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EWF: YA Is Forever

The first event I went to for the 2015 Emerging Writers’ Festival was a panel called ‘YA Is Forever’, featuring Kirsty Murray, Sulari Gentill and James Phelan.

As a child, Kirsty Murray described herself as a nerdy, pretentious reader. She wanted to be a writer, and believed a familiar idea: ‘to be a writer, I need to have a big adventure in order to write about it’. This thought kept coming back to her as she grew up and progressed through her life, that ‘one day I’ll have something worth writing about’. She never dreamt of being a children’s/ YA writer, but says she stumbled into it because at that stage of her life she was surrounded by 6 children under the age of 14 (not all her own), and that voice is what came naturally. She always gravitates to child protagonists between the ages of 11 and 13 – there’s something special about that age for her. She once wrote a 17-year-old, and that was a stretch!

What’s with YA writers? Are we all suffering arrested development?

Kirsty brought up the question – what even is YA? Is it a readership or is it a genre?

She thinks that post-Twilight, YA writing developed the tropes of a genre. There’s a structure and type of content that is recognisable. She also joked that looking on the library shelves in the YA section, it would appear that a necessity is a black cover with a single word title: Shiver Embrace Abandon Gone Splintered Fallen Unwanted Sway Unmade Unmarked Panic Conversion …

And what age is a ‘Young Adult’? Just ‘teens’ in general? 12-17 year-olds? Up to 25-year-olds? How come so many adults read YA? Kirsty says it’s a spectrum, and she sits at the bottom end – at the crossover between children’s (or Middle Grade, if being specific) and YA. Someone like Maureen McCarthy sits at the top end of the spectrum, at the crossover between YA and Adult.

On the other hand, Sulari wasn’t aware of YA tropes. She just wrote a story and was as surprised as anyone when her publisher said it was Young Adult because of the age of the protagonists, even though the language was more sophisticated than you might expect for this readership. She believes in staying loyal to the story you want to tell and letting it find its readership.

How much grown-up stuff can YA books handle – in terms of sex, violence, issues to do with mental health and suicide, and swear words?

Kirsty Murray thinks that ‘it might be a good read, and realistic, and find its readership – but it might keep you out of school libraries and off book lists’. There’s a balance between reality and fiction, especially when the book has to get through the adult gatekeepers (parents, teachers, librarians) into the teenagers’ hands.

‘Everyone in the marketing department is an adult, and they are trying to sell the book to anyone with the most disposable income’ – which will usually be the parent. That said, the teen reader does have buyer power – they very successfully market books to each other by word-of mouth, they have a strong pester factor, and they may have some disposable income of their own.

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