We had no idea what to expect when we turned up to the first Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) at Earls Court in London, championed and facilitated by the current Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman. YALC was held within the London Film and Comic Con, and our tickets were actually for the Comic Con event ”“ the Book Zone was a new and small part of the whole, and tickets for individual book events were free of charge on a first-come-first-served basis once punters had got inside. And that took some doing.
The Film and Comic Con is humungous. The forecast on Saturday was for rain but the morning dawned bright and clear and by 11am it was baking outside Earls Court. Our first order of business was a quick trot around the entire complex – that was the length of the queue. Our Early Bird tickets got us in quite quickly but others gave up when they saw the length of the queue for those without tickets.
Inside, it was no easier to move around. It took us a good fifteen minutes to work our way through the various Doctors, Iron Men, Daeneryses, Spideys, X-men and all the others to the back of the hall where the Book Zone was located. We were just in time for the very first event ”“ a panel on dystopian fiction with Patrick Ness, Malorie herself (in a very fetching cape) and Sarah Crossan, with James Smythe in the chair.
It was a great kick-off. The main focus was on the reasons for the popularity of dystopian fiction within the YA arena. Patrick Ness had a lot of brilliant thoughts; the one that stuck with us is many YA readers live in a dystopia ”“ high school (Anthony McGowan touched on the same theme the next day). The theme naturally led on to the question of dark or strong content in YA and The Bunker Diary controversy (read our take on that here). We couldn’t agree more with Patrick Ness who said that if YA fiction eschews dark content, we abandon young people to explore darkness all by themselves. We cheered when Malorie said that if she’s not offending someone, somewhere, then she’s not doing her job properly.
The panel was also at pains to remind us that YA is not a genre ”“ that became a running theme through the weekend. Another running theme was the fact that genre is really a marketing construct ”“ many authors simply write the story they want to write and the genre-based package comes later, for bookshops. Most authors said something similar regarding their target readership; they don’t always set out to write ”˜a YA novel’. A lot of the male authors said they write for their teenage selves ”“ and a number said they still feel like teenage boys.
YA in general was felt to be quite ill-defined. Writer and editor Nick Lake suggested that YA might perhaps be described as a tunnel from which characters look out, whereas an ”˜adult’ novel featuring teenage protagonists will tend to look back in at the character in their tunnel. There was a general discomfort with the idea of ”˜New Adult’ fiction, which many authors felt to be nothing more than YA with particularly strong content.
Genre was the focus for most of the rest of Saturday. We missed the session on graphic novels because we popped over to the signing area (there were a lot of tough choices like these to make) but we did make the session on fan culture and fan fiction with Rainbow Rowell, Lucy Saxon and Tim O’ Rourke, chaired brilliantly by Andy Robb. We were really interested in a question from the floor about how much fans influence writers in the digital age. Rainbow’s take was that fans certainly influence publishers but she did acknowledge that fan expectations can make sequels and series end novels very difficult to deliver ”“ an author knows that not everyone will be happy.
Lucy Saxon came fully kitted out as Captain America and talked a lot about cosplaying and losing herself in fandom; the panel saw fan fiction as a way for a writer to start out playing with existing worlds and characters to learn their craft. This was an interesting and positive take on a topic we last heard raised at the Fly Festival, where the audience was rather more concerned that fan fiction might represent low quality reading for young people.
We struggled to hear the panel on Regenerating the Doctor, although we did manage to get hold of a lot of autographs of authors from the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who short story collection for a certain young man’s 16th birthday. (Happy birthday Ben Spanton-Walker!)
The Heroes of Horror brought together heavy-hitters Darren Shan, Derek Landy, Charlie Higson and Will Hill, with Rosie Fletcher in the chair. We laughed at Charlie Higson’s announcement that he began his horror career by reading his kids’ Darren Shan books to find out what he could get away with; the answer appeared to be pretty much everything. But Darren corrected him; he finds that he has to cut back on detail any time he kills off a mum in one of his books.
