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Targeting teens - Writing for teens

Speech given by Tessa Duder to the North Island Children’s and Young Adult’s Librarians’ Conference, Rotorua, July 22-23, 2010

Targeting teens! Unlike most of you here, I can remember a time when there were no teenagers to be targeted. They were not invented until the early 1950s.

Defined as ‘adolescent’ around 13 or 14, you began to dress much the same as your parents: slacks, ties and tweed sports jackets for boys; twin-sets, slim skirts, stockings and court shoes for girls. You listened to the same radio shows: Take It From Here, The Goons, Hancock’s Half Hour, remember those? You went straight from reading the Famous Five, Just William and Biggles, to Dickens or James Mitchener or Mary Renault and in my case, Tolstoy. I didn’t consider myself particularly precocious to be reading War and Peace at 14 and even younger, at 13, playing Cassius in a class production of scenes from Julius Caesar. (‘Yond’ Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.’ Is this where I learned that scoundrels are really interesting?)

But as we now know, it was music that led the 20th century’s social revolutions. In the early 1950s, with newly affordable vinyl LPs, came something quite radical and very appealing to the young: ‘One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock,’ and then in early 1960s Chubby Checker’s Twist and the unstoppable Fab Four. By this time, the western Teenager was being well catered for: most noticeably after pop music, clothing but also language, movies, tv programmes, magazines, cars, shops, surf boards and later, with tragic inevitability in permissive times, those iniquitous temptations called party pills and Alcopops. Between childhood and adulthood, for a whole six years, there now stood another species, loudly claiming different rights, needs, desires and motivating passions.

Fiction for teens, also inevitable, gathered real momentum in Britain and America in the 1960s. In New Zealand it was Margaret Mahy who led the way with her magnificent quintet of novels between 1984 and 1995: The Changeover, The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters, Memory and The Other Side of Silence. My own first stab at a YA novel came in 1987, a story about a girl called Alex who wanted to go to the Rome Olympics. Those days, I was barely aware of the literary theorising going on behind YA; I just wrote my third novel with a 15-year-old, rather than 11-year-old, protagonist. Now, having passed through various stages of being rather doctrinaire about the genre, then confused and somewhat irritated with claim and counter-claim, especially around awards classifications, I confess to having grown somewhat tired of the whole debate: when is a novel YA, adult or cross-over. Does it have to be one, or the other, or can it be all three?

Professionally, authors have the luxury of standing back. I’ve heard many others say that first and foremost, they write for themselves, not for any supposed market. Elizabeth Knox once said with enviable confidence on a literary festival panel that Dreamhunter was a YA book ‘because I say it is!’

I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Authors can sincerely but blithely claim they ‘write for themselves,’ but most others in the literary food chain – publishers, booksellers, secondary school teachers, librarians and awards judges - must consider inescapable factors of editing (swear words or not), design, marketing and promotion, appropriate shelving in libraries and shops, selection for English classes and categorising for awards.

Literature for young people, after all, is peculiar and unique, being the only genre that is not written by one of its own readers. A very recent issue of the New Yorker, examining the current fashion for dystopian themes in YA literature, reflects on [quote] the paranoid spirit of these novels [in] that adults are the ones who write them, publish them, stock them in stores and libraries, assign them in classes, and decide which ones win prizes. (Most of the reader reviews posted online seem to be written by adults as well.)

In a speech published in the 1999 Storylines Year Book, Kate de Goldi went further, claiming that The real readers of the genre are either able eleven-year-olds, or the teachers, librarians, children’s literature aficionados, booksellers, competition judges and interested parents, who while diligently peddling – interesting choice of word, that - peddling the books to their intended teenage market, are, increasingly left holding the books. . . if the Young Adult genre is more notional than actual, then publishers may have to re-frame and re-name and finally re-position. The army of librarians, teachers, and commentators buttressing the YA literature industry may need to refocus and talk more honestly about who is really reading the genre.

I wonder if eleven years on, her view, widely shared if not so eloquently articulated at the time, has changed; probably not much, although the notion of ‘cross-over’ is now respectable and increasing. You, as professionals, deciding what to buy, where to shelve it, knowing what is borrowed and by whom, analysing statistics and trends, would be far better judges of that than me.

