Bringing real world issues to young adult novels

Patrick Ness fell into writing young adult fiction by accident, but he’s had huge success in a genre that’s barely a decade old

Patrick Ness: “Chaos Walking” series ran over six books, and won major awards, including the prestigious Guardian Children’s Book Prize. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Patrick Ness: “Chaos Walking” series ran over six books, and won major awards, including the prestigious Guardian Children’s Book Prize. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

 

On September 3rd, the death of Aylan Kurdi made global headlines. The boy’s family had been attempting to flee their war-torn homeland, and the photograph of his tiny body washed up on a beach in Turkey spurred international consciousness for the European refugee crisis in a way that the political debates had failed to.

Young adult writer Patrick Ness tweeted his response to the news story, pledging to raise financial support for European refugees by matching donations up to £10,000. Fans quickly rose to Ness’s challenge, pledging everything from their bus-fare to a month’s rent to help. Some 24 hours later, he had recruited a band of fellow YA (young adult) writers to the cause, including John Green, Derek Landy, and Rainbow Rowell, and raised more than £200,000. The rolling total currently stands at more than £600,000. Such is the power of YA authors like Ness, writing in a genre that barely existed 10 years ago.

Ness has recently published his ninth novel for teenagers, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, a fantasy adventure story that is alternately moving and hilarious. Set in a small-town American high school, Ness shifts the story’s focus from the central heroes of the plot – “The Indie Kids”, who are engaged in a battle for world order with vampires, ghosts and destructive Immortals – to the unpopular kids, who are just trying to get on with each other, get over their neurosis, and get off with the girl/guy they love from afar.

Outsider

It is the idea of the outsider that gave him his first glimmers of inspiration for the book, he says, speaking from the office of his house in southeast London, where he has lived for the last 16 years. This will come as no surprise to his fans, who have been drawn into his work by characters such as Todd Hewitt in The Knife of Never Letting Go, the only boy in a world of men, who uncovers dark secrets about the society he lives in, or the undead Seth Wearing in More Than This, who roams the borders of life and death, reality and its virtual counterpart, attempting to make sense of the strange social order. Ness’s readers see their own quest for self-determination reflected in their fictional counterparts’ extreme circumstances.

Ness’s own teenage years, he says, were unremarkable, despite his family’s intense religious convictions being challenged by his sexuality (his family are evangelical Christians; he is gay). The American writer had a peripatetic childhood, moving from base to base as his father, a military man, was posted from one US army base to another. By his teenage years, the family were fairly settled in Washington state.

“It was probably easier being a teenager in those days,” he reflects, “it was a more innocent time. There was no internet, no mobile phones, so you could get away with more. You didn’t have to have this perfect facade.”

That said, “there are advantages to teenage life now. The internet has given [teenagers] a means of finding people they can connect with, so that even if you feel you are different, you can find others like you and that sense of connection cannot be underestimated.”

Coming to terms with his own identity, Ness was drawn to books and to writing as a way of forging a community, even a fictional one. He read “everything I could get my hands on. There were lots of kids’ books, of course, but there weren’t too many teen books. I just sort of graduated from Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume to adult books like Stephen King. ”

Mimicry

He wrote, too, from his early teens. “The usual. Mimicry. I wrote in imitation of what I was reading. But I always say to teenagers, that is how you learn how to write, how you figure out the mechanics of writing: transitions, pace, tone.” Still, he “never entertained the thought of being a writer. Writers just didn’t come from places like I did.” He – like Mike in The Rest of Us Just Live Here – just wasn’t one of “The Chosen Ones.” But, of course, Ness was.

He studied English literature at college – “ it seemed more practical than creative writing”– but inevitably found his way onto a fiction programme. Then, after a short spell as “corporate writer”, he got a book deal. “Yeah,” he laughs wryly, “luck. So if a teenager ever asks me, is it possible to be a writer, I say yeah, it is totally possible.”

Ness’s first two books – a novel The Crash of Hennington and a short story collection, Topics About Which I Know Nothing, both pitched at adults – were well reviewed, but it wasn’t until the publication of the Knife of Letting Go in 2008, the first part of what would become the Chaos Walking series, that Ness found his niche. He says he “never imagined writing for a teenage audience”. Instead it was a case of being “drawn to an idea [that] revealed itself to be something that teenage readers would get behind”. And they did: the series eventually ran over six books, and won major awards, including the prestigious Guardian Children’s Book Prize. In recent weeks, he has broadened his horizons further – Ness is writing and producing a new Doctor Who spin-off series for television called Class.

Ness dismisses any snobbery about YA fiction. “Writing for teenagers requires no less effort or emotional investment than any other writing. The same practical work is involved. And writing for teenagers actually has huge benefits. They are totally open-minded readers, and that allows you to take risks as a writer that you might not get away with otherwise.” They are more than happy to accept his genre-bending thrillers and his celebration of difference.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is published by Walker Books.