‘Vile and dangerous’: or, how to get our kids reading

Beware of the book road signCarnegie medal winner blasted as ‘vile and dangerous’. Could there be a better review for a YA author? Kevin Brookes (and his publishers) must be delighted.

Some background: on 23 June the Carnegie and Greenaway medals, the oldest and most prestigious awards given to children’s books, were announced. The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks won the Carnegie, and all power and congratulations to Kevin. I haven’t yet read the book, but even if I hadn’t already intended to that headline would send me straight to an online bookshop. As it will teenagers.

Oh Daily Telegraph, don’t you get it? Call a book for young adults (young adults, note, not young children) ‘vile and dangerous’ and every teenager in town will want to read it! It was ever thus: in 1997, Junk, Melvin Burgess’s story of teenage heroin addicts, won the Carnegie, and was predicted to herald an epidemic of copy-cat drug users. Back in my teenage day, Judy Blume’s Forever was banned by my school library from under-14s, presumably to prevent us from having sex. (What actually happened is that we got the older kids to take it out for us then passed it round the class, along with The Thorn Birds, Lace and James Herbert’s The Rats. Most of us didn’t have sex afterwards).

With all the brow-beating and hair-tearing going on in the UK at the moment about how to get our kids to read, why does our media get so hysterical about something that kids might want to read? Or should they only read what certain adults deem suitable for them to read? Young adults are exactly that – adults, who are young, and just like adults they can make choices and form opinions of their own. If they don’t like The Bunker Diary they’ll stop reading it, but, you know what Daily Telegraph? If you hadn’t branded it as unsuitable, more of them wouldn’t have bothered reading it in the first place.

And now, for something completely different

Steampunk

I’ve neglected this blog over the summer. This is partly because of my day job (the one that actually pays the bills, not the one I wish paid the bills), and partly because the UK had its best summer for seven years. Day after day of glorious sunshine and high temperatures, something our vitamin D-starved bodies couldn’t get enough of. Normal weather service has now resumed, so perhaps I’ll finally get more chapters written.

I’d not planned this blog post, but yesterday – in the serendipitous way that so often happens with writing – Twitter handed it to me on a plate. As part of the above-mentioned job I’m planning a series of short story writing activities, and for various reasons, needed a list of contemporary YA must-read gothic and steampunk novels.

Being a big fan of Victorian gothic novels (have I ever mentioned that I read Wuthering Heights at least once a year?)  I wouldn’t have found it hard to make a list of classics, but when it came to modern fiction I wasn’t even sure if Twilight counted as gothic. Moreover, I confess (and this may lose me some followers): I have never knowingly chosen to read a steampunk novel. This is for no better reason than taste – I’m not a big fan of sci-fi, and (I’m generalising here) many novels that would be classified as steampunk also fall into that category, so I don’t tend to pick them up. The obvious exception is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, but I didn’t even know steampunk was a ‘thing’ when I read that.

I like to think I’ve got a good background knowledge of YA novels, but there’s nothing like a subculture to banish smug assumptions. I couldn’t name one steampunk novel (although a quick Google search did throw up a few that I’d actually heard of), and I only had a vague afterthought that Jules Verne and HG Wells might come into the category as forefathers. I didn’t want to randomly pick titles from a search engine – I wanted personal recommendations. So I asked the expert: Twitter. That is, I cheekily asked a few authors if they would retweet my request to their followers, which they kindly did.*

Within minutes, a whole airship-full of suggestions came steaming into my Twitter feed from librarians, writers and YA writing fans. I’ve never seen such passion and enthusiasm in 140 characters. I Googled every one, and made a selection from the most mentioned, the most appropriate-looking and the ones I most liked the look of. Then I blithely tweeted that I now had the definitive, hand-picked list of gothic and steampunk novels for young adults.

At this, Melvin Burgess (she types, breezily, as if his Junk isn’t one of my most admired YA novels of all time) asked if I could share. So here’s the list. Of course, fans of steampunk will argue that it isn’t definitive, and I’ve only read a small number so can’t vouch personally for most of them, but it’s been a lot of fun putting the list together. Best of all I have had my mind well and truly opened to the smoking chimneys and clanking cogs of steampunk, and can’t wait to get reading.

