YA fiction – is it a class act?
Where are the champions for children from poorer backgrounds in YA fiction? ER Murray discusses the neglected topic with fellow writers Sheena Wilkinson and Dave Lordan
ER Murray: My young adult novel, Caramel Hearts, draws on personal experience. I was born into what would have been called the UK’s “underclass” – an unemployed single parent family in a disadvantaged area. I also spent time in foster care – and guess what? In my tiny, enclosed world, I met hundreds of people like me. And they all had stories about more of us out there. And yet, other than misery lit, where was the representation of our generation?
There have been many discussions about diversity in young adult fiction and plenty of talk about what needs to be addressed to make books more accessible and realistic for their intended readers. But when we speak about diversity within publishing, we’re frequently referring to gender, sexuality, race, language and disabilities. All of these badly need to be represented, and I applaud everyone who is helping to tackle the issue, but I wonder, where are the champions for the lower socio-economic backgrounds? Often overlooked in diversity discussions, are there enough voices from this portion of the community being heard?
One writer clearly dealing with class in her award-winning fiction is Sheena Wilkinson; I asked her why she included a class element in her young adult novels and discovered that personal experience was at the heart.
“I grew up with the only available Belfast narratives focusing on religion and cultural identity, when what I saw around me suggested that the divisions were at least as much to do with social class and aspiration,” explains Wilkinson. “When I started to write books set in post-conflict Belfast this seemed a natural thing to focus on.
“I grew up with people making assumptions about me based of where I lived (housing estate, must be working class); where I went to school (posh girls’ grammar, must be middle class). I didn’t feel completely at home in either background, to be honest. I was different from the kids on the estate because our house was full of books and my mum went to university as a mature student; I was different from the girls at school because I lived on an estate. I remember some shocking acts of snobbery – less from my peers than from their parents. I suppose Still Falling is where I explore social class most subtly, in that the main character, Luke, being in foster care, finds his social background shifting according to where and with whom he is placed. Many of Luke’s feelings of dislocation between where he lives and where he goes to school are based on my own memories.”
My own young adult novel, Caramel Hearts, also draws on personal experience. When I started writing it, I began, as always, with the characters. Liv Bloom was speaking to me for some time before I put pen to paper, and although I knew from the outset that I wanted to set the story in a council estate in the north-east of England, like the one I grew up in, I didn’t realise how much this would drive the story. In truth, this is a little bit ridiculous, seeing as I remember full well what it is like to be judged for your accent, your lack of belongings, for society to be very clear that expectations for your future are pretty much zero.
I was born into what would have been called the UK’s “under-class” – an unemployed single parent family in a disadvantaged area. I also spent time in foster care – and guess what? In my tiny, enclosed world, I met hundreds of people like me. And they all had stories about more of us out there. And yet, other than misery lit, where was the representation of our generation? I remember picking up copies of books such as Sweet Valley High in the local library, unable to connect to anything in the characters’ world, and wondering – where are the books about me?
The young adult market is one of the most flourishing sectors in today’s publishing world. Issues that affect teens are being addressed in young adult fiction, and we have taken a giant leap in the20 years since I was a teen. There is a fantastic array of authors producing some exciting and brave literature. Malorie Blackman, Melvin Burgess, Juno Dawson, Nnedi Okorafor, Kekla Magoon, Jandy Nelson, Sarah Crossan, Louise O’Neill and Claire Hennessy are just a few young adult authors worth a glowing mention. A glance at this year’s YA book prize long list alone shows exactly what fiction is capable of. So we’re definitely seeing a step in the right direction – but is there a big enough change? And if not, why not?
Writer and creativity in education advocate, Dave Lordan, has been working with diverse groups of children across Ireland for many years, and has built up a strong rapport. I asked Dave about the reading habits of teens today.
“There are more teens reading now then when I was at school. Their reading is across many genres and platforms – take manga for instance – and often perhaps not ‘literature’ as the 19th and 20th century packaged it. I don’t think that’s a problem at all though and I think a multimedia writing environment is more accessible than one confined to traditional mediums.”
I have found the same positive attitude to reading among young people today – but, like me in my teen years, are they still looking for representations of themselves in their books? Lordan suggests that rather than seeking representations of themselves, “most are seeking representations of those they dream of being – heroes and villains of one sort or another having experiences that are in real life barred from them for one reason or another. Class is one of those factors which exclude us from experiences easily available to others and the fantasy element in YA fiction obviously addresses these forbidden desires in an allegorical way. It’s no surprise that heroes who have superpowers, wealthy vampire kids etc are attractive to young people who are powerless and broke.”
I agree with Lordan that fantasy is an attractive and safe place in which teens can explore aspirations as well as difficult topics. And yet I wonder, are teens not openly seeking representations of themselves in fiction because they don’t expect to find it? And what about readers who don’t enjoy fantasy – where can they seek aspirations?
One of the biggest compliments I’ve received from teen readers is that they found Caramel Hearts very real, that the characters represented them or other people in their lives and they could totally relate to the flawed main character, Liv. And so this shows that there is a desire. I believe that there is a huge gap when it comes to novels that represent readers from poor socio-economic backgrounds – a gap that needs to be filled.
The beauty of novels is that they aren’t preachy or didactic, they’re entertainment. They provide a way for readers to explore new possibilities, to learn about themselves and others in an unthreatening way. We need more compelling and believable stories with true representations of different economic backgrounds that can also provide an element of hope. Through hope, we can show there’s something to aspire to; we can show worlds where teens from even the poorest backgrounds can become their own superheroes.
