in the room with me (in which case the tea is important because (a) I am fueled by tea, (b) when I’m about to spontaneously combust with excitement (a fairly common occurrance actually), tea stops me from doing so because I know I’m clumsy so I stay still to drink the tea on the basis that then I will only spill some of it, and (c) when you might as well label me Beware the Beastie, tea restores me to being semi-human, which is as good as it gets).

Anyway, I find it hard to say anything short enough to fit into a tweet that I think will be interesting to other people. I suppose this will get easier as publication approaches and there are more snippets of ‘news’. But a friend (thank you Fiona!) has had a brilliant idea, that I think was mentioned in the Faber meeting too, so I think I may have a way forwards…

Does anyone else have the same problem with Twitter? How do you get around it?

(PS: Just in case you’re wondering… I’m nearly caught up with my posts about the process of taking TBD from unagented manuscript to publication. Plus I’m working on a new book. So this, my author blog, and the TBD blog will soon start to diverge again. Thanks for bearing with me!)