As to whether a writer like say, Sonya Hartnett, truly writes for a YA audience, many of you might agree with the Australian commentator who rather wearily concluded that eventually writers of Sonya Hartnett's standing reach a stage where the only useful point of reference is their own work. Rather than quibbling about whether The Ghost's Child is a work for children or adults (it's both) - and you could include here Surrender, Sleeping Dogs, Of a Boy or her latest, Butterfly - it makes more sense to take it as the latest work from a writer of remarkable originality whose first loyalty is to the story.

Anyway, surely it’s no bad thing that adults choose to read YA, almost guaranteed of a lively, solid and entertaining narrative. They are in fact the canny, open-minded and cool ones on the block! In a good YA novel a reader will find themes that reflect the age, experience and challenges of adolescents, their real, everyday issues. Well, who amongst us is so high-minded as to profess to be uninterested in our once teenaged selves? The Genre requires that the protagonist is nearly always an adolescent, usually in some way empowered by the arc of the story, which especially if it’s a dystopian tale, nearly always winds up with some shred of hope. Storylines are classically structured; narratives are plot-driven; dialogue is authentic and lively; facts and details are accurate; and the narrative voice is memorable.

Shouldn’t most of those characteristics feature in an adult novel? Increasingly not, it seems. Only a week ago, a lightweight New York columnist joined the Greek chorus of those predicting yet again the death of the novel, now become a "museum-piece genre", a creaking old thing destined for the scrapheap, like visiting cards or hand-written address books. Non-fiction is now the place that attracts all the good writers.

It’s bunkum, of course; agreed, there’s some great non-fiction around and also a great many depressing, self-referential and forgettable novels by authors boring the hell out of audiences at literary festivals.

But let no one dismiss as ‘a creaking old thing’ the magnificent Hillary Mantel novel Wolf Hall or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, or any long-awaited new offering from John Le Carre or Ian McEwen or Rohanton Mistry, from David Malouf or Lloyd Jones or Maurice Gee or Jenny Pattrick. And anyone who thinks that children ‘aren’t reading any more’ – don’t you hate it when people so confidently trot out that phrase? - clearly hasn’t seen the sales figures of the Harry Potter septet, the Dark Materials trilogy, the Twilight series and its on-going potboilers, the Cherub series and thousands of single successes. We can see in any bookshop, commuter train, beach and airport that the Web and social networking have so far not stopped adults and young people buying big demanding reads, or so-called ‘literary’ ones. And as we stand on the brink of the e-book revolution, it’s reasonable to speculate that today’s young ‘digital natives’ may swiftly take to reading fiction on an I-Pad as the coolest activity.

Meantime, however, there is a serious challenge in de Goldi’s words, one reinforced by her own award-winning novel The Ten PM Question. We can reasonably surmise from its shortlisting for the 2009 Montana awards and regular appearance since then high on the Booksellers NZ Best-seller list, that this book has found a strong adult audience, the mature female one that buys books, and especially in recent years, Jenny Pattrick and Deborah Challinor and Fiona Kidman And Emily Perkins.

Yet I’ve read in reviews and heard said, by well-informed people I respect, that despite winning the NZ Post Senior Fiction and Supreme Award, and with its 12-year-old protagonist and sophisticated tone and language, The Ten PM Question is not a novel likely to have a wide readership among early or middle teens. It would be really interesting to know how many schools bought class sets – and I would guess, not many – and further, how many English teachers hook into the NZ Post awards promotion each year, encourage their classes to read the senior fiction shortlists, get debates going, celebrate the winners.

I may be unfairly raking over old coals here – I hope I am – but I’ve never forgotten my shock some years ago when I mentioned Kate de Goldi to a group of thirty English teachers. It was at a late January seminar, the last week of the holidays, beach weather outside, so these were the eager, conscientious ones. I expected them, I think reasonably, to know their New Zealand books. Yet when I mentioned Kate’s very fine debut novel Sanctuary, which a few months earlier had won the NZ Post Senior Fiction award, I met with blank faces. Not one had heard of either the author or the book or even, and this is even more staggering, the awards! Now, twelve years later, could a comparable thing happen again? Her profile is very much higher, and NZ Post is a high-profile annual arts event, but still, I fear it might. Over the years I’ve heard other award-winners, names familiar to you, comment quite bitterly that, awards and great reviews and publicity campaigns and school visits and writers’ festivals and even overseas editions and invitations to offshore festivals notwithstanding, for all of this, their books and those of their colleagues seem to be little known in the nation’s high school classrooms.

