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What’s YA problem? Carnegie congratulations and controversy for Kevin Brooks

Kevin Brooks Carnegie Post We sent some fun message chocolates to Kevin Brooks last week to congratulate him on his Carnegie win and had a lovely thank you e-mail back, in line with our experience of Kevin as a brilliant and thoughtful writer and all-round great guy.

So we were a bit taken aback to read the following in Lorna Bradbury’s Telegraph piece on The Bunker Diary: ”˜We are left with the uncomfortable feeling that, like the prisoners, we have spent time being manipulated by a psychopath and a pervert.’

Jings.

We’re all for a bit of controversy to raise the profile of books for children and young people, and Kevin’s Carnegie has set the cat among the pigeons as far afield as the LA Times, but this is going a bit far, no? I was reminded of a brilliant Posy Simmonds Literary Life cartoon that makes the point better than I ever could that fiction is made up by definition and is not necessarily a window into the predilections of its author:

Kevin Brooks Cartoon Amanda Craig stopped short of name-calling in the Observer and the Independent but Kevin’s win did inspire her to ask whether “books for the young need to take into account their emotional vulnerability.” Craig thinks so, because “they don’t have the defences we do when reading, say, Kafka, or John Fowles’s The Collector (which shares Brooks’s plot)”¦ A book that makes a reader feel worse rather than better may deserve to be published ”¦ but it does not deserve to be promoted by the children’s equivalent of the Booker prize. This is a specific audience.”

Lorna Bradbury agrees. She cites other dark Carnegie-winning novels of which she, like Craig, does approve. She is less sure of the vogue for dystopian adventures such as The Hunger Games and Divergent and asks whether this results in a ”˜nihilistic diet’ that is potentially harmful to young people. She also cites Judy Blume, who believes that young people possess the discrimination to self-censor if a book is too dark. Lorna disagrees; Kevin Brooks does not.

Let’s leave aside the specifics of The Bunker Diary and ask if it is fair to say that authors for children and young people have a responsibility to show ‘how heroes are returned from the dark to hope, and the feeling that life still has something to offer’. I’m not sure it is, but I do think that the question goes to the heart of how we define, and think about, literature for young adults.

Wikipedia tells me that ”˜Young Adult’ as a specific category really came into its own in the 80s; for good or ill, not much of it had made its way to our corner of Scotland when I went to secondary school at the end of the 80s. Judy Blume’s books still retained a whiff of controversy and so we all read those and weren’t so much shocked as confused by such dated paraphernalia as sanitary belts. We had The Machine Gunners, and a few Puffin Plus titles by Joan Lingard and Lois Duncan, but other than that we pretty much graduated straight on to books written for adults. A lot of my classmates read horror ”“ Stephen King was hugely popular ”“ and the general feeling was the darker, the better.

I wasn’t a horror fan but I read pretty widely, meeting my all-time favourite novel – Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song – at age fourteen. I found, like the writer Jessie Kesson before me, that Grassic Gibbon had somehow ”˜written my book’, and it was odd to read last year that Terence Davies had struggled to source funding for a film adaptation due to the novel’s ”˜disturbing’ content. It seemed to me that his funders could not have read the book ”“ in which dark and awful things happen, and unbearably sad things too, but there is also warmth, and frequently humour. But the novel has something to say about a society going to hell in a handcart, and so there is no amelioration at the end. Every man who matters to Chris Guthrie falls in the Great War, her community is destroyed and two sequels chronicle her own transformation, almost literally, to stone.

So there’s no uplifting ending there, and no chance for characters to ”˜return from the dark to hope’. But that’s the point. And although Sunset Song wasn’t written for a specific audience, a specific audience was directed towards it: it was a Higher Grade text when I was at school.

So that’s one aspect of YA that is not quite clear in my mind. Since I was at school, has the expectation that teenagers can and should tackle adult novels disappeared? If not ”“ and I think it has not ”“ then how do we reconcile what we expect of YA novels in terms of specific allowances for their audience with the content of the myriad other books young people can and should read – and sometimes have to, in the classroom? I’m not sure it’s fair to claim that YA exists to offer a safer view of the world than that available in literature in general.

I’m with Amanda Craig on some of the limits of famous examples of the genre, such as ”˜dystopias [that] spice up their heroine’s troubles by having her needing to choose between two hot boys.’ Actually, I’m bothered by a lot more than that in the Hunger Games. President Snow’s fixation on a kiss between two adolescent kids strikes me as the behaviour rather more of a teenage fan of Neighbours than a devious elder statesman. I also found the epilogue poor in its adherence to what seems to me a particularly troublesome trope in YA ”“ the idea that as adults we are surrounded only by those we have known as children, as though our teenage allegiances and relationships are not only the most, but actually the only significant ones in our lives.

My issues with those texts and tropes are just that, though, and not a condemnation of YA in general. That said, I have returned to Sunset Song many times in my life and found my connection to it or reading of it has changed, and there is no YA novel I feel the same way about (except perhaps Anthony McGowan’s novella for Barrington Stoke, The Fall, about which I wrote here). I have been touched, and moved, and impressed, but tend not to return to the books. In the end of the day, though, that could be because Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote about the place I am from, and (one aspect of) a culture and language I care deeply about, and no YA author has done the same. On the other hand…

Perhaps I do look for more adult adults in my books than YA tends to offer, and my President Snow and Grown Up Katniss Issues reflect that. And perhaps, therefore, I find myself thinking that it is particularly important that YA is able to push the boundaries and to take risks. Just because its characters are young, should the world view be limited?

I think that arguing for happy endings is akin to asking for a stagnation of thought for young adult readers, as though we might wish to contain them in a childlike view of the world. Life does not always offer us a happy ending – and young adults know that fine well. Think of the Anne Frank we know through her diary. ‘Kitty’ was perhaps her closest friend, her relationships were complex and often troubled and she lived in a bunker too, of sorts, thanks to a madman whose regime of institutionalised mass murder would eventually take her life. The Diary came to us through tragedy; as her father Otto strove always to remind us, it would have been better for the literary Anne to have been lost to the world, and the real Anne to have survived. And genocide continues to happen.

We are confident that Kevin Brooks will continue to offer young adults stories that challenge their view of the world, allow them to experience dangerous situations in complete safety and encourage them to grow in empathy and understanding. We are incredibly proud to publish not one but two new Kevin Brooks stories next year, and to quote him here singing from the same hymn sheet as Barrington Stoke:

‘I’ve never quite understood why – and this is something I feel really passionate about – our business as a whole seems to focus so much on a relatively small default audience of young readers (which gets even smaller as the target-age group increases), and we forget about the much larger potential audience that’s undoubtedly out there. It’s almost as if there’s a general acceptance that these kids don’t read, so there’s no point in reaching out to them. But I wonder if a big part of the reason they don’t read – or think they don’t like reading – is that we don’t give them a chance because we don’t reach out to them.’

Three cheers for Mr Brooks.

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