I was asked to speak at the Library and Information Association of South Africa (Liasa) end of year function, following in the very big shoes of Margie Orford, who addressed the association last year.
Thank you to Ingrid and Elmarie for inviting me to the event and thanks to new friends Julian, Sue, Wilhemmina, Rheina and Lyn for making me feel welcome.
Here’s my full speech from the event.
If you put young adult fiction in a box you end up with the following:
A novel targeted to a young person aged between thirteen and nineteen that offers an impartial voice on life, on love and the consequences of making the right or wrong decisions.
But its so much more than that isn’t it? It’s a billion dollar industry. Its so lucrative that some publishing houses desperate for the next big thing, hire writing teams and fiction factories to mass produce novels aimed at the youth market. Even beloved YA author L.J Smith was recently fired by her publishers and The Vampire Diaries will continue without her.
But young adult literature, as profitable as it is, is more than just a means for publishing houses to make money.
Let’s look at Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight as an example. Twilight is on its surface, a love story between girl and vampire. We know that the series sparked a global thirst for paranormal romance and a multi-billion dollar movie franchise.
But that is just Twilight in a box. It is so much more than that.
Twilight is a story about a girl who has to say goodbye to the life she knows, who has to start off fresh in a new town, and make friends in a school where the social circles are already established. The story of Bella’s awkward struggle to make friends, the jealousy she encounters, and her inevitable romance with the hottest guy in school could be a novel in itself. And more than just a few of us would read it.
Twilight is also the story of the relationship between a girl and her estranged father, still bitter from a divorce that tore their family apart. The reader follows Bella’s tenuous relationship with Chief Swan falter, and then grow, reminding us of our own relationships with our parents.
It is the story of friendship, and how unrequited feelings can test our relationships with the people we care most deeply about. We witness how Jacob wrestles with his feelings for Bella, wanting to be with her, and not being able to walk away. It’s one of the most honest portrayals of friendship I’ve found.
Twilight is also the story of true love; of selfless thinking; of choice, of family values, of abstinence and also grief.
But most of all, Twilight’s fast-paced plot keeps its readers on the edge of their seats from start to finish.
When I’m asked to speak at functions such as this, my mantra is always that teens want to be entertained as much as adults do, so why should YA fiction be any different from say, commercial fiction? It isn’t.
Twilight has the hero, the love interest, the rival, the villain and as much tension you can fit into four books. This is the recipe for a commercially viable novel. When you add a pinch of wish fulfilment to the mix you’ve got a winner. After all, who doesn’t want to meet the man of their dreams across a crowded cafeteria?
I like a good paranormal romance (who doesn’t?); I also enjoy the occasional dystopian (The Hunger Games are all the rage right now), and when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic; I’ll break out a favourite Point Horror or Harry Potter; but my true love; the one that gets my hair to stand on end, is that YA set in the here and now. Because if you exterminate the zombies, and shoo away the werewolves; you’re left with a bare bones story about love; and friendship, and just how scary being a kid in a very complicated world can be. And it’s that nail biting quality of young adult fiction that I enjoy the most.
As a kid fed on a diet of Nancy Drew and Tintin I was desperate for something good and meaty to read. In the end I resorted to raiding my mother’s Stephen King collection. To my sheer unadulterated glee I discovered characters my own age that I could relate to and whose journey I was genuinely interested in following (unlike the unfortunate Miss Drew and her habit of putting her nose where it didn’t belong)
Remember thirteen year old Mark Petrie from Salem’s Lot? The poor kid who had to face a town infested with vampires? Or what about Apt Pupil’s Todd Bowden who discovers a Nazi hiding in his neighbourhood? Then there was Christine’s nerdy Arnie Cunningham who buys a demonic car, and let’s not forget the boys from Stand By Me that discover a body on the train tracks.
Stephen King knows how to get teenagers just right – their fearless, know it all, me against the world attitude to life, but also their innocence and uncertainty, and their resilience when the odds are stacked against them.
King’s stories would keep me up at night for sure, but each book had me hooked from page one, every time. Mostly because could see myself in the characters.
As a child I used to make up stories about fairies and unicorns to entertain my grandmother. Thanks to Stephen King I was inspired to write far juicer stories – daring tales of a teenage bicycle gangs; and girls who unearth the ghoulish secrets of a haunted house, and of course, how an innocent sleepover could be ruined by the presence of a possessed Barbie Doll in the attic.
I blame Stephen King for my penchant for doing terrible things to young people in my novels. It was the best on the job training that any writer could hope for.
When I wrote my first published novel I didn’t know that I had inadvertently written a young adult novel. To be honest I had no idea that the genre even existed. I was merely adapting my own desire to write to the style I was most interested in; commercial horror fiction; and peopling it with characters I mostly identified with – young people, like me.
So yes, my books do what any young adult novel is supposed to.
They act as a guiding voice to young people – like The Goblet Club, that teachers young people the dire consequences of poisoning their teachers;
They also offer a comment on society; like in Fuse, where I investigate how bullying can lead to acts of school violence and even suicide;
And they also offer a warning, like in Dark Poppy’s Demise that advises caution when meeting people online and illustrates how if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.
But more than this my tales are thrilling; hopefully a little pulse racing; and very, very dark. Just the way I like it.
I’ll end off my talk with a few quotes from Stephen King.
“Schizoid behavior is a pretty common thing in children. It’s accepted, because all we adults have this unspoken agreement that children are lunatics.”
“If you liked being a teenager, there’s something really wrong with you.”