Sunday, 12 April 2015

Happy UKYA Day!

#UKYADay is being run by Lucy Powrie, the Queen of Contemporary, who's hoping to fill the internet with liveshows, Twitter chats and posts all about UKYA fiction - and why it matters.

UKYA fiction matters for the same reasons every kind of book matters.

Escape. Because real-life can be downright miserable at times. Sad or lonely or just plain difficult. But if the world-building in your book is convincing enough, you can climb inside it and live there for a bit.
Empowerment. Because if Gemma and Tar from Melvin Burgess's Junk can get cleaned up...and if Yoora from Kerry Drewery's A Dream of Lights can survive a North Korean prison camp...and if Harry Potter can defeat the Dark Lord...then anyone can do anything!  (Although I'm not saying those spoilers did happen...*)
Empathy too. If you're living someone else's life - a junkie, a prisoner or a boy-wizard - you'll be able to understand and relate to other people without even trying. I'd prefer my children to learn as much as they can about life from the safety of books before they have to go out and handle it on their own.
Entertainment. Because books can make you laugh - even as they're teaching you how it feels to be a fifteen year old autistic boy searching for the mother he believed to be dead.

One of my favourite examples of the power of books comes from a biography of Georgette Heyer, who received a letter of thanks from a woman who had been a political prisoner in Romania for twelve years. Although this woman and all the other inmates were strictly forbidden books, newspapers, writing materials and communication with families or lawyers, she had read one of Georgette Heyer's books so many times, she could tell it to her cell-mates almost word for word. Her letter tells how the story helped them to overcome the language barrier, laugh together and escape for a few hours every night. It kept them sane. And I think about this every time I hear some asshole being snooty about Regency romances or 'Women's fiction'.

Anyway. There are too many reasons books matter for me to go on listing them - and they're different for every reader. Sometimes the most important thing in the world can be recognising yourself in a book and thinking: "Yes - this! I feel this way too!" because it means you're not alone.

So why YA?

When I started writing a book, I didn't know it was YA, I thought I was just telling a story. But my agent sold it to a children's publisher and congratulated me on becoming a YA writer...and I panicked wildly because I knew nothing at all about YA.
Until I looked through my bookshelves and realised I did. There was a lot of Neil Gaiman there. Sally Gardner too. And Patrick Ness, Laini Taylor, Erin Bow and Franny Billingsley. Tania Kindersley, William Suttcliffe and Alex Garland. Dodie Smith and Melvin Burgess. I'd been buying and reading YA for years. But I'd only ever categorized it as good stories.

That's it in a nutshell really - YA means good stories.

And it definitely doesn't mean books written for young adults.
I would never presume to write for anyone other than myself. How should I know what young adults want to read? Maybe they like comics about superheroes or biographies of famous footballers or Japanese court poetry or any-other-weird-thing.

YA books are about young adults - for everyone to read.

Because that thing I said a minute ago about recognising yourself in the story - that still applies. We've all been young adults. We've all tasted things for the first time - sex, alcohol, freedom, whatever - and it was more intense because it was new. Maybe it was also exhilarating or scary or totally disastrous, but it was heightened by being the first time. I think this intensity is what makes young adult characters so much fun to read about.

For the plot of my own book, I needed characters who would cheerfully go and camp in a derelict castle with no running water or electricity. Seventeen or eighteen year olds were simply the most likely. Because teenagers can be massively adventurous, even when they don't have  any experience of making sensible decisions. They can have few responsibilities and hardly any money - but masses of energy and crazily surging hormones. It's an irresistible mixture.
What I liked most of all when I was writing teenage characters was remembering the feeling that life was only just starting to happen. When I was seventeen, I felt as if I could've done anything. Been anything. Fallen in love with anyone. Possibilities were infinite. Who wouldn't want to recapture that feeling?

(As it happened, I didn't follow up those possibilities. I spent my teens in my bedroom reading, while Husband spent his teens drinking cheap cider in a graveyard, disclaiming Morrissey lyrics until he fell over. But the limitless potential was there just the same.)

I think that's why - when we dream - we are young again. OK, young and naked and sprinting out of a GCSE exam - because that's how dreams work. But young was mostly the point I was trying to make there. Fuck it - when you dream, you can fly if you want!
Isn't that what YA books are about?

I picked up an adult book the other day. The characters in it spent more time weighing up each decision than actually doing anything. Long internal monologues were L-O-N-G!
It was stuffed with lovely, lyrical prose too - masses of it. Descriptions of the scenery went on for so long I began to have internal monologues of my own. OK, it's just a hedge - stop describing it now. Seriously - I've seen hedges before, and I'm beginning to really hate this one. Maybe I'll put this endless-hedge book down and re-read Half Bad instead. Ah - pace, my speedy friend, how I missed thee!

So why UK?

Because I live here and there's nothing wrong with being patriotic.
When I first realised I was already reading a lot of YA, more of my books were written by US authors than anywhere else. I loved their writing - I still do - but I felt as if there was a part of my bookshelf missing. Were Americans really so much better at writing books than UK authors?
Turned out, I was reading USYA because it was being promoted and recommended and made into films. And when I actually started paying attention I discovered plenty of dazzlingly good UKYA authors. I found Keris Stainton and C.J Skuse and Melinda Salisbury and Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen. And a hundred more!

I recommend them.
And I couldn't be more proud that I'm going to be one of them. The UKYA community is one of the warmest, funniest, friendliest and most enthusiastic groups of people anywhere.So 'Happy UKYA DAY, everyone!'
Although every day is UKYA Day in my house, to be honest. I have UKYA books in every room.These are the books next to my bed, waiting to be read or reread and then probably re-read again...

(*They totally did!)


  1. I agree. Love YA and I'm far from a young adult. The stories are just as you said, wonderful stories x

  2. I've heard people laugh at the fact I read so many YA books. Quite frankly I think they are missing out! Long live YA and the authors that write it!


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