Now I’m not in any way diminishing the on-going and invaluable work quietly being done with and for teens in school and public libraries. I sit with several YA librarians on the Storylines Trust management committee so I’m aware of their strong personal commitment to their calling. And I’m certainly not pointing the finger at secondary English teachers constrained by small budgets, too much paperwork, a waffly sort of English curriculum and high expectations from parents and their communities.

But it seems to me that there is a major challenge here: not just how, with campaigns and author visits and the like, to get the teens reading their own country’s YA authors, but how to get the teachers interested, passionate and committed because they genuinely share the belief that it is the birthright of every New Zealand child to grow up familiar with their own country’s literature, from Greedy Cat, to Hairy Maclary through to Alex and The Changeover and See Ya Simon and Genesis. Just as British children are taught their literary heritage, and American children, theirs, and Australian children theirs; so that at the very least, I could ask any teacher in any classroom from Kaitaia to Bluff the winner of this year’s New Zealand Post Senior Fiction award and get the same prompt and informed answer that you as a group would give.

Unrealistic? Too idealistic? Too demanding of over-stretched teachers? I don’t think so, because if we accept it’s professional development we’re talking about as the best or indeed only way to improve the situation, then there is a successful model, and it’s right across The Ditch.

In 1992, I was invited as one of two New Zealand writers to the first biennial conference of the Children’s Book Council of Australia held in Sydney. I drank wine with their rock stars like Victor Kelleher and John Marsden, and sat in a spa with Gillian Rubenstein, later to win fame and fortune as Liam Hearn. But the most important friendship I made during those few days was with Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, Iranian-born of Hungarian parents, Victorian by choice, and a passionate and forthright champion of an Australian literature for Australian youth. At that time, after decades of secondary teaching, she was setting up a centre for her activities in St Martin’s in Melbourne, later to become the Centre for Youth Literature based at the State Library of Victoria.

For nearly twenty years I’ve been privileged to watch and share some of Agnes’s energy and passion for youth literature. As well as establishing a physical base, she ran the Youth Literature Days of the Melbourne Writers Festival, and later her own annual festival, Reading Matters. Veteran librarian and now literary agent, Frances Plumpton, has always said this was the one conference she really looked forward to each year, always thought-provoking and challenging, a chance to listen to the best of Australian YA voices with added international guests, backed by faultless organisation and fantastic food. Reading Matters is the conference of choice for YA authors too, both Australasian and internationals, and the three hundred or so audience, many of whom travel considerable distances and return year after year.

Wait, there’s more. Useful and important publications like Good Books for Teenagers, More Good Books for Teenagers,Right Book Right Time: 500 great reads for teenagers. Substantial collections of essays, on Australian YA and Australian YA authors. Regular reviewing in literary magazines and newspapers. Working with directors and actors to take into schools all round Victoria her special Book Gigs, short dramatic adaptations of key YA Australian books – and around 1994, I attended a fifteen-minute presentation of Alex which reduced me to tears. Putting on literary banquets where selected authors provided the floor shows. Working with publishers and their publicists, offering hospitality and support to create enduring friendships with key players in Australian publishing and with the community of YA authors.

And fundamental to all this, working with librarians and especially teachers on a well-planned programme of professional development through seminars and workshops, bringing in authors, publishers, reviewers and others where appropriate. She was tireless and magnificent, and somehow she found the time to read all the books of all the authors she was so energetically and effectively promoting. Even in well-earned retirement, she is still anguishing that despite all their authors’ successes offshore, Australia has yet to produce a true reading culture, still penning major features and lengthy reviews of writers like Sonya Hartnett and Libba Bray, American author of that cross-over surreal romp Going Bovine, still advising on selection of books, a contentious issue if ever there was one, for the proposed National Curriculum. She ‘retired’ five years ago, but I have no doubt that she would be an ‘early adopter’ of any technology if it could advance her purpose.

