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One of the highlights of this year’s London Film and Comic Convention was YALC – the first ever Young Adult Literature Convention. YALC was curated by the current children’s laureate Malorie Blackman who thoroughly embraced the comic books around her, despite remembering how her teacher tore up a Spider-Man comic and told her not to “read that rubbish”. Malorie said that comicbooks are much more valuable than her teacher gave them credit for, and she told me that she would like to write some of her own one day.One of the topics that occurred at a lot of the YALC panels was the new ‘New Adult’ category that is to be used to label books for young people towards the end of their teenage years. The general consensus was that labelling books can be quite restrictive as the reading ability of age-ranges is not consistent, however some writers recognised that identifying books is essential for some retailers. Several times it was suggested that broad categories can be much less off-putting than listing specific ages.The most interesting YALC panel of the convention was the ‘End of the World As We Know It’, which discussed the ongoing appeal of dystopian fiction. Patrick Ness, best known for the Chaos Walking trilogy, identified how a dystopia is very similar to being at secondary school: “A divided society, where every day the world feels like it’s going to end. There are rules you don’t understand, but you must follow, and there are always people who seem better off than you.”
Patrick agreed with both Malorie Blackman and Sarah Crossan (Breathe) that ‘dystopia’ is more of a word used by publishers and bookshops than one which writers consciously consider when developing a novel. Although Malorie said that genre classification is helpful after the story is finished, she still doesn’t really consider her Naughts & Crosses series to be a dystopia, as to her it’s just a story which fits many descriptions. Sarah made the point that dystopias can appear in many forms, citing the recent The Fault In Our Stars as an example, as it is about the world coming to an end for the protagonists.
Host James Smythe asked the panel what they thought the future was for dystopian fiction. Sarah said that Operation Yewtree “is probably the most grim thing anybody could conceive” so we could see novels following those kind of dark routes, but she also told us that Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods made her “feel like she’s read every dystopia that there is to read.” Patrick strongly disagreed, saying there are always ways to “find new wrinkles.” He used a music metaphor to express that the plot isn’t everything: “A book is not a song, it is the performance of a song. Ok, pick a good song, but people are paying to hear how you perform it.”
A question from the audience asked about the role of contemporary politics in dystopian fiction. Malorie cited politics as “the reason dystopias are so popular – it asks the question of whether an individual can make a difference.” In regards to this, she stated explicitly that she disagrees with Russell Brand’s recent anti-voting protests: “Teens should be interested in politics because it affects all of our lives. You get the government you deserve if you can’t be bothered to vote.” Patrick added to this that “every book set in the future is about right now.” He used his own book Careless Walking as an example, stating it is about information overload, an issue which he did not invent but was informed by modern society. Sarah expressed that a book is political even when it is not the writer’s main intentions; she got a lot of criticism for Breathe (which shows the environment being destroyed) from people who denied global warming and considered her book to be a political statement. Malorie agreed, but didn’t consider this an issue: “If someone somewhere isn’t criticising one of my young adult books then I know I’ve failed.”
Another audience member asked about ‘gatekeepers’, and whether dystopian content could be inappropriate for young readers. All three writers agreed that it is quite patronising to tell children what to read, and that part of the appeal of reading is being able to choose what type of book you are interested in.
This topic also reoccurred at the ‘I’m Too Sexy For This Book’ panel, which explored the place of sex in young adult literature. Non Pratt (Trouble) was of the strong opinion that “sex is happening” and to not include it could disengage teenagers with books because the stories don’t come across as realistic.
James Dawson (Hollywood Eclipse) hosted this talk, and asked the panel if there was anything so taboo they would not include it in their work. Non said that she would never omit a topic just because of a taboo, but instead would avoid things that she finds hard to write about, using religion as an example because she knows little about it. Beth Reekles, who has made a success of her writing on Wattpad and released three novels, explained that she would never be too sexually explicit because most of her readers are younger teenagers. She said that a “fade to black” technique often works for her so that her readers can imagine what happens next using their existing knowledge. Unlike the rest of the panel, Beth did well at avoiding any embarrassing or risqué questions… perhaps this was because her dad was in the audience. I was sat next to him, and could feel the heat radiating from as James teased him about the topics from on stage…
The weekend saw a series of workshops on areas such as historical fiction, graphic novels and speed pitching for authors. Many were fully booked, and all of the talks on the main stage filled out the seats and had crowds of people standing to listen to writers, despite the convention being primarily marketed for films and comics. It may be a digital age, but if YALC was proof of one thing, it’s that literature is still very much alive.