Good books for teens and young adults are often about identity and figuring out who you are. Novels with LGBTQ+ characters are some of the best examples of (fictional) young people learning to be themselves while navigating the world.
Cassie Kemp is a librarian with Creative Learning Services in Leicestershire. She is a CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Judge and is a former committee member of CILIP SLG. Here she sharesher top picks of LGBT novels for teens and young adults with Tuva Kahrs.
Last autumn I was privileged to watch an online interview with Aidan Chambers, on his new book. This is not another of his distinguished novels, but a more academic discussion of what he calls youth fiction: The Age Between: personal reflections on youth fiction.
Aidan Chambers wrote perhaps my favourite book, certainly of those written for young people, This Is All, the last in his Dance sequence. (I was sitting next to a very nice American at a library conference and told her how much I loved it, only to find she was Nancy Chambers, his wife. Pure coincidence, but so thrilling for me. I have a signed copy, of course.)
But he had already won both the Carnegie Medal and the American Michael L. Printz Award for Postcards from No Man’s Land, as well as the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, so his children’s literature presence is undoubted.
This new book is a fascinating discussion that covers how he views the life stage he writes for and how that can be defined as the emergence from childhood through to the achievement of adulthood, roughly 13 to 25. Which, as he points out, is close to the youth age group defined by Shakespeare: “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.” (The Winter’s Tale). So this view of youth is not new, and in fact nor is writing for it, which as Chambers points out, had already begun in the 19th century.
The chapters include an account of how he first started writing for youth, as a secondary school teacher, faced with students who were reluctant to read, partly because there was so little available that was both accessible and related to their lives. His chapter on The Catcher in the Rye (adult male author) and Bonjour Tristesse (youth female author) reflects on the differences between a book written in the first person about a youth, and a book written in the first person by a youth. (Sagan comes out of this rather better than Salinger, though Bonjour Tristesse has never been adopted by youth in the way Catcher was.)
A “history” chapter looks at some of the famous books from the 19th century, in particular Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Little Women, highlighting the difference between them of telling the story from an adult perspective (Tom Brown) and from that of the young characters (Little Women), followed by a whole chapter on Huckleberry Finn, written in the same period but which moves decisively to telling the story in Huck’s voice. Chambers makes it clear how highly he rates this achievement by Mark Twain, as well as illustrating how much effort Twain put into achieving it.
The book also contains an analysis of the changes of both mind and body that occur in youth, using the latest research, and relating them to the implications that has for the author writing for them. And his understanding of the young goes far beyond the prosaic, describing the elements of joy, love, sex, and spirituality that go to make up the young psyche.
He sees the very fact of youth being on the threshold between childhood and adulthood (liminality) as significant in and of itself, as they struggle to make sense of themselves and the world around them. I particularly liked his discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank in this context.
The final section of the book, Narrative Strategies, discusses how authors he admires, such as Twain, have tackled the issues of writing youth fiction, and then how his own work demonstrates how narrative serves the themes he wishes to cover. This is both the most demanding, at least for me, and the most interesting section. He examines how using the first person limits narrative possibilities, and how it can be extended to widen those possibilities, using the example of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which he wishes he had known before writing his earlier novels. He then moves on to the use of the third person, as exemplified by Cormier’s The Chocolate War, which tells the story from multiple viewpoints, but all in the third person, allowing an authorial voice to be voiced where appropriate.
And then Chambers moves to an illuminating discussion of some of his own writing, with an extraordinarily detailed analysis of the narrative structure of Breaktime in terms of the “network” that built to form the whole. I have no background in literary criticism or analysis, so I didn’t find it the easiest of reads, but it was so rewarding to understand what had gone into just one book. Not that Chambers says he was necessarily aware of all those elements and layers as he was writing, but that once finished he could see them. He explores the relationship between himself as storyteller, his “fictive protagonists” and the ways of telling that produce the narrative.
He finishes with his proposal that youth fiction is a literature in its own right, with a need to establish a canon so that it can be studied and appreciated not just in terms of its popularity with young readers, which may be ephemeral, or its practical use in supporting the curriculum, or its value in bibliotherapy.
It would be great to see similar contributions to the discussion from some of our current authors. Perhaps they are already doing so, in which case it would be good to see any recommendations you can give.