I asked Wilkinson her opinion on hope in young adult fiction. “I think hope is essential in writing for young adults, whatever you’re writing about,” she says. “My books tend to be fairly dark but they always have hopeful outcomes. I would be wary about writing patronising and simplistic narratives about people ‘escaping’ from the limitations imposed by their social backgrounds; at the same time I wouldn’t want to romanticise anyone’s situation. And the funny thing is, though at some level I am of course conscious that I write about social class, it’s never really at the forefront while I’m writing – it’s always about the characters and the story. I suppose being true to my idea of the character involves being as honest as possible about where they come from.”
I wholeheartedly agree that authenticity is a must. Writing Caramel Hearts was, at times, difficult, because I had to dredge up memories. The characters and events are completely made up, but the emotions and reactions are very real. At times it devastated my day, but it was necessary to create an authentic read. Bearing this need for authenticity in mind, how do we get more books to represent different class backgrounds?
Some schools of thought say that you should write what you know, while others are all about making stuff up if you do your research. To me, the obvious answer lies in opening up more opportunities for people from poor backgrounds to be able to write. It’s no secret that writing, illustrating, publishing, bookselling and festivals are predominantly white and middle class and this is part of the issue.
As Lordan points out, in the publishing world, “Class is a huge factor. Many of the successful authors I know around my age and younger receive huge backing from well-off parents over the decade or so it takes to get established. You simply don’t have that backing without rich parents and most of us don’t have rich parents.” And as Wilkinson states, “the boundaries of people’s lives are still massively affected by their social background, and in the North we have a largely divisive education system which contributes to the problem, segregated by religion and also, to a great extent, by social class.”
So how do we open up the writing world and make it more accessible to those at a disadvantage because of financial hardship?
Lordan offered me a few suggestions, including sound ideas around legislation and funding, but the one that really struck me, the one where I felt I could actually play a role as an author, was a look at the way in which we teach creativity in schools. Lordan suggests that we need “a renewed focus on engagement, participation and production. Every school has the talent and the technology now to, for example, produce regular showcases of new work, regular multimedia publications etc and marks should be awarded for these activities which are close to those occurring in a real life writing career and may prepare kids more realistically for it.”
As authors for young adults, we have the privilege of getting to meet and work with our readership on a creative level. School, library and festival visits all play an integral part, and so as well as through our books, is this a chance to provide a way into the writing world?
Lordan says, “The last thing I’d want to bring into a creativity session most of the time is any idea of job or career. I’m hoping in the first place to teach people the joy of creativity for its own sake. And it would be misleading to suggest to even the most talented and driven young person from a working class background that there is automatically a stable career ahead in literature for them.”
This is a sad – but realistic – state of affairs. I’ve seen Dave in action and he is truly incredible. The young people he works with are mesmerised and he inspires some amazing work, but he is completely right; for most, writing doesn’t pay enough for a living wage and when you are already struggling, this is a very daunting and alienating prospect.
Personally, I like to plant the seed that being a writer is something that young people from any background can aspire to; I share my own journey and my passion for what I do, but I am brutally honest about the amount of work it has taken, the financial difficulties and also the need for a day job. I’m also honest that I hope this might change, that anything within the arts is an uncertain and changeable beast. And in some small way, I hope that any aspiring writer, even one, will emerge as a result. Although Lordan might not be talking directly about writing careers, I believe he is getting the same message across.
Another concern that Lordan raised was this: I think is a great pity and a problem for literature going forward – the strong literary readers nowadays are, with rare exceptions, no longer making forays into the canon and even into modernist literature, as was the case among strong readers in my own teenage years. Instead they have been herded by the concerted marketing effort of the book/PR industry into the YA corner. Great for the YA writers, great for the bookshops, great for literacy even, but is it great for literature? I’m not sure if anyone in YA has explored and represented class as thoroughly or as courageously as Zola and Dickens, to give two obvious examples of writers which strong reading teenagers used to gobble up until YA came along. But maybe such a ‘class-turn’ in YA lit is to come.’
I think it might. I think it should, and hopefully, it will.
Writing should always come from the heart, and it has to be real. Diversity in fiction can’t be forcibly addressed – but young adult books are clearly beginning to redress the balance. Young adult authors are producing some of the most exciting and brave writing around, so let’s have more of it please! And let’s find a way to help the next generation of writers, from all kinds of backgrounds, find a foot in the door. I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.
Elizabeth Rose Murray lives in west Cork where she writes, fishes, and grows her own vegetables. Her debut novel for children aged 9-12, The Book of Learning -– Nine Lives (Mercier Press) was chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read for Children. Caramel Hearts is her first book for young adults. Elizabeth has poetry and short fiction published in journals across the UK and Ireland – including Ogham Stone, Southword, South Circular, Esc and 3am – and has been shortlisted in various competitions.
About Caramel Hearts: Liv Bloom’s life is even more complicated than that of your average fourteen-year-old: her father walked out on the family when she was young, her mother is in a recovery centre for alcoholics, and her older sister is struggling to step into Mum’s shoes. The only person she can turn to is her best friend Sarah, who gets her out of scrapes at school and is a constant source of advice and companionship. One day Liv discovers a book of recipes written in her mum’s handwriting, which sets her off on a journey towards self-discovery and reconciliation – but a theft, a love rivalry and a school bully are just some of the many obstacles on the way.