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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #25: Some thoughts on writing youth novels


Maya Fowler - 2010-12-09

Recently I’ve been drawn into the world of youth novels, mainly through stumbling across competitions and being unable to resist entering.

At first I asked myself how I could possibly write for this market. I certainly didn’t fit in when I was at the age in question, so now, with more than a decade (and counting …) between me and my potential readers, how could I engage them? As it happens, I’m not keen to populate my fiction with Hannah Montana-type characters or references to Jay-Z and the gang. But one can’t help feeling you should, just to get through.

Then I read some really great youth novels that capture the spirit of the times without submerging the reader in popular culture all that much – and without much focus, even, on tech. Was I ever excited! Because on the one hand you feel you need to embrace these topics to engage with your reader, but on the other hand, these are exactly the kind of thing that will date your writing and make it unappealing to young readers in five years’ time. Heck, with the speed at which tech gallops on, not to mention how quickly celeb romances hit the rocks and starlets fade, by the time your manuscript has been transformed into a printed book, the thing could already seem less than fresh. So, what about e-books, you ask. Yes, preparing something for this format might be marginally faster, but surely only just – for a book of quality you’re still going need to spend loads of time on editing and design. And, of course, marketing doesn’t happen overnight either.

Back to the “subtle” youth novels I mention above. My first discovery in this was Praise Song by Jenny Robson. It’s just beautiful, and would surely appeal to its target audience as much as it did to me. The main theme – Aids – is tremendously topical, and it’s approached with honesty and compassion, without ever sinking to the lows of sentimentality or preachiness. And not a Disney character, gangsta rapper or Paris Hilton wannabe in sight. And what could possibly be wrong with that? This is a serious youth novel, set in rural South Africa.

As long as you have the core intact you can’t go wrong. What I mean by “core” is speaking to teens about the age-old universals: curiosity about, even obsession with, love and sex; looking good to the group; being misunderstood by everyone around you; struggling even to understand yourself; struggling to find your place in this enormous world; the search for acceptance … Surely when you portray these things convincingly, it’s not necessary to invoke Hollywood/Bollywood/Wii/iThis/iThat, of which next year’s superior model will make your writing seem passé?

I Am The Messenger, by the brilliant Markus Zusak of The Book Thief fame, is another example of the unencumbered youth / young adult novel. Zusak’s avoidance of tech references and pop culture gives the novel a combination of focus, permanence and a dreamlike quality. He’s specific about feelings, vague about the top twenty. The action could be set anywhere in the past thirty years, maybe even the next twenty. The same goes for Kevin Brooks’s Martyn Pig – a little higher on tech, but only just. This is pure storytelling: a sassy voice, an outsider muddling his way through life, trying to cope with an alcoholic father and the girl he likes being in love with some loser. Gripping stuff, and without all the bells and whistles of MTV.

Let me point out that I’m all for MTV and the rest of it. Sprinkling it into your fiction really can work. But what I’m trying to establish is whether, and how, you can engage young readers without it. So here’s a thought. How about, rather than luring youngsters with what they already know, bringing them into a realm where the action is alive, but the setting is somehow pared down. How about giving youth novels all the noise they need, but cutting out on the same old movies, the same old music, the same old jingles they hear every day? The only song I remember from Praise Song was “Paradise Road” – pretty much a golden oldie, by now, and woven into the text carefully and with purpose.

Really, what I’m probably trying to figure out for myself, is how I might work at a genre between fantasy and reality – something that will transport the reader as much as fantasy would, yet seems more plausible, more likely to happen to your reader at some stage. So, yes, more realistic, but without the overrealism of pop culture and references to people and things that might just become obscure. It’s probably fair to say that, with novels such as Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder has created the kind of space to which I’m alluding.

Meanwhile, the following excerpt from Craig Higginson’s piece got me thinking:

One doesn’t open a novel by Anne Tyler or Roddy Doyle and find sentences like “He got into his A160 Mercedez-Benz with leather seats, power steering and a Matrix tracking device.” In a bad historical or “period” novel, however, we might find a sentence that reads, “He got into his 1896 Hansom four-wheeler with spring suspension and plush crimson seats.” Because the historical novel is displaced in time, we feel we need to describe each detail – paint the picture for the reader. But this is to undermine the richness of the collective memory the reader brings to a book, play or film. As I say – we know much more than we think we know. A good work of fiction should demand that we tap into our own imaginations in order to bring the piece to life. The audience and reader need to be engaged and provoked in a way that is not all surface detail and local colour.

By adding that much of pop culture, mightn’t one overpopulate the work with detail in the same way Higginson describes that too much historical detail weighs down the work? His example above could as easily be turned into “He got into his new Z6 with white leather seats and plugged in his colour-matched iPod, which started blasting ‘Linkin Park’”. I think the same holds here, namely that the writer is “undermin[ing] the richness of collective memory [or collective cultural knowledge] the reader brings to the book”.

I’d be interested to hear the opinions of other readers and writers.

  • Maya Fowler debuted with The Elephant in the Room, a novel, in 2009 (Kwela Books). She has published short stories in New Contrast, and her first youth novel, As jy ’n ster sien verskiet, is set to be released in 2011 (Tafelberg Publishers).