I do urge you to try and get hold of this book, and decide for yourselves how valid Chambers’ arguments are! I think you will find it illuminating.
Chambers, A. (2020) The Age Between: personal reflections on youth fiction. Fincham Press, University of Rowhampton
It’s something of a cliché to start a review like this, but among writers of fiction for children and “young adults”, Marcus Sedgwick is genuinely unique. His cold, oddly distant tone gave his early novels a distinctive feel even as they used essentially familiar story-structures, but his recent work has moved even further away from convention, embracing the kind of abstract, non-linear styles that are rarely found in fiction aimed at a younger audience.
Ghosts Of Heaven is similar to his own Midwinterblood in structure, being composed of distinct stories linked by a single theme, but the connection here is looser and more deliberately abstract. A short, non-fiction introduction in Sedgwick’s own voice gives a brief explanation of the events following the big-bang, describing the formation of our solar system as describing a spiral pattern. Sedgwick then introduces four short stories linked by the spiral theme, explaining that they can be read in any combination in order to create different effects.
The stories themselves cover different times and themes, and are as confident and engagingly awkward as we’ve come to expect from Sedgewick. A narrative poem about a young girl from a pre-historic tribe making a discovery with profound future implications; another girl much later is accused of witchcraft by a village who fears and envies her; a psychiatrist starts a new job in a very unusual hospital in the early twentieth century; much later, the only conscious passenger on a faster-than-light colony ship carries out the slowest murder investigation in history. As with Midwinter Blood, recurring themes link the stories, but whereas in the earlier book a large number of themes are used to array a mostly linear narrative, here things are more abstract – the symbolism is pared down to mostly just the constantly-repeating motif of the spiral, a pattern mirrored in the lack of straight narrative story.
The techniques Sedgewick uses here will be familiar to readers of less narrativist fiction, but are still quite unusual within the “young adult” market – the closest points of comparison being Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Alan Moore’s notoriously reader-unfriendly Voice Of The Fire, hardly references one normally comes across in fiction aimed at younger readers. Within the stories themselves there are some surprises too – the pure science fiction of the final story is unlike anything Sedgewick has put his name to previously, while the psychiatrist’s tale gets closer to capturing the genuine spirit of HP Lovecraft than most “adult” horror fiction with that intent manages. It’s not surprising that the weakest individual story – that of the witch – is also the most conventional and familiar, though its recurrence in the other stories goes some way to redeeming that.
The unorthodox structure of Ghosts Of Heaven will no doubt put off some younger readers, and some of those who stick with it will be frustrated by the lack of clear narrative or fixed conclusion, but more confident or precocious readers may well find that Sedgwick has given them access to a style of fiction not usually available to younger readers. A genuinely distinctive release from an author who continues to be one of the most interesting in his field’.
The UN Refuge Agency has also put together a very comprehensive book list for different reading ages: booklist here.
As part of the Trinity Schools Book Award, Librarian Cecile Mayanobe (Brighton College Senior School Library) has run a reading programme with a group of year 7 students on the novel ‘Alone on a Wide Wide Sea’ by Michael Morpurgo.
She has put together an informative and moving Alone on a Wide Wide Sea presentation which contextualises British forced child migration which is also the centre-theme of Morpurgo’s book. The presentation also includes various links to news articles and a link to the trailer for the film “Oranges and Sunshine”.
Cecile also recommends a visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood which is running a special exhibition from 24 October 2015 until 12 June 2016.
Exhibition overview: ‘An exhibition telling the heart-breaking true stories of Britain’s child migrants who were sent to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries between 1869 and 1970. These children were sent overseas by migration schemes, which were run by a partnership of charities, religious organisations and governments, and claimed to offer boys and girls the opportunity of a better life in Britain’s Empire overseas. Many migrants never saw their homes or their families again.”
Featuring detailed first-hand stories, photography and personal items which belonged to child migrants, as well as video and audio which recount this period of history.
The exhibition will explore the complex moral motivations to these schemes and share the work of the Child Migrants Trust, which has brought some comfort to former child migrants, by finding their families and reuniting them with surviving members’
Article’s contributors: Amanda Ball (Morpeth School) and Cecile Mayanobe (Brighton College Senior School Library)
An odd way to introduce Neil Gaiman, you might think, but it’s true – the noise of the crowds, the smell, that particular level of physical and social discomfort that can only be found on a packed tube, everything about the place seemed hateful and dark. Throughout childhood and adolescence I could find nothing positive to say about that great sprawling city, nothing that cast it in a more pleasing light… and then I read Neverwhere.