Modern gothic

  • Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Dreaming of Amelia (The Ghosts of Ashbury High in the US)  by Jaclyn Moriarty
  • Black Spring by Alison Croggon
  • The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Sheppard
  • Ashes on the Waves by Mary Lindsey
  • Unspoken (The Lynburn Trilogy) by Sarah Rees Brennan
  • My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick
  • Heap House by Edward Carey (which was only published last week! Talk about an exclusive…)
  • The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding (looks like a good example of gothic/steampunk crossover)

Contemporary steampunk

  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • Artemis Fowl (and others) by Eoin Colfer
  • Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
  • Steampunk! ed Kelly Link and Gavin J Grant (short stories)
  • Clockwork Angel (Infernal Devices series) by Cassie Clare
  • Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
  • Haywired by Alex Keller
  • The Peculiar by Steffan Bachmann

*I’m indebted to Patrick Ness, Fletcher Moss, Melvin Burgess and Tony Bradman for their (and their followers’) help.

Duchess? Lady? I’d settle for Ma’am

I’ve been pondering titles. Not, sadly, because I’m to be honoured for services to children’s literature, but because the perfect one for The Novel came to me from nowhere the other day. And it started me wondering about great titles, and how they are born.

I’d been battling with this one for a long time. Years, believe it or not. Back in the early days, when I could write every day, and all weekend, and spend an afternoon each week at the best children’s writing course in London*, I had a working title that didn’t work. I fiddled with it endlessly so that every time I brought new chapters to the group they came with a new title. They were all perfectly good titles, they all reflected the general theme of the book, but they just didn’t work. None of them sounded like titles for a book, and none of them sounded like the title of my book. To be frank, they started to irritate me and I found myself agonising over the title in an increasingly unhealthy way. So one day I gave up on the title and carried on writing the book without one.

In the meantime life intervened, and when I started to write The Novel again I realised that it was going to be a different novel (I’ve talked about this in another post). The original titles were now even more obsolete, so every now and again I’d have a think about what to call The Novel #2. This time I didn’t stress myself. I didn’t get hung up on it, I didn’t spend every waking moment wondering what it could be.

And then I was having a shower and thinking about what the book was actually about (as you may have noticed, thinking about, rather than writing my book is a common theme), while simultaneously talking to my daughter about her latest Playmobil creation, and zap, there it was. The perfect title, discovered without any apparent effort at all.

How do published authors decide on the titles of their great works? JK Rowling once famously said that the entire story of Harry Potter came to her, fully formed – did her titles arrive that way as well? Having cast my eye briefly over my bookshelf, it seems that there are two broad categories of titles for YA books:

  1. The solid, dependable ones. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s StonePippi LongstockingThe Secret Seven – we know exactly what these books will be about and that’s why we want to read them; they give us a sense of security before we even turn the first page.
  2. The multi-layered, mysterious, even poetic titles that draw us to the book like a gentle but insistent hand on our arm. They catch our eye, intrigue and nag at us.  Walk Two Moons, Ways to Live Forever, Broken Soup and Dear Nobody are some of my favourite YA titles of this type.

I like to think I’m more multi-layered than solid and dependable (hmm, that doesn’t necessarily sound good). So I’ve gone for category 2 for my title. Or rather, it went for me.

A month or so ago I was delighted to see the author Sally Nicholls (on whom I have a massive YA author crush), ask her Twitter followers to suggest titles for her new novel. She wanted something slightly creepy, possibly reflecting a nursery rhyme. I don’t know if she went with a follower suggestion or not, but in the end she chose ‘Close Your Pretty Eyes’. I liked her style – was her method the author’s equivalent of asking Google for any answers?

Writers: I’d love to hear how you choose your titles. Let me know! Everyone else, what do you think about where titles come from, and what works?

*City Lit, Writing for children and young adults, with the marvellous Elisabeth Hawkins. More on that another time.