Writer Fleur Beale considers what’s difficult and desirable in books for YA readers.
The answer to the question of what responsibility writers may or may not have to their teenage readers in essence for me is to write a damn good, emotionally true story. Part of the difficulty of pinning it more precisely lies in the fact that a teenage audience includes such a wide spectrum of maturity and experience that a book resonating with one reader might be something a different reader would not even consider looking at.
Writers have a big responsibility to be authentic, which means avoiding preaching or teaching. It’s obvious when a writer launches forth with a theme, rather than telling the story of a character who makes mistakes, bad decisions, or just doesn’t fit the expectations of society. I wouldn’t go back to being a teenager for any money you could offer me. Go back to that time of uncertainty about my place in the world, what was expected of me, how to fit in, of believing absolutely everyone was looking at me, of feeling insignificant and not one of the in-crowd? Ugh, spare me!
There were no YA books to offer me hope that I’d grow beyond those painful years, no-one I could relate to. There was nothing that spoke to me truthfully about what it was like to be a teen suffering the cuts and wounds of everyday life, or the exhilarating highs, either, for that matter. And I had a pretty easy time of it as a child; so what was it like for a Māori reader never to see themselves in print, or a gay teen, or one living with mental health issues in the family, etc etc?
That brings up the whole issue of what is permissible and what is off-limits in terms of subject matter, but topics deemed to be acceptable and even desirable change with the times. In the 1990s, when I wrote I am Not Esther, my agent couldn’t interest publishers in the book because they felt the topic belonged in the too-hard basket. Thank goodness for Longacre Press who took it straightaway. Longacre also published Paula Boock’s ground-breaking Dare Truth or Promise, a book which went on to win not only the senior fiction award in the New Zealand Post Children and Young Adults Book Awards but also the Book of the Year in 1998. The protagonist of the book has a lesbian relationship with another school student and came in for much fluffing of moral feathers.
The Moral Guardians, though, didn’t for a moment consider that a book like that could be a lifeline for teens struggling with their own sexuality. The following excerpt from an article by Gem Wilder in The Sapling shows why such “difficult” books are essential:
it mattered that 20 years ago, when I didn’t even know I needed it, someone was telling me it was okay to be queer.
Reading Dare Truth or Promise as a queer-teen-in-denial felt like the universe holding my hand for a little minute. When my Principal was telling us we couldn’t bring a girl to the seventh form formal because “We need even numbers of girls and boys”, Dare Truth or Promise was there, at the back of my mind. Paula Boock had my back.
I still receive letters about how important and life-changing I am Not Esther and the two subsequent books about the Pilgrim family have been – and mostly the letters are from adults. Interestingly, though, the trickiness of writing about a strictly controlling religion didn’t cross my mind – all I wanted was to do justice to the story of a teenage boy who had been thrown out of his family because he insisted on finishing his high-school education against the rules of their fundamentalist religion. I wanted to write a strong story; I wanted readers to want to read the book, to feel the pain of being excommunicated from your family, and to see that, while stepping forward into an entirely new way of living was never going to be straightforward, it was possible.
For me, the essence of responsibility to teenage readers lies in writing truthfully about struggle and truthfully about possible ways through it. It is a huge disservice to wrap everything up in a happy-ever-after bow. Books can be a safe way to experience different lives and risky decisions safely. Books can widen horizons and create empathy because they allow readers to experience lives radically different from their own.
Writing a book that lets a reader know they are not alone is responsible writing.
As both these books demonstrate, sexuality and religion were pretty much untouchable topics in the 1990s and are mainstream now; so what are the “difficult” topics now, and should we be writing about them?
The fuss and moralising about Ted Dawe’s 2013 award-winning Into the River that led to the first book-banning in New Zealand for around 20 years would suggest that sex, drugs, racism and swearing were still tricky subjects for the so-called Moral Guardians. In an article for The Guardian, Ted Dawe wrote: “A stable democratic country is always vulnerable to hijacking by extreme groups, especially ones who have God on their side.”
Will those same moralists fluff up their feathers at Mandy Hager’s latest book, Ash Arising? The book is a gripping read, a political thriller and a true page-turner. Maybe it will upset a small number of people who have a desperately restrictive notion of what the responsibility of YA writers is towards their readers. But, more likely, it will do what good books do so well, and that is to be a story kids will actually read – and it will leave them with food for thought.
That is responsible writing.