Tuesday, 24 April 2012

SCBWI London Professional Series - Issues Talk

Tuesday 24th April 2012 saw the latest in the SCBWI London Professional series at London's Theodore Bullfrog pub near Embankment Station with:

Bali Rai, a critically acclaimed, multi-award winning YA novelist, whose most recent book KILLING HONOUR was released in the UK in June 2011);

Miriam Halahmy whose debut YA novel, HIDDEN was launched in 2011 to critical acclaim, including being featured on the longlist for the CLIP Carnegie Medal.  The sequel ILLEGAL was released in the UK on 20th March 2012); and

- Sara Grant whose debut YA novel, DARK PARTIES was released in the UK in December 2011 to critical acclaim.  Sara very graciously stepped in at the last minute when Tabitha Suzuma became indisposed.

All three writers are interested and have track records in writing about gritty issues and the evening started with each author giving a short talk about how they approach difficult subjects and their attitudes towards it.

(Left to right - Sara Grant, Bali Rai and Miriam Halahmy)

Miriam said that when she talks about her books, she gets asked by parents whether subjects such as asylum seekers, immigration and drugs are things that teenagers should be reading.  Miriam is non-judgmental both about what people write and what they read.  She said that she writes the types of book that deals with subjects that interest her and since an early age she's been interested in social justice.  As such, she writes the types of books that she wants to read - it's both an organic and instinctive process that happens because such topics go through her head all the time.  With HIDDEN, the inspiration came from a walk that she was taking on Hayling Island when she suddenly wondered what would happen if two teenagers saw a man fall from a boat and that man turned out to be an illegal immigrant.

When she started writing, she was producing fiction for adults and poetry and had never even heard of young adult fiction until people started telling her that HIDDEN was a young adult book.  She realised that young adult fiction has a wonderful cross-over element as well because adults read young adult books due to the fact that they're page-turning reads.  Young adult fiction is not as slow and reflective as 'adult' fiction can be but this is one of its big appeals.

Miriam said that she's found that young adult fiction has allowed her to explore things that she's never done and as such, she really has to think about the topics that she wants to address to work out what she wants to say.

She was worried at first when she took HIDDEN into schools but the response has been amazing - particularly with regard to what teenagers and children know and do not know.  She's also interested in the way in which words (notably terms that we would normally view as derogatory) can be co-opted by children within those communities.  She loves teenage slang and listening to what kids say to each other and tries to play about with it and bring it into her fiction.

Ultimately she writes characters and those characters have to stand up on the page and have an interesting journey because unless this is in place, no one will care about the issue.


Bali doesn't like the label "issue novel" because it's a term that's often used to beat people with, but issues novels nevertheless provide the diversity that's still lacking in fiction - particularly within the British young adult market.  Diversity doesn't have to mean characters from ethnic communities though - even working class white kids don't tend to have books written about them.  He points out that there's a white middle class character preference and notes how in Enid Blyton's books it was the rich, posh white kids who were the heroes and the gypsies and foreigners who were the villains.

Bali honestly believes that there's no divide between adult and young adult fiction - it's purely a marketing gimmick.  In Britain, we tend to lose a lot of readers as they go through their teenage years (i.e. they simply stop reading for pleasure).  We keep those kids as readers by respecting them and not pulling our punches as authors.  Teenagers want to read what they want to read.  They don't want to be told that something is too mature for them or too disturbing.  They want to make their own choices.

Writing about issues exposes them and stops them from being hidden.  Bali wrote about so-called honour-based violence in KILLING HONOUR but it's basically domestic violence with an ethnic tag.  If you don't write about it then how else do young people get to know about it?  He points out that if authors don't tackle difficult subjects, then it allows the media to take over the debate, which can have a seriously distorting effect.

Bali says that you should write about the character and not the issue.  For example, KILLING HONOUR is about a young man whose sister goes missing and who feels guilty because he never paid attention to her.  The story deals with that issue but it's also a thriller.

He does a lot of school visits and says that many young people will talk about issues because they are interested in them.  Their opinions and arguments may not be sophisticated but they want to develop their knowledge and they have ideas about the world, how it works and how it should work.  If kids don't like something then they'll put the book down.

Bali said that issues based fiction helps to create a diverse publishing world where kids can choose what they want to read.  He concluded by expressing the belief that writers of young adult books are better storytellers than those people who write 'grown up' fiction.


Sara said that although DARK PARTIES is ostensibly a young adult dystopian novel, she still looks at diversity and rebellion albeit in a forum that relates to what she wants to talk about rather than a contemporary setting.

She revealed that in the first draft of DARK PARTIES she held when it came to difficult issues but her editor challenged her to take it further and as a result there are things that are uncomfortable for the reader to read.  Her writing process begins with her thinking about what interests her in a scenario, in the characters and in the actual issue.  She's particularly drawn to issues that are not black and white.

Sara revealed that she thinks that in the USA, the young adult fiction market wants you as an author to push the reader while the UK young adult market would prefer you to pull back - especially with sexual content because the big market in the UK is schools where there are gatekeepers (i.e. teachers, parents, librarians) who have more control on what kids can read.  She said that you shouldn't think about these gatekeepers when you are writing your book - you have to write the book that you want to write.  You have to be honest and authentic and you have to go where the story takes you.

Sara made the observation that some books seem to try hard to be deliberately controversial, which can make the story feel forced and fake.  However kids equally know when the author is deliberately holding back.

Because Sara was raised in the Bible Belt of the USA, she feels the need to speak the truth.  She said that she started reading Judy Blume when she was a child and pointed out that kids can really see themselves in the books that they read.  By being shown the type of person you are and that you aren't alone in your emotions and thoughts it can be reassuring.

Sara said that you need to know what's at the heart of your story.  Why are you writing it?  Why is the issue important to you?

DARK PARTIES was about immigration and started with a what if scenario - i.e. what would happen if a country closes its borders completely, what would the implications of such an event be?  She said that you need to know what your boundaries are because agents and editors always have different ideas about where you should take your story so you need to make sure that you're clear on your vision and message.

Sara revealed that she works to a bullet point synopsis and decides from the synopsis whether she can write the novel.  She said that there are some things that she couldn't write about because they are too hard to deal with and pointed to THE LONG WEEKEND by Savita Kalhan as a great book but one she found difficult to read because of the subject of sexual abuse.

She said that her new novel (entitled HALF LIVES) is about religion and a cult and she admitted to feeling a little nervous about what her family (which includes Methodist ministers) will make of it - although she hastened to add that they had been very supportive of DARK PARTIES.

Sara's concluding advice was to tell the story you want to tell and write a book that will keep readers thinking about it after they're finished.


There followed a question and answer session with the audience, which included discussions on such topics as:

- whether issues fiction pulls its punches;

- whether authors can find themselves 'stuck' with the 'issues author' brand;

- whether authors worry about children too young for the material will read it; and

- Bali Rai's kill list.

All in all it was a great evening and although the turnout was low, the participation and quality of the questions and speakers more than made up for it.

The next event in the London Professional Series will be on May 29th where we'll be learning about THE BOOK COVER and what goes into the book cover process.

Many thanks to the speakers and to Paolo Romeo and Tina Lemon for organising another splendid evening.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Simon & Schuster Blogger Event - Wednesday 29th February 2012

For anyone who may be interested, I've done a write up of a Blogger Event held at Simon & Schuster on my main blog at Livejournal here.