Nuance and the danger of issues in young adult fiction
New work from Marcus Sedgwick, Shirley-Anne McMillan and Kit de Waal
Marcus Sedgwick is a masterful writer but his latest novel is a frustrating one.
“Well, the difference between a writer and philosopher? I reckon they both ask questions, but only the philosopher tries to give the answers too . . . So when a philosopher is thinking, and thinking, and they wanna say something but they don’t exactly got an answer, well, then they write a story instead.”
I sticky-noted this quote from notable YA author Marcus Sedgwick’s latest title, Snowflake AZ (Zephyr, £12.99) with more than a little incredulity and irritation. It comes nearly 300 pages into a novel, a story, that is heavy on “answers”, or certainly on telling the reader what’s wrong with the world and why. The space for questioning, for ambiguity, felt slender at best.
Sedgwick is a masterful writer; it would be foolish to deny that. But his latest endeavour is a frustrating one, not least because there’s such potential here. Inspired by his own difficulties with doctors listening to him about chronic fatigue syndrome, he penned a book about a lesser-known and even more “controversial” medical condition, multiple chemical sensitivities – an umbrella term for those severely affected by products such as perfumes, pesticides, and plastics (ie products of our modern world).
The novel begins with 18-year-old Ash arriving in a small Arizona town to find their (there’s a deliberate avoidance of gendering the first-person narrator) long-lost stepbrother, and finding a community of people whose chronic illness has led them to live as far away from “civilisation” as possible. Ash’s initial response to this group will resonate with those familiar with long-term conditions: “You don’t look ill.”
The group refer to themselves as “canaries”, and the thesis of the novel is very much that we – humanity – have poisoned the world, and now the world is poisoning us. Those of us not yet suffering are sick – “we just didn’t know it yet”. There is no distinction between the environmental and the personal, emphasised by the way in which the narrative builds to a vague apocalyptic event that leaves the survivors with limited resources and looking back at how we failed to prevent disaster.
The message on climate change is certainly powerful, but it’s complicated by what unfortunately feels like conspiracy-theory thinking around medicine – “Big Pharma” are to blame for everything, medication for mental illness is a scam, and no doctor could possibly be motivated by anything other than cold, hard cash. None of this is radical or new; it’s the same sort of rhetoric that propels the anti-vaccination movement and as such may be difficult for readers to swallow.
I am always resistant to the idea that fiction can be “harmful”, because art should be more complex and nuanced, and it is particularly patronising to assume that readers of young adult fiction are not capable of making their own minds up about the books they read. So I won’t claim that this book is “dangerous” – it is actually well worth reading. But I do wish it had given itself more space for nuance, and less airtime to a character whose main role is to offer up the thoughts of Noam Chomsky (her own name is an anagram of his). Surely not too much to ask?
It is worth noting that current YA culture, particularly in online discussions, does prioritise the “issues” over the literary merits of a given text; at various points in its history this has been a feature of the field. So that authors and publishers respond to this is no surprise. In the case of Shirley-Anne McMillan’s third novel,
Every Sparrow Falling (Atom, £8.99), there is a very clear message and it is absolutely a valuable one: queer youth need not find their faith and sexuality (or gender identity) in conflict.
McMillan depicts the world of Northern Irish youth religious groups initially with humour – the girls earnestly pray for a classmate’s eye infection to be healed, or for a passing grade in an exam, as narrator Cariad notes “Jesus, it was boring trying to be good” – and later with horror, as an intervention for a gay teen involves a staged funeral. The nuances of adolescent friendships are captured well, and the plot is engaging. But it’s a little unsettling that the anger about homophobia is paired with what is almost nonchalance about the age of consent (and abuses of positions of trust) on several occasions.
Again, this is not to suggest authors “should not” write imperfect characters who will naturally prioritise one issue over another – that would be absurd. But even a mildly didactic tone can prime a reader to assess the book on the basis of how it handles not just its central issue, but others that may arise, and to notice the disparities.
Moby Dick revisited
Speaking of issues, Hachette have launched the Bellatrix collection, which prioritises female and diverse voices – though never at the expense of gorgeous writing. Kit de Waal’s Becoming Dinah (Hachette Children’s Books, £7.99) kicks off the series with a contemporary retelling of Moby Dick, and demonstrates not just the political but the creative potential of exploring unheard, or under-heard voices. Here Ishmael is a teenage girl, not just recounting Ahab’s journey but also on a quest of her own.
Teenage longings are captured in naturalistic prose: “Ishmael feels the whiskey in her veins, feels it burn her throat as it goes down and wonders what it must be like to kiss someone and then kiss them again and see their face light up, see them smile, not pull away.” Issues of class, race and gender are woven in effortlessly, and it’s a superb example of how to do a feminist reimagining of a classic. The next offering from Bellatrix will see the award-winning Kiran Millwood Hargrave revisit Dracula, which promises to be another treat.
Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator