Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Keeping the 'Adult' in Young Fiction

Monday 17th June, Waterstones Piccadilly, Malorie Blackman - new Children's Laureate, Melvin Burgess and Lucy Mangan in conversation about keeping teen literature alive, loving life, death and reading!

Lucy, questioning her panel of Malorie and Melvin dove straight into the evening by asking both authors what is was that drew them to YA writing, why was it different she asked?  Malorie began the discussion by explaining that she loved to write for all ages and tackle the subjects and themes close to her heart and the heart of her readers.  She explained that as a writer she asks lots of questions, not necessarily having the answers, her books are therefore open to debate and challenge the reder - this is why she enjoys writing for Young Adults but also for all ages.

Melvin bagan writing when there was little for teens, he remembered the music, the books of his own teen years and so decided to write new things to entertain the modern teen - to him there is a gap because adults are traumatised by teens, they distrust them, show them as negative stereotypes yet it is a fascinating stage of life.

As you can probably tell the stage was now set for a fascinating discussion not only around the books written by both Malorie and Melvin but around the concept of teen literature what it involves, who it engages, why and how.

The audience were certainly hanging on every word and why not - here were two greats from teen fiction writing, they were thought provoking and entertaining, opinionated too and that is not bad thing!  At times it seemed as though Lucy wouldn't have a chance to get her questions in for every question she asked there was so much to say ... but a good interviewer always knows a good time to drop into the discussion and Lucy did just this, letting both speak and then challenging them again ...

The discussion verged on radical at times with suggestions that writing for teens was an art which disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed.  It should not talk down to its readers but serve them well, raise debatem create strategies for dealing with situations and create an empathy.  Melvin also felt it should be subversive, pushing, questioning and genuinely serve its audience.

The discussion turned to politics, not party politics but society politics - the have's and have not's.  For Malorie is is abut balance not taking sides, make the book enticing but serious (the politics comes in here), have a breadth of subject matter and question.

MAlorie's latest book, Noble Conflict is politicaly inspired by the STI issues among blacks in America between 1932 and 1972.  the appaling way in which they were treated but not treated inspired her to write yet her book has nothing to do with these issues, it was just inspired by them.  The issues inspired her to ask on behalf of those who did not ...

The subject then changed to the inevitable questions about Malorie as Laureate, as rightly it should when she has taken on such a significant role.  As Laureate she explained her aim is to engage children in stories, stimulate a creative response and drive an online storytelling initiative to ensure that no-one is embarrassed by their reading rather they are encouraged to continue - if they love Twilight give them Frankenstein for example, if they love the beano give them graphic novels and so on.  Above all else make sure that no-one is just normal, all embrace difference and love who they are.

A thoughtful moment and a powerful message followed by a light-hearted consideration of what makes an author tick, what inspires them - apparently it is mostly listening in to the conversations of others and remembering who you were, your aims, ambitions and desires at the same age - so watch out for you never know who might be listening but at the same time try to remember who you are, in may come in useful in the future!

Finally the discussion opened to Q & A from the audience who wanted to know what was more accessible the film or the book - as you can imagine it is the book, in the minds of these great authors, but not because they see that as more educational or of greater value, no it is because a film is supplementary, it can never be the book, it is  a different mindset for a different audience and if the author does not want that they should not sell the rights - simple!  Books have their own life, they break new ground and innovate, they progress.  Films and Hollywood like a sure thing, a definite if not always happy ending, they are a comfort zone whilst books challenge.

As for boys and reading? - give them anything was the message here.

School libraries and librarians? - essential for transferring curiosity and putting books into the hands of children.

The final message? - read to all children, whatever their age, hook them in and keep them there...

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Championing Diversity

Max the Champion, co-written by Sean Stockdale and Alex Strick with illustrations by Ros Asquith and published by Frances Lincoln books is a picture book that is at once fun, inclusive of all and full of imagination.  It is a picture book that champions diversity without making an issue of the subject.  It is subtle, pervasive, clever, intelligent and much more.

At Blackwell's bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road on a balmy June evening the book was launched to a small, select group of friends, family, press, librarians and illustrators and disability champions all of whom were keen to hear more about how the team worked together to produce this wonderful picture book.

Tim Kilmartin
 Introducing us to the Blackwell's diversity list Tim Kilmartin explained how the books on the list had been chosen and why - for the way in which they tackle disability head on without pushing it; for the way in which they can help teachers and librarians normalise the subject with children and adults; for the way in which they normalise the subject of disability; for the way in which they represent disabled children.  All this is as important to adults as it is to both disabled and able children.  The books on the list, an Max in particular, do not limit their disabled characters to those in wheelchairs either, they are careful to consider disability in all its forms.
Alex Strick

Following on from Tim's introduction to the Blackwell's list Alex took to the microphone and promised us that once she started talking her incomparable excitement at having the book published might mean that she couldn't stop - non-one minded, we all wanted to hear what she had to say!

Alex told us how she saw Max as the 'poster boy' for the Blackwell's list and that his story was lovely, a reflection of society and a celebration of inclusion and equality.  Writing a book about disability she explained is a careful balancing act, there are moments of frustration, anger and then action, wanting to be inclusive not correct and include as many different, diverse images as possible.

Alex and Sean first met when they were both working on the NASN book awards, NASN is the uk professional association embracing special and educational needs and disabilities, they found a shared passion and the partnership grew from there.

Sean Stockdale
Sean then stepped up to make his short speech, sharing his feelings about the publication of the book explaining how it had been a five year process from the first meeting to the actual publication!  As a first time author he was keen to thank all involved particularly Ros who he described as being like an old friend for the way in which she went the extra mile for Max patiently bringing him to life.  Originally the book had been planned as a post-Paralympics title but the team were pleased they waited for now they can raise the profile of disability once more, add substance to the body of children's literature on the subject and help it to become the norm.
Ros Asquith

Ros then explained a little about the way in which she drew on the story to recreate the characters in her drawings and the importance of showing even the smallest of disabilities including - and look out for this detail - a hearing aid.

Aminder Virdee

We then heard from Aminder Virdee who, along with her brother, as a disabled child met with misunderstanding and the wrong type of sympathy and reaction.  Both she and her brother have helped the team create Max and his story in a way that presents all children as equal.  It is important Aminder noted, that children, able and disabled, recognise that disability is not second class and Max does this brilliantly.

Alex & Janetta
In creating Max the Champion the team have played a small part in changing the landscape of attitudes towards disability.  This one book may be just a small drop in a big ocean but it is a step in the right direction.  Anyone interested in knowing more should visit the website and help the book world realise that it is time they began to portray society as it truly is, no longer idealising it for children in every book.

Like parents sending their first child on its way Alex, Sean and Ros were happily emotional, thanking their whole team and all of us who went along to support as well as all of you who will become the books' intended audience.