We met so many lovely BS authors during the day; it was a real treat to say hello to lots of old friends and meet some new ones. We were so ”˜booked up’ that we took ourselves straight from the bookshop at YALC to Foyles Southbank (OK, via a glass of Pimms) and spent all of our remaining pennies on a clutch of books to lug home to Edinburgh in our suitcases. Our proudest moment came at Darren Shan’s immensely long signing queue; when, after several weeks, we got to the front, Darren cheerfully strangled Kirstin (see photo) and told us he had signed quite a few of his Barrington Stoke book Hagurosan.
Sunday was quieter ”“ a good tip for another year for those that found Saturday a bit much. It was easier to get in and out and not as mad or hot inside. We were very excited to get to speak to Derek Landy, who was with the marvellous David Maybury. In fact, it’s high time we apologised to David for the fact that most times we meet we are incredibly star-struck by the person standing beside him. Serves him right for having such great mates… On a serious note, David has done amazing work for children’s books at Children’s Books Ireland and Inis Magazine and now in London.
We sat in on the ‘I’m too sexy for this book’ panel with Non Pratt, our own Cat Clarke, Beth Reekles and James ‘Queen of Teen’ Dawson in the chair. James was brilliant; in fact, so were all of the chairpeople over the weekend.
Then, after the ‘Crossover’ event with Nick Lake, Meg Rosoff, Tony McGowan and Matt Haig (chaired by David Maybury), we absconded for a bit with the brilliant Sally Nicholls for a catch-up. The original plan was a coffee but before we were even out of Earl’s Court we had had a friendly row over the Crossover event and so we did the only logical thing and headed to the pub to hold our own mini ”˜panel’ punch-up.
What was exercising us was a small controversy generated by Tony McGowan (always a good man for a controversy) over ‘escapist’ reading versus ‘good’ reading. Sally sided with Meg Rosoff, who went to town on Tony during the panel to brilliant comic effect. Like Meg, Sally believes firmly that all readers have the right to read what they want, when they want, and to be obsessed with one thing forever if they want. Mairi was slightly on Tony’s side; she thought that staunch ”˜YA-for-everyone’ viewpoints may result in other books being deemed ‘too hard’ or ‘too boring’ without ever being given a chance.
We made it back in time to hear Sophie McKenzie and Robert Muchamore in conversation ”“ a great event for Muchamore and McKenzie fans like ourselves. In fact, we had spotted some great new jackets on the Cherub books in Foyles the previous night.
High points of the day for us were catching up with Meg Rosoff, who wrote our amazing Moose Baby, and bumping into Tony McGowan, who is working on a follow-up to the Carnegie longlisted Brock. And our wee venture into the outside world with Sally Nicholls was a real treat.
We really hope there’s a YALC 2015. Some thoughts on what we’d like to see:
- More diversity on individual panels; we were particularly concerned that the all-men and all-women panels resulted in everyone being broadly in agreement about everything and came close to suggesting that sex and relationships in books is ‘for girls’ and horror ‘for boys’. How about Robert Muchamore or Tony McGowan on the ‘I’m to sexy for this book’ panel to vary the viewpoints more?
- The crossover panel was a really entertaining event but all authors were quite ‘literary’ and there was no representative of more ‘commercial’ output, although it was referenced regularly. We’d have liked to have Darren Shan or Rainbow Rowell on that one
- As much as we love the Comic Con atmosphere, it was hard to hear the panels over the roar of excited Spideys, Harry Potters, Gandalfs et al. Sound seemed better on Sunday but perhaps that’s because Comic Con was quieter.
Huge thanks to the inimitable Malorie Blackman, a one-woman powerhouse who not only orchestrated the whole thing but also found time to challenge the otherwise all-white, all-male Dr Who panel. Thanks too to Waterstones booksellers, the team behind the Laureate, Booktrust and the sound guy who totally got into the swing and kept the crowd entertained between events.
See you in 2015! We’ll have on more comfy shoes… Or Spidey costumes.