Where before there had been only urban sprawl and smoke, I could now see the magic that animated it, hear the secrets whispered behind it. Empty tube trains moved through silent, shifting tunnels, connected by stations named after major arcana in an obscure hidden Tarot. Rats and the cults that serve them conducted arcane business in a shadow London ruled over by figures both familiar and deeply alien. Mystical London is not a unique concept, and Neil Gaiman was neither the first nor the last to write about it, but in my opinion he is the most successful, his vision of London Below simultaneously simple and charged with energy. Through his writing I was finally able to see a different London, a London transformed by hidden meaning into a place of magic, and it’s still his London Below that I see every time I take a tube, or walk past a piece of obscure graffiti, or catch a pigeon staring at me from the corner of my eye.
Like his literary heroes Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore, Gaiman’s great strength is to shine a light just behind the surfaces of our mundane world, and allow us to see beneath. He spent his childhood devouring mythology, fantasy and science-fiction, but rather than simply regurgitate them in familiar shapes he’s processed them into something simultaneously more mundane and more profound. He takes us to places we have seen a hundred times before, and shows us the danger and beauty we had never thought to see in them. In his stories, a conversation over a cup of tea can have repercussions that change the nature of reality, mundane daily items and places are charged with occult significance beyond a thousand Holy Grails. He pulls the mask away from life and reveals that it’s every bit as strange as we’ve always secretly hoped.
It has been said that the finest achievement any writer can aim for is to write something that is never forgotten – I have no doubt that my favourite passages of Neil Gaiman will stay with me until I die. The Angel Islington singing to himself in an empty room. The narrator of Murder Mystery piecing together those last broken fragments of memory, in the presence of a being beyond his ability to ever understand. Shadow finally realising who his old cell-mate was, in a piece of word-play so subtle that we’re applauding Gaiman for tricking us at the same time as wandering how we didn’t notice. The entirety of Snow, Glass, Apples, which will forever change a classic story beyond recognition in the mind of anyone who reads it. These moments – and the many equally powerful ones that can be found throughout American Gods, Anansi Boys, his short-fiction and the towering, genre-changing masterpiece of his Sandman comic series – combine comedy, beauty and genuine horror in a way that the greatest stories always have.
Put simply, and with great risk of hyperbole, Neil Gaiman is one of the best Fantasy writers of his generation, and the strengths of his writing are precisely the reason why Fantasy should be liberated from those who would turn it into a ghetto for Elves and Dwarves so that the approved fiction can glory in some other name. Like all true Fantasy, Gaiman’s stories are about humans, that strange synthesis of the animal and the divine who stands at the threshold of eternity and complains about the weather. Even the most mundane of his stories are ablaze with real magic, the magic which can be found in a discarded wrapper or comfortable living-room as readily as in a ruined castle – the magic which, at its core, is a reflection of the people who observe it. Allow yourself to see the world through the filter these stories provides, and you’ll see a world which is more frightening, more beautiful but, ultimately, only more human.
When the vampires, or the soul-eating ghosts or the emissaries from the Domain of Light come to Earth, they go after the Indie Kids. Romantic, free-spirited loners with their own whimsical style and distinctive names, the Indie Kids listen to music that isn’t popular anymore, write poetry about their feelings and move through the crowd of faceless, boring normal people with the confidence that comes from knowing that they have a Destiny that sets them apart and makes them special. Mikey and his friends are not those kids.
This ninth offering from two-time Carnegie Winner Patrick Ness isn’t just an engaging coming-of-age story and a sharp parody of Young Adult Paranormal Romance, it’s a book with a mission – to dismantle the toxic and harmful myth of the Chosen One and the Magical Loner still enormously popular in YA fiction. What one might otherwise expect to be the main plot – in which thoroughly unique and special indie kid Satchel falls in love with the achingly handsome Prince of the Immortals and battles to exile his people back to their own dimension – is relegated entirely to brief chapter-headings which gleefully, and savagely, mock the pompous style of Twilight, Mortal Instruments and their less famous kin, with the main body of the text exploring Mikey and his friends’ much more mundane struggles. Though markedly different in content, in theme it could be seen as a Young Adult companion to China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, which does a similar thing for Narnia-style escapist fantasy.
