Thursday 14 March 2013

I Need to Get Out More #2 - Event: Young Adult Fiction - Coming Out of the Closet

So if you read my post from last week, you'll know that this is this is the first of, hopefully many in my brand new feature which basically involves me telling you about my adventures outside of my flat. And I use the word 'adventures' in the loosest possible way. Said adventures might involve me only going for a short walk in my local surrounds. You have been warned...

Anyway, my first post is slightly overdue. This event took place a few weeks ago and if I don't write something up straight away, it does tend to take me a while to complete the task. But, I hope this will be no less informative and entertaining than if it were written the day after it happened ;)

Now, before I start, a bit of a warning is required. It occurred to me that this is going to contain some pretty massive spoilers to a book that I went to great pains to review previously without giving away anything. So, if you haven't read What's Up With Jody Barton? by Hayley Long, I really do advise you to stop reading this RIGHT NOW. And then once you have read the book, go and read my review of it (although the lack of spoilers will be wasted on you by this point) and then come back to read this post....right, have you done all of that? Good, now we can begin....
And the other good thing about author events...?

Young Adult Fiction: Coming Out of the Closet was hosted by Booktrust and originally came to fruition in order to try and find out why there are so few LGBT characters in UK young adult fiction and what can be done about this. To find out more background information about the panel, it's probably best to look at their detailed bios on the Free Word Centre website, but participating were authors James Dawson (Hollow Pike) and Hayley Long (What's Up With Jody Barton?), Emily Thomas from Hot Key Books and participant in Stonewall Young Talent Programme, Catherine Hennigan. The event was chaired by children's book consultant, Alexandra Strick.

Why did the authors include LGBT characters in their books?

It wouldn't be completely out of line to assume that the inclusion of a LGBT character in YA book might well be influenced by a desire to promote this issue. However, James Dawson talked about the thinking behind the inclusion of gay characters in Hollow Pike and how he was very conscious about making the sexuality secondary to the plot. He wanted to write a book that was more about friendship than romance. In the case of What's Up with Jody Barton?, Hayley Long described how the character of Jody 'found her' - she was slightly scuppered in her wish to write a YA novel from a male perspective but boredom set in when she started her story about twin sisters falling for the same guy and she decided to be a bit...shall we say, sneaky? Those of you who have this book will know what I mean, and she definitely succeeded in keeping Jody's gender a secret until the big reveal. She told us of how she was motivated as a reader and a writer by this challenge and how she thought it might well be very rewarding for her usual fan base - to think you're going into a certain type of story  and end up some place else.

Do you feel you have a responsibility as a 'gay' writer?

Signed copies!
James Dawson said being labelled as anything was the least of his worries - there were different facets of his book that came with different stigmas. The 'teen' label is often looked down on and some people seemed more concerned with the witchcraft element than the sexuality of some of the characters. At the end of the day, you can't control what a reader will take away from your book. Hayley Long made the point that Jody Barton is essentially a story about a teenager with an unrequited crush, and so this universal theme appeals to all, not just the gay community.

A publisher's perspective...

When addressing the lack of LGBT characters in UKYA, Emily Thomas's first point was that they simply don't have the manuscripts to work with and there are not enough 'proper storytellers' doing this at the moment. First and foremost she is looking for a great story, but when the issue starts to over shadow this, then she steps away - the key is getting the issue and the story woven together effectively. The subject of LGBT YA fiction in the US was raised a couple of times and she made the point that this genre tends to have a more analytical style which doesn't often translate well with UK readers.

A reader's perspective...

Catherine Hennigan talked about her own experiences as a gay teen, looking for books that she could identify with and what she expects from fiction that contains LGBT issues and characters today. She said she remembered a lot of books focusing on negative issues in the past, such as bullying and mental health whereas as all she was looking for was 'advice' - how to ask other girls out, how to make relationships work - the sort of things that gay teenagers now find on the internet. These days, books with LGBT characters are more for enjoyment, rather information.

One very interesting question that was raised was how should the LGBT elements of a book be marketed? Hayley Long said that leaving LGBT references off the back cover of a book is sometimes as important as mentioning them - some gay teenagers might not want to read anything marketed as 'gay' and not mentioning the LGBT characters or story could help the book reach a wider audience. Catherine Hennigan said she specifically didn't want to see books targeted at gay teenagers, because that would be 'preaching to the converted' - it's more important that everyone reads these books.

One matter of consensus was that this whole process needs to start at and earlier age, by having more picture books and early readers featuring same sex couples.


So what do you think? I found the comment about US YA fiction an interesting one - do you agree with Emily Thomas? When I think of LGBT characters in YA, one of the first books that spring to mind is Will Grayson Will Grayson. I agree that the style is very analytical, but I'm not sure this necessarily means it wouldn't appeal to UK teenagers. And the marketing of these titles - one audience member made a very interesting point that the pink cover of Jody Barton might put off the teenage boys - exactly the sort of audience these books should be reaching out to. Do you think it's more important for YA with LGBT characters and elements to appeal to just the gay community or everybody?

What are your favourite books with LGBT characters and why have they left an impression? Or have you encountered any that you think got it wrong? Thoughts and feelings please...


  1. Great write up Anna! This sounds like a fab event. And like I said (I think) in my comment of your review - it's certainly something that needs to be discussed more in YA.

    1. Definitely. And to be normalised in YA too, I think. Not to just be for issue-based books

  2. That sounds like such an amazing event! I really wish I'd have gone now. Loved Hollow Pike and Jody Barton so much!

    1. It was very good, and very entertaining. It's not often I manage to get to these things, but I'm glad I made it to this one!