Agnes is renowned in Australia as arguably the most influential voice in the spectacular development of an indigenous youth literature since 1990, but there are others, like the academic Maurice Saxby, and Pamela McIntyre whose University of Melbourne has supported the growth of YA with its specialist periodical Viewpoint. And there’s that beautiful glossy mag Magpies, where both Australian and Kiwi YA authors receive substantial and well-considered reviews. The growth of conferences and workshops outside of Agnes’s orbit for those working professionally with YA has been steady, and academics like Saxby and Stella Lees, co-editor with McIntyre of the definitive 1994 volume, the Oxford Companion to Australian Children’s Literature, have long played a more active role than have their counterparts in the New Zealand academia.

And how do I know all of this has worked for the average classroom teacher and the teens who sit before them on hard chairs?

I can only give an author’s view, based largely on anecdote. Since that 1992 conference and through Agnes, I’ve met a good few established Australian YA writers. They appear to be highly respected on the local literary scene; not, as regrettably still sometimes here, patronised as lesser writers than those who write for grown-ups, apprentices even for the bit adult novel we will one day write. Schools will pay serious money, three or four times our Writers in Schools fees, for the day visits arranged by tough-minded literary agents, or for longer residencies within schools, libraries and writers’ centres. With fees plus royalties plus the Educational Lending Right they fought hard for and won, Australian YA authors enjoy good incomes, in many cases handsome. They feel rewarded, and valued, and do not have to be, as we tend to be, literary odd-jobbers taking sideline work to create a liveable income. They can focus on their principal task, their writing.

What Agnes and others inspired by her have been doing since 1990 was to ‘professionally develop’ not only the teachers but the authors, too, almost without them realising it, and to put Australia very much on the international YA literary map. And here, there is some hard evidence.

You probably all know that fine Penguin publication that appeared earlier this year: 1001 Children’s Books you must read before you grow up. It’s a global best-book rundown, a veritable brick of a book. I did a quick analysis of authors by country. Yes, 82 English authors for the 12-plus section does indicate some degree of Anglo-centric choice, but heavens, these date from Daniel Defoe in 1719! Consider these others: 48 Americans, 15 French, 13 German, 8 each Canadians, Spaniards and Italians, 6 each Eastern Europeans and Scandinavians, 3 Dutch, 2 each Indian, Japanese, South African, South American and Swiss.

You might patriotically have noted 5 Kiwis – Mahy, Duder, Sherryl Jordan, Fleur Beale and David Hill – but there are no fewer than 33 Australians, the biggest bloc by far behind UK and USA, and 21 of their books appearing since 1990. Huge names, truly fabulous writers like Robin Klein, Gary Crew, Melina Marchetta, Catherine Jinks, John Marsden, Isobelle Carmody, Emily Rodda, Gillian Rubenstein (aka Lian Hern), David Metzenthen, James Maloney, Carole Wilkinson, Markus Zusak, Garth Nix, Tim Winton, Maureen McCarthy, Margo Lanagan, and perhaps the most brilliantly inventive of them all, 2008 winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize, Sonya Hartnett.

Now, is this recognition a coincidence since Agnes Nieuwenhuizen started ringing up teachers and firmly telling them that attendance at her Youth Literature Days was a worthwhile use of school time? What about a visit by the Book Gig troupe, complete with authors of the three books being dramatised? Or that she was launching yet another book and she personally hoped they and some students would be able to attend? Or that another fabulous international writer would shortly be in town to appear on a panel with two top Australians? Are these day-to-day but accumulating small triumphs related to the esteem in which Australian youth literature is now held world-wide? Yes, I believe they are.

Frankly, we need an Agnes, or in this small country of one fifth the population of Australia which runs everything on a shoestring, a collective Agnes. I don’t believe this specialist push can be expected to come from the teachers, already over-burdened. Booksellers New Zealand, principally through the NZ Post Awards and Best-seller lists, does what it can, as does the Book Council with its Writers in Schools scheme and Booknotes and latterly, new online Skyping and blogging initiatives. Of course, both of these agencies have obligations to all genres, across the board.

The Storylines Trust has likewise worked hard for 20 years to promote the whole field of children’s and young adult literature. Being largely run by volunteers it has only so much steam, but here at least there is cause for optimism: you may not have heard that a new award, flatteringly called the Storylines Tessa Duder Award and sponsored by HarperCollins, will be first awarded next March for an unpublished YA manuscript, the book to appear a year later. Few moments in a 35-year-old career have given me greater surprise or deeper pleasure.