Part of how Ness achieves his goal is through unflinching often brutal honesty – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s Disease and eating disorders are all stripped of the comforting lies and obfuscations they’re usually dressed up in, and Mikey’s experiments with his own sexuality are rendered in a matter-of-fact, unsensational tone which neither belittles nor objectifies them. Mikey himself – the attractive, broadly popular son of a Republican senator – is the last person who would ever be the star of one of these books, and his friends are likewise far too “normal” and vanilla for the indie kids to pay attention to, but by focussing on the details of their lives, Ness shows us that they are every bit as tragic, brave and interesting as the kid with the silly name who spends all day writing poetry. As well as deconstructing the Chosen One mythology, The Rest Of Us… is also a deft reflection on family, self-worth and the process by which teenagers give up enough of themselves to be adults.
Teenagers are a demanding audience, and of course none of this would mean anything if the story and characters weren’t strong enough – but Ness has never had problems in this area, and he isn’t starting now. Even if one chooses to ignore the subtext, The Rest Of Us… is still a skilfully handled, wise and entirely human coming-of-age story, and the Twilight-parody is sharply observed and often genuinely funny. Beyond that, however, it feels important – a bold, confident strike at one of the most dangerous lies we still tell teenagers, that your problems are more real, more interesting, more special than those of “normal” people, and that being important is some kind of reward for the struggles you’ve faced. Everyone’s special, Ness reminds us – which means that no-one is.
In her latest book Tinder, Sally Gardner rewrites Hans Christian Anderson’s first story The Tinderbox. A symbolic, often horrifying account of a child-soldier’s inability to turn his back on the ghosts of war, she recasts the action during the events of the Hundred Years War to tells the story of a young soldier – himself both a victim and perpetrator of terrible violence – who turns his back on death to pursue a life of wealth and romance, only to realise that all of his actions lead him inevitably back to death and violence. Hans Christian Anderson’s original story (itself based on older folk tales) of a soldier who comes into possession of a magic tinderbox that allows him to summon three monstrous dogs remains largely intact, but is turned into a series of powerful symbols which explore the soldier’s realisation that violence is both a power he can wield and a curse that he can never escape from.
Gardner’s previous Carnegie winner Maggot Moon divided readers by absolutely refusing to talk down to its audience by delivering the usual, safe exposition – readers who weren’t willing and able to read between the lines were often left complaining that it “made no sense” or was too simplistic – and she continues this with Tinder. The story is told with the fractured, dream-like dislocation of both fairy-tales and fever dreams, the power being more in the subtext than the narrative itself, and readers unable to follow that may find the story dislocated or nonsensical.
The content and tone may also discourage some readers – Tinder sets out to comment on the damage done to child soldiers and those forced at a young age into violence, and she doesn’t shrink away from this. The mundane elements of the story contain frank (and no less chilling for their lack of graphic detail) accounts of war-rape, murder and children being forced into violence as indoctrination, while the fairy-tale aspects use mutilated ghosts, werewolves and witches to create an atmosphere of the uncanny and horrific which supports and strengthens the real-world horrors. It’s a merciless story, where any glimmer of light the main character experiences only serves to lead him back to death, violence and the ghosts of his own past.
The combination of a fairy-tale story structure, deep subtext and horrific content will narrow the audience for Tinder – some older readers will dismiss it out of hand as “childish”, while younger readers may be confused by the largely symbolic story and disturbing images (supported by the excellent, frequently horrifying artwork of David Roberts). For others, a lack of familiarity with The Tinderbox may make some aspects of the story seem arbitrary or hard to follow. For those who are willing and able to engage with Tinder on its own level, however, Gardner has written a savage, horrifying and utterly real meditation on war, damage and the unbreakable cycle of violence that will stick with them for years to come, and a book that treats young readers with the respect they are so often denied by absolutely refusing to talk down to them.
The London and South East SLG recently hosted a fantastic event at Forbidden Planet and to accompany the event one of our committee members shared with us the top picks for graphic novels and manga for use in schools. Choosing GNs and Manga for schools is such a minefield and if you are not familiar with the genre it is very easy to end up with material of a type that does not fit the needs of your pupils.