Keren is one of my favourite YA authors and recently she, together with fellow YA authors, Keris Stainton and Susie Day, have taken up a challenge to give Young Adult fiction from the UK more airtime - through the creation of a new UKYA blog and the #UKYA hashtag on Twitter. And about time too, I reckon. YA fiction seems to be dominated by books from the US, and yet UK authors are producing brilliant, funny, gritty, thought-provoking and beautifully written stories for Young Adults that really deserve to reach a far wider global audience.
Over to Keren...
In 2008, when I started writing my book When I was Joe, for teenage readers, it would have been difficult to find anyone more ignorant about teen fiction than than me.
I’d never heard of Melvin Burgess, Siobhan Dowd or Kevin Brooks. I’d no idea that bookshops had sections marked ‘Teen’, ‘Young Adult’ or even ‘Dark Romance’. I was the opposite of everything you’re told to be - savvy, well-read, aware of the competition and the marketplace.
I think that this was a rather good thing which made me less self-conscious as a writer. I’m particularly thankful that I never discovered Gillian Philip’s Crossing the Line before I got a publishing deal - it’s so good, that I fear I may never have written another word.
It meant though, that I had a steep learning curve, as I started finding out about this strange new world of publishing. It’s been a journey of discovery that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, I’ve read great books, made brilliant new friends and found much to talk and think about.
However, some things bothered me. From my London viewpoint, the YA world felt a little stacked against me (although not nearly as much as it is stacked against writers from most of the rest of the world).
These are some of the things that I noticed.
- When I was Joe was published in America. The reviewer for Kirkus warned that its many Briticisms would act as ‘speedbumps’ for American readers.
- Teen sections in British bookshops dominated by American writers - some published by UK publishers, others displayed proudly as ‘imports’
- My teenage daughter reading many, many books set in exclusive American boarding schools.
- Blogger friends reporting that UK publicists often seemed to spend most of their time and money pushing the latest American buy-in and not British authors.
- The top ten best-selling children’s books in the UK dominated by US writers – Twilight, Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson.
- British authors telling me that they were encouraged by agents and editors to make protagonists young - 16 at the most - and to avoid sex and swearing, while American YA had older characters and tougher storylines.
- Book sections in supermarkets in which every teen book (of about 10 on display) were written by Americans.
One day I had a conversation with a blogger on Twitter, which started when she complained about books calling themselves ‘YA’ when they were really ‘teen’. Lots of people joined in, as we debated the difference between US YA and UK teen novels. She said she just preferred reading about High Schools, proms, baseball and road trips – reading books set in the UK just felt all wrong. That was the day that the #UKYA hashtag was born.
And then I found a discussion on Goodreads which showed me that American readers were keen to read genuine British books - they just didn’t know about them. I googled ‘teen books set in London’ and I found this link on Trip Advisor. Swallows and Amazons! Oliver Twist! It was clear that contemporary British teen fiction needed a place of its own on the internet.
So, fellow authors Keris Stainton and Susie Day and I worked together to set up www.ukyabooks.wordpress.com . When I say ‘worked together’ I mean that Keris did 90 per cent of the work - thanks, Keris! Our aim is modest - just to showcase books by British authors, or authors writing in Britain - bringing them to the attention of a wider audience. We don’t know what it will achieve - we just felt it was needed.
Of course, it’s not just British authors who suffer from the American domination of YA. Australians realised this ages ago, and have been actively promoting OzYA. I love reading books from all over the world - including the US, of course – and I would hate to limit myself to UK only. I just want a playing field that’s more level. I want British teen readers to find themselves in books, and I want kids around the world to learn about what it’s like to be a British teen who doesn’t go to Hogwarts.
And maybe, once they’ve taken that step, they’ll want to find out what stories writers are telling all over the world.