And hallelujah! a Young Adult award has at last been added to the LIANZA line-up. This is a move to be warmly applauded, given the frequency with which YA writers from Margaret Mahy through to Fleur Beale have won the country’s oldest literary prize, the Esther Glen Medal, in the past 25 years. It’s a true literary win-win; added prestige and incentive for the YA writers, and no doubt some relief for those specialising in the traditional children’s novel for which the award was originally intended.

But overall, yes, I think there is a vacuum here, a space for a new national agency like the Centre for Youth Literature in Melbourne, whose sole focus is YA literature, and its primary purpose to help teachers keep the students coming to them at Year Nine full of Harry Potter and currently, Twilight and Cherubs reading through their teens towards being true life-long recreational readers.

I’ve no idea if it’s practicable to suggest that LIANZA, or SLANZA or the city and local libraries could play a leadership role in this, but it seems to me that you have some of the necessary resources: expert knowledge of the genre, skills in working with disparate groups, experience in running events, wonderful national and local networks and systems in place, and above all, passion for the field you’ve chosen to work in.

And to those out there who say loftily that non-fiction is the new black, that fiction is just ‘made-up’ stories not to be taken seriously and novels are dying if not dead and e-books will deliver the coup de grace, I repeat the wise words of the Australian feminist Dale Spender never forgotten from a convocation of women novelists in Wellington around 1988. Yes, she said, people can read all the worthy histories and biographies and general non-fiction they like, but if you want to know how it truly felt to live among the squalor, hardship and hypocrisy of Victorian England, go read Dickens or Leon Garfield. If Russia, read Tolstoy, if colonial New Zealand read Maurice Shadbolt or Jenny Pattrick. Emotional engagement is possible only through the human craving and need for story, and that is why long fiction must remain a vital element in every child’s growth and every adult’s emotional well-being, by whatever means it can be delivered.

And now, older and hopefully wiser than when I wrote the Alex quartet, I’m pretty relaxed about which audience my current work-in-progress will find. Some teens, some adults, anyone intrigued by the combination of a good deal of Antarctic Heroic Age history with a modern adventure story and ghost story.

It might be the first time that the impact on families of the Erebus crash of 1979 has worked its way into fiction, and it might also be seen as a passionate rebuttal of the modern notion that Robert Falcon Scott was an incompetent bungler, a snobbish and hide-bound naval idiot. This perception constitutes a powerful example of how a single book – in this case a 1979 joint biography of both Scott and his successful South Pole rival Roald Amundsen – can at one stroke destroy a reputation. Author Roland Huntford’s subsequent protestations that he never intended to lionise the Norwegian at the expense of Scott are disingenuous in the extreme; the book, though compellingly written, is unrelenting and vicious, so selective in its use of supporting evidence as to be close to dishonest. He was, unsurprisingly, sued by Scott’s family, and came out the greater loser. Yet in the public mind Huntford’s view quickly became as deeply embedded as the orthodoxy of the archetypal English hero it so comprehensively and negatively replaced. Thirty years on, with the anniversary of the second Scott and fatal expedition looming, new biographies by Ranulph Fiennes and David Crane and a host of academic studies are re-examining the evidence and restoring some balance and sanity to the debate of why Amundsen succeeded so effortlessly, apparently and why Scott perished so tragically.

Why Antarctica and its history? Two years ago I was fortunate to win an Artists to Antarctica fellowship, giving me officially two but as determined by the fickle spring weather, nearly three weeks at Scott Base. The three historic huts in the Ross Sea area stand as mute snowswept testament to some of the world’s greatest epics of exploration and endurance, and visiting them is, believe me, an intensely spiritual experience. Hopefully my novel can provide a glimpse of what it feels like, in the same way as does Thomas Keneally’s compelling murder mystery from 1977, A Victim of the Aurora, or sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1999 epic cautionary tale in the Mitchener tradition, set in 2016 and called simply Antarctic. And the best of them all, an astonishing YA novel from 2007 called The White Darkness by Britain’s answer to Margaret Mahy, namely Geraldine McCaughrean. Now that is some challenge. I can only continue to work on the story with all the energy, passion and commitment I can summon, and hope that my protagonist, a church-going girl called Paula, brighter and braver than she believes herself to be, engages whatever readers may choose to share this chilly and dangerous journey.

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