One of my favourite things about contemporary YA is that it can feel exotic and different without even leaving this world. I’ve never been a teenager in America or Australia (and so on)… so When I’m reading a book set in one of these countries, I feel there is so much to take in and learn about the way teenagers over their speak, what they snack on, how they go to school (I will never understand the American school system, ever) and… well, putting it simply, their culture.
But when I pick up a British contemporary YA book?
Well, I know exactly what it’s like to grow up in modern day Britain.
I know what it’s like to be a teenager, leaving school, grabbing a pasty from Gregs on my way home, rolling my eyes at the guys who went to all boys school near us, standing at the bus stop in atrocious weather. I already know the culture, I know the background, I know the slang (SNOGSNOGSNOG), I know how teenagers react and I know the setting inside and out.
I know this because I was a teenager in modern day Britain and I grew up in this setting. And I’m still living in it. And I’m guessing that being a teenager in Britain hasn’t changed much in the four years since I was one…
Keren David was the first author I thought of when I thought of British YA Contemporary. If you’ve read When I Was Joe (and the just as brilliant Almost True, my reviews here and here ) you’ll know why. I don’t want to go too much into the actual stories of this series because it would take waaay too long for me to gush about how exciting, riveting and different they are but I will say that Ms David knows exactly how to write teenagers and, even better, she takes British culture and celebrates it, weaving it into her stories seamlessly without resorting to cliches.
Because, believe it or not, we don’t all play polo while we wait for our tea to brew while bemoaning the horrid state of our teeth.
That’s just me.
When someone says to you ‘British Contemporary’, what first comes to mind?
I like the phrase BritGrit – books which reflect British life, warts and all, with a British accent. Off the top of my head, YA books such as Fifteen Days without a Head by Dave Cousins, Illegal by Miriam Halahmy, Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess, The Opposite of Amber by Gillian Philip and Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson. There are also lots of brilliant British Contemporary YA writers who are less gritty, more funny – Keris Stainton, Luisa Plaja, Susie Day, Sarra Manning. I could go on and on…
What do you find most inspiring about contemporary Britain?
I lived abroad for eight years. Coming back to the UK I loved just wandering around listening to people – so many connections and interesting phrases, and people taking things for granted which seemed crazy to me. It’s a great experience, coming back to your own country after being away, you get to be an insider and an outsider at the same time.
The thing I love writing contemporary the most are the characters. To me, they become more like real people than if the characters were fighting paranormal beasties or surviving in a dystopia. Across Britain, there’ll be lots of boys like Joe and lots of girls like Ellie and all of your characters. When you tell their story, do you feel you have a responsibility to your reader to make these characters as authentic as possible? How do you achieve that authenticity?
I’m obsessed with authenticity. I want my characters to feel like people you’d meet at school or in the street, real, flawed humans, not heroes or villains. I want the details of their lives to be right too – the exams they take, the clothes they wear, what actually happens when you get charged with a crime at a police station. I’m lucky in that my children are 12 and 16, so I know a lot of teens, and all about secondary schools and they read things for me and tell me if I’ve got it wrong.
I go to experts for research as much as possible. I talked to a criminal barrister and a police officer for When I Was Joe; Camelot head office helped me with Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery. Having said all that there are some details I make up – it’s not a documentary – but the people have to feel real.
Let’s talk about the contemporary genre in general. I’m going to start off by playing devil’s advocate…contemporary books tell the story of the every day. How do you make them exciting? How do you make people want to read a story about something they can see on the TV, read in the papers or hear about from their best friend on the way to school/work/wherever?
A news story in a broadsheet newspaper might be 500 words maximum. A book will be more like 70,000 words. Take those exciting, important stories from the newspapers, flesh them out, make readers feel as though these things could happen to them. I’ve been a news junkie since I was a teenager, I’ve worked in newspapers and magazines for thirty years (since I was a teenager in fact). I think there’s nothing as interesting as real life, it can indeed be stranger than fiction.
With contemporary stories, it’s easy to be influenced by things that are happening in society and obviously you’ll have your own opinions on them. Are you ever conscious of stepping onto a soapbox when you pick up a pen/turn on a computer? Is there a way of exploring issues but still maintaining that distance?
A good reporter knows that there are many sides to every story, and I try and take that on as an author too. I’m not interested in telling readers what to think, I try to raise questions that will get them thinking. I genuinely don’t have a firm opinion on many of the issues raised by my books – I’m much more interested in teasing out the conflicts and starting a debate. I think the story is poorer if it turns into a one-sided polemic, but other authors may disagree.
I’ve always thought that British culture and the way we see things is extremely different to other countries and some of these might not really translate to readers who aren’t familiar with them. (Like, for example, how do you explain what Morris Dancing is to someone not from Britain?) Does the thought of how your book will be received in other countries ever make you think twice when you’re writing?
My books have sold to other countries – Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, Brazil – and I hope their Englishness makes them exotic and interesting. One reviewer in America complained about the Britishisms – he seemed to think they would baffle teen readers – so I made a glossary on my blog. I do notice that American readers are sometimes upset by the behaviour of Lia, in Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery. I tried to make her a pretty normal 16-year-old, but they think she’s horrible and disrespectful to her parents. I’ve never written about Morris Dancing, but I’m sure it’s pretty easy to describe!
There always seems to be a lot of raised eyebrows when it comes to the way sex, drinking, smoking and swearing is depicted in British contemporary YA. As most people know, the age of consent for having sex and drinking is 16 and 18 in our country but people still find it shocking that teenagers get up to this kind of thing. At the end of the day you want the book to be published, but if your character is more likely to say “shit” and have sex than say “sugar” and hold hands, do you have to go with it?
Well, I’ve been lucky with my editors. At Frances Lincoln, I worked with Maurice Lyon and Emily Sharratt and we agreed about almost everything. We toned down a tiny bit of swearing in When I Was Joe, but they didn’t worry about drinking, sex or violence.
Having said that I don’t think it’s necessary to litter the text with swearwords just to achieve authenticity, nor do I think books need gratuitous detail with their sex or violence. It all depends how you do it.
I certainly don’t like the unrealistic and judgmental attitude towards sex in a lot of YA books, I think they can be dangerously misleading. The first time I met my new editor, Samantha Smith at Atom, when we talked about Sarra Manning’s Adorkable, which Atom published and I loved, and Sam and I agreed that part of what made it great was the feminist sex. This is my type of editor!
Do you have any top tips for any aspiring British YA author?
Don’t feel you have to write about American High Schools to get published!
The hugest of huge thank yous to Keren for answering my questions and so wonderfully! I really hope you pick up When I Was Joe and Almost True (and Another Life, which I’ve not read yet. Mass readalong? I think so) because Keren’s series is the perfect place to start exploring contemporary Britain!
So what do you think? Is British YA fiction different to other YA out there? In a good way? In a bad way? What do you think about the term BritGrit? Is Englishness exotic to you? And what about those recommendations? Have you read any of them?
Let